The classic version of the story goes that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ruined everything, just absolutely every god-damned thing, when they released their big ol' popcorn movies Jaws and Star Wars in 1975 and '77, and made all the studios go "Whoa! We don't want to keep making little movies about the lives of real people anymore! We want to make big dumb movies about paper-thin stereotypes that make umpty-jillion dollars!" Which isn't true for a lot of reasons, one of which is that Jaws itself fits pretty comfortably into the New Hollywood Cinema wheelhouse (and Star Wars actually kind of does too, depending on what part of it you're looking at, and what angle you're looking at it from), that plenty of movies that weren't at all part of the New Hollywood made huge piles of cash throughout the '70s, and that Star Wars probably wouldn't have set records that nobody even dared to dream existed to be set if there wasn't a wide desire among the audience for some big, glitzy, largely mindless adventure cinema as a palate cleanser from all those severe stories of people on the edge getting made by the film school brats. The Age of Blockbusters was surely going to happen sometime around the turn of the '80s; Star Wars just made sure that it took a very specific form, perhaps a somewhat more openly mercenary and merchandising-driven one than it would have otherwise done.

It is, unfortunately, much easier to blame the death of the New Hollywood filmmaking generation on its own increasingly deranged sense of importance. The thing is, we like brave filmmakers to get all the resources they want; we like seeing what happens when they can work without limits. We, however, aren't fiscally responsible for those filmmakers. And far from being the fault of Lucas making the GDP of any randomly-selected half-dozen African nations combined for his one space picture, the end of the greatest period in auteur-driven American filmmaking was the result of those same auteurs losing all sense of proportion. The costly, showy failure of Martin Scorsese's New York, New York in 1977, right at the same time that Star Wars had people waiting in line for hours to see it, put a huge dent in the notion that American directors were indestructible visionaries whose work spoke so profoundly to the audience that was a moral obligation to support their work; and while 1979's Apocalypse Now made quite a lot of money (though not an amount that was so very exciting, post-<Star Wars), it only did so after a legendarily awful production where Francis Ford Coppola shat away enormous amounts of money and time while devastating his own health and the health of many people around him. The timing was becoming perfect for somebody to slip up big, and prove to an increasingly nervous industry that the self-styled artists of the '70s need to be reined in, and hard. And that proof came in the form of one of the most notorious bombs in the history of the motion picture, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a Western epic that cost $44 million - in 1970s dollars, mind - and made a grand total of $3.5 million between two releases in 1980 and 1981, effectively destroying United Artists, where all the boldest of the bold filmmaking happened in the '60s and '70s.

It's not hard, on the face of it, to see why Cimino would be trusted with such an ambitious project. His The Deer Hunter is one of the very best counter-arguments to the "Star Wars ruined everything" argument, making a very robust sum of money during its 1979 box office run (it opened in 1978, and won the Best Picture Oscar for that year). And this despite being New Hollywood to its bones. So when you are the forward-thinking studio for whom Cimino just made a great big basketful of cash on the strength of a three-hour movie about normal people living hardscrabble lives and fighting in Vietnam, all of it accomplished without a trace of gloss or romance, surely you give him the keys to do it all again. And that is perhaps the biggest reason that Heaven's Gate scared the moneymen and called an end to the New Hollywood game: its failure was built in to the auteur system that had been so vibrant over the preceding decade, and it was totally unpredictable. At least from the start - by the time of its November, 1980 premiere week, in a 3 hour and 39 minute cut (that was already shorter than Cimino's dream version by longer than a full hour) that was poisoned by the widespread reporting of the film's ballooning costs and out-of-control shooting schedule, it was clear that the film was DOA. And by the time of its wide release in April, 1981, at a condensed and incoherent 2 hours and 29 minutes, it was all over but the weeping.

I would consider it appropriate to keep this review from getting as wide-ranging, sprawling, and exhaustively long as Heaven's Gate itself, so with the history lesson out of the way, let me get right to the good stuff: I pretty much love this movie. That's no real bravery on my part; by the time I first had a chance to see it, the film had very clearly entered the "rapt critical re-evaluation" phase that eventually lended it a berth in the Criterion Collection, about as close to an agreed-upon canon as anything that doesn't have the words "Sight" or "Sound" in its name. While there are, as with any film, the cluster of people who still regard it as a failure - and by all means, there are plenty of obvious reasons why one would find Heaven's Gate a failure, such as like how it has about 35 minutes of plot stretched across the 217 minutes of its current incarnation (the 1980 premiere version without the intermission card and music, basically) - it's no longer a cultural joke. By this point, there are probably as many people who regard it as an all-time fantastic portrait of Americana as those who think it a colossal, ass-numbing botch, with the greater majority coming somewhere in between. As happens.

For now, let's go ahead and try on "all-time fantastic portrait of Americana", just to see how it fits. Certainly, it's what the film wants to be: an almost entirely fictionalised retelling of American history - the Johnson County War of 1892, in particular (the film sets it in 1890) - that both pays full tribute to the richness of history as a living, sloppy thing, making a strong statement about the immigrant experience in America (one of the thematic spines in The Deer Hunter, as well), while also drawing oblique but fervent and angry connections between that period and the recently-concluded era in American history in which Vietnam and Kent State and Watergate and police crackdowns of protesters and all had created the first major generation gap. I wonder if that, in part, explains the film's inability to find any kind of respect when it was new: the social wounds Heaven's Gate speaks to so potently were finally starting to heal themselves, the country had just loudly signaled a desire to retrench from the social upheavals of nearly 20 years by electing Ronald Reagan to the presidency in a lopsided election, and Cimino standing there with his enormous slab of cinema demanding that we all grapple with the ugliness and violence of America was hardly what audiences wanted. In the same year, it was possible for Martin Scorsese to smuggle his own indictment of American violence with strong critical support in his great Raging Bull, a remarkable transition out of the New Hollywood while Cimino stood roaring while the New Hollywood crumbled around him, because he disguised it with genre trappings and unusual aesthetics and a personal story that acted as proxy for social critique. Cimino was, comparatively, blindingly anti-subtle: the length of his movie, the story within it, the way it was filmed, the way it was structured, all essentially force the audience into submission. I love Heaven's Gate, but I don't deny that it's an enormous bully of a film.

Enormous - slow, long, taken up to something like three-fifths of its running time with luxuriant wide shots that find the director and no less a cinematographer than Vilmos Zsigmond using a painterly lighting and framing aesthetic like battering rams against the viewer's eyeballs. That is to say, enormous, but also gorgeous in its enormity: unnervingly so, given the desperation and cruelty that make up the story, but it never feels like Cimino and Zsigmond and production designer Tambi Larsen (whose re-creation of what feels like the entirety of the American West is as picturesque as anything in the dust-soaked, silhouette-heavy, exaggeratedly soft cinematography) are aestheticising depravity or suffering, but instead dramatically presenting the central conflict at the heart of a national myth: the beauty and perfection of the continent as a physical place, with its enormous range of ecosystems and natural resources, and the multiple centuries of almost uninterrupted violence it took to wrangle that physical place into the United States of America.

It is a film that invites pretension, as you can see.

Granted limitless resources and virtually no oversight thanks to a remarkably indulgent contract, Cimino and his crew were able, over the course of a maddeningly perfectionist shoot that left the director with the reputation of a mad visionary dictator, to create one of the most exciting depictions of the West as a living, sweaty, bloody, sexed-up place that has ever been filmed, while also depicting it in such a consciously constructed way that it manages to feel stylised and remote - a living, breathing world, but not our world at all, as attested to by the geometrically claustrophobic images and the oddball cast that includes, besides Christopher Walken as a charismatic hitman and one-third of the love triangle that gives the film its general dramatic shape for most of its middle, no performances that feel really natural and unforced. And when Chris Walken is giving a film's most relaxed performance, you know something's up. I wouldn't go so far as to say that people are bad - an ensemble containing John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, and Brad Dourif is certainly incapable of being bad. But in the leads, Kris Kristofferson (a singer-songwriter who has done a great deal of acting, some of it truly wonderful, but has more of a natural screen presence than what we might necessarily call "acting talent"), and Isabelle Huppert (who obviously does have acting talent, but there's a reason she's only made just a handful of movies in English, which is that her accent could be used to mortar bricks together), however much of an impact they make as psychological presences don't feel like people you could meet walking down the street on a weekend afternoon. They are abstractions, and they fit perfectly as the anchors to a film that exquisitely brings life back to history, but does not also bring that history up to the modern day to meet us. The only film that I can immediately think of that works in a similar way, for similar ends, is Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, from which Heaven's Gate is taking so many of its lighting cues that I take it for granted that Cimino & Co. must have seen it.

There are indelible moments galore: the prologue, set at Harvard's graduation in 1870, ends in an outdoor waltz where the sheer fact of moving human bodies takes on a force that lingers simply as an expression of kineticism, color, and shape, and a later dance sequence (the most notorious part of the film) does much the same, stopping the film cold for nine straight minutes of just plain watching and listening to human activity in a moment of pleasant repose. There are shots that use impossibly deep staging with Wellesian Γ©lan. Walken's introductory shot, through a whole he's just blasted in a bedsheet hanging to dry, is as iconic a moment as you could ever want to find in a Western. And there are moments which are indelible for being bad, to be fair: the violent death scene that closes out the main story is embarrassingly staged, a knock-off Bonnie and Clyde with none of its impact, only schmaltziness.

But in general, the sense lingering after Heaven's Gate isn't of its moments, but of its entire, bulky self: the very last scene, a coda set on a boat outside of Rhode Island in 1903, suggests that the whole thing has been as much a dream as a reality, and like a dream it's easier to remember it as a shifting series of impressions than as a specific chain of events of development of ideas. The only idea that matter is American History In Motion, and as Heaven's Gate has, itself, receded into that history, I find it has become easier to appreciate it than when it had the inappropriate patina of the new clinging to it. It's hard to say that by any objective standard, it's a masterpiece - other than a vague sense that it would lose its richness and lived-in feeling if it was shorter, I can't imagine how to explain why I think it earns that running time - but it's essential cinema no matter what "good" or "bad" judgments we lay against it, and if it had to destroy a studio and a generation of filmmaking for that one mad genius filmmaker to have that much power at that moment, I would consider that a fair price.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1980
-The Blue Lagoon becomes a huge hit on the strength of its implication that you get to see teenagers naked and screwing
-In slightly more dignified sociological news, 9 to 5 is an even more enormous hit that tells women that it's OK to be self-reliant, and tells men that it's not OK to be chauvinist dicks
-Disco is ruthlessly murdered by the epic failure of three of the most gloriously shitty musicals in history, Can't Stop the Music, Xanadu, and The Apple

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1980
-After many years wandering in the wilderness, an aging, ailing Kurosawa Akira has his first major hit in more than a decade with Kagemusha
-From out of nowhere, South Africa's film industry suddenly scores a major international hit with the comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy
-In Italy, director Bruno Mattei and writer Claudio Fragasso tag-team on Hell of the Living Dead, which if you put a gun to my head and asked me, might be my pick for the worst film I've ever seen