A great of a great period in American film
Art and Experience: The last time I saw Michael Cimino was actually the first time I ever saw him – at the Venice film festival in 2012. He was presenting a new, digitally remastered version of his 1980 epic Heaven’s Gate which famously flopped horribly prior to an agonisingly slow and still disputed process of critical rehabilitation. The Venice event allowed Cimino to luxuriate in the way this film was now admired in Europe.
I was invited to a party on a palazzo terrace overlooking the Lido where Cimino was going to be present. The excitement was palpable. This was the Howard Hughes of American cinema, rarely seen in public, rumoured to be addicted to cosmetic surgery, understood to be only interested in his new career as a novelist. When I saw him I could hardly credit it: a tiny, elfin figure who remained seated in the corner, holding court to a group of admirers. He had big, dark glasses that he never removed, an inscrutable smile and an immobile helmet of dark hair. He resembled a miniature, androgynous version of a semi-retired rocker: nothing like the tough, rangy guy photographed in the 70s. I didn’t dare approach him.
Like Kubrick, Cimino had by this stage amassed a huge list of unrealised projects – of which the most important was his doomed plan to film Crime and Punishment. But unlike Kubrick, creative internal exile had been forced on him by failure: the overreaching calamity of Heaven’s Gate became known as the act of legendary hubris which brought down not merely a studio but – it is alleged – the whole spirit of the 70s American New Wave. After that disaster, everyone was more cautious, less inclined to indulge folies de grandeur. But Cimino can certainly claim to have been one of the greats of this great period. He had already given us an authentic American tragedy and essential anti-war document: The Deer Hunter.
Cimino had started as a director of commercials and from there made the bold move into writing screenplays, co-writing the cult sci-fi masterpiece Silent Running. But his great breakthrough was Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, his excellent western thriller with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. Eastwood had bought the script from him and sportingly allowed him to direct – thus giving him the career springboard for The Deer Hunter.
The “Vietnam movie” was becoming an accepted genre, much criticised for focusing on American angst and being uninterested in the experiences of the Vietnamese. Arguably, The Deer Hunter fell into that template – and the famous “Russian roulette” scene is an invention, with no relation to historical fact. The Viet Cong never did anything like this to American POWs. But as creative licence it is inspired: a blazing, horrifying image of the random death-dealing of war and the grim fact that soldiers try not to think about as they go off to battle: not all of them will die but some definitely will. Only five chambers in the revolver are empty.
The Deer Hunter is superb in that it balances home front drama with wartime action and gives each equal weight. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage play Pennsylvania steelworkers who like to hunt deer – an activity which seems clearer, nobler and more rational than the chaos of warfare. Meryl Streep is the woman with whom more than one is in love. The men respond to the call-up to Vietnam and there is a daringly, brilliantly protracted “wedding” scene which precedes their departure for war – and of course it is a kind of funeral for their way of life. They are far from the world of protest, hippyism and flower power.
The emphasis on patriotism and sacrifice is what is so striking about The Deer Hunter. And it was only on watching it again recently that a very simple thought struck me: Vietnam was different from the Iraq wars because for Vietnam, America had the draft. Men of fighting age had to go – just like they had to go in the second world war.
Two years later Heaven’s Gate took up these ideas again: how America was shaped by violence and war. This movie was about the Johnson county war in late 19th-century Wyoming, in which small farmsteaders were driven off their land by the big ranchers – an agribusiness pogrom. Heaven’s Gate did not quite succeed in balancing visual giganticism with human poignancy and loss the way The Deer Hunter did. It was more operatic, more of an old-fashioned western in the John Ford mould. It didn’t capture the public’s attention the way Cimino hoped – and he was entitled to suspect the American critics were exacting a price for their extravagant praise for the previous film – but it was thrilling and bold cinema nonetheless: a flawed masterpiece.
After this, Cimino’s career fizzled out with a handful of under-par movies. It was a painful anti-climax for this tremendous talent.
But in Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate we can see the work of a real American artist: ambitious, passionate, historically engaged – and magnificent.