Can the worst film ever finally get a happy ending?

It was the flop that sank a studio, and the career of Michael Cimino. Now Heaven's Gate is back in a new director's cut – and (whisper it) it may go down as a masterpiece

It was the most reviled film of its era, blamed for the financial collapse of United Artists and the unravelling of the once glorious career of its Oscar-winning director, Michael Cimino. A spectacular box-office failure in the US that marked the end of the auteur-driven Hollywood film movement of the 1970s. The film's star Kris Kristofferson, then among Hollywood's most coveted leading men, found himself shunned overnight. Now, at the Venice Film Festival, it seems that Cimino's folie de grandeur Heaven's Gate (1980) may finally have been rehabilitated.

When Cimino walked on stage at the Sala Perla in Venice yesterday, he was introducing a restored 218-minute version of the epic western about the Johnson County War that many are predicting will force film history to be rewritten. The restoration, which uses the 4K resolution standard, was undertaken by Criterion, a distribution company that specialises in the release of "important classic and contemporary films", and overseen by Cimino himself. He claims it is "even better" than the original print.

Now 73, Cimino cut a curious figure. He was frail but defiant as he remembered the savaging the film received 33 years ago. After the opening, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby quipped that watching the film was "like a forced, four-hour tour of one's living room". Legend has it that it was received so badly at the Toronto film festival that when the stars and Cimino returned to Hollywood, United Artists had to be bribed to pick them up at the airport because no one in the industry wanted to be seen with them. In panic, Cimino cut his own movie. Most audiences in the US saw a botched, shortened version of the film.

Although European critics have long praised the movie, it has always had a hostile reception in the US. Speaking in Venice, an emotional Cimino acknowledged that the drubbing he received in 1980 had left its scars. "You know, being infamous is not fun. It becomes a weird kind of occupation in and of itself."

Cimino paid tribute to the film's producer, Joann Carelli, and to his cast who, he said, had stayed loyal when everyone else deserted him. "Even when I was going through post-traumatic syndrome after the rejection of this film, she [Carelli] and Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert never wavered. They never doubted the work we'd done."

Carelli persuaded MGM to allow the film to be restored and brought on board Criterion. Initially, Cimino wanted nothing to do with the film that had brought him so much grief. "I said, Joanna, I don't want to revisit Heaven's Gate. I've had enough rejection for 33 years. I don't need more."

When MGM had approved an earlier restoration in 2005, he refused to have anything to do with it. However, this time round, Carelli convinced him to "go back to work". Ironically, Cimino supervised the restoration at the Sony Pictures Complex in Los Angeles, yards from where his office had been at the Clark Gable Building when he was making Heaven's Gate. In a chaotic ceremony, Cimino was presented with a lifetime achievement award. "Cimino is one of my favourite film-makers and Heaven's Gate is an undervalued masterpiece," said Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Festival.

Many theories have been advanced as to why Heaven's Gate was such a gargantuan flop. Some say Cimino was being punished for his hubris. He had won an Academy Award and huge praise for The Deer Hunter (1978). United Artists had therefore given him carte blanche to make Heaven's Gate. He soared over budget and schedule. His set was infiltrated by a hostile reporter who wrote a piece suggesting that Cimino was behaving with an extravagance that made even Cecil B DeMille seem frugal.

Another theory is that the film's liberal politics counted against it. Cimino was dealing with the plight of immigrant workers out west and with the ruthless behaviour of the Wyoming cattle barons. That subject matter didn't play well in the early days of the Reagan era.

And it didn't help that United Artists poured so much into the movie that other film-makers suddenly found they couldn't get their films made. The late Steven Bach, then boss of United Artists, supported Cimino initially but grew increasingly exasperated. Ultimately the film cost him his job.

"The version you're going to see tonight I am going to watch with you," Cimino told the audience. "I have not seen this film in over 30 years. Because of the new digital technology, I was able to make colour changes, editorial changes, all sorts of things that were impossible at the time we made the movie. Seeing it reel by reel was astonishing… seeing it through the digital equipment, it was a new movie!"

Yesterday's screening looked magnificent. From the gilded opening scenes at Harvard, where Kristofferson, John Hurt and others from the "class of 1870" frolic and waltz to Strauss music, to the seething, dirty frontier town of Casper, Wyoming, the film has a level of detail and visual invention that recalls a lost tradition in Hollywood. Perhaps the curse on Heaven's Gate will finally be lifted.

Hollywood turkeys: Spectacular film flops

Howard The Duck

The 1986 film about a smart-talking alien duck proved rather more of a turkey after a savaging from the critics. Hollywood lore has it that the film, described by Leonard Maltin as a "hopeless mess", prompted a fistfight between that production heads at Universal over who had greenlit the project. One, Frank Price, quit soon after while Willard Huyck never directed another film.

The 13th Warrior

This Antonio Banderas vehicle earned just $60m, after spending $160m on the budget. Poor reception saw Michael Crichton, the author of the source material, take over directing duties, and pushing the release back a year. The 1999 movie prompted Omar Sharif to retire from acting, although he returned four years later in Monsieur Ibrahim.

Cutthroat Island

Pirate movie with neither swash nor buckle is widely regarded as the biggest flop in film history with a net loss of $147.2m in today's money. The film, eight years before the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was released, sunk its backer Carolco Pictures, and hit actress Geena Davis' status as a bankable star.

Battlefield Earth

The adaptation of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard's novel, Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, was not touched by any of the major studios so it was picked up by Franchise Pictures. It received a critical mauling, and John Travolta's renewed bankability took a hit. Franchise was bankrupted following investor lawsuits as it had fraudulently overstated the budget by $31m.

And one that did alright in the end...

Waterworld

The 1995 Kevin Costner vehicle struggled under the weight of the tag of the most expensive movie mate to date. It was dubbed Kevin's Gate by some as it grossed just $88m at US cinemas off a budget of $175m. While it did better overseas, the film eventually made a profit on home video sales.

Nick Clark

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot