Back in 1981 the release of this Western epic was greeted with howls of critical derision and a general wailing and gnashing of teeth. Its runaway budget, already legendary, bankrupted United Artists, made its director Michael Cimino a pariah and rendered the film's title a byword for Hollywood hubris.
The full story is recounted in Steven Bach's chastened memoir Final Cut. Thirty-two years on, re-released at its original length (216 minutes), the film doesn't look the disaster its reputation prolongs; actually, much of it looks quite beautiful.
Based on the war of Johnson County, Wyoming, in 1892, it plays as a struggle between conscience and duty as Kris Kristofferson resists the cattle barons' murderous plans for the immigrant settlers they brand as "thieves and anarchists". Christopher Walken plays the turncoat cattleman and rival to Kristofferson for the love of local madame Isabelle Huppert.
Three things set it apart. Cimino's handling of setpieces is superb, especially in the Harvard prologue (filmed in Oxford) and the roughneck mêlée of the town scenes. Second, David Mansfield's tender violin-led score, much imitated thereafter, is outstanding. Third, Vilmos Zsigmond's breathtaking widescreen photography. No wonder the executives who saw the rushes became convinced Cimino was the new David Lean.
On the debit side, the storytelling is hopelessly muddled and dislocated, the sound is terribly indistinct, and the love triangle is never satisfactorily worked out, though all three give wonderful performances. No doubt the stories of reckless indulgence around its making are true, but what's up on screen turns out vivid, gripping, intense. If only for the scene of Kristofferson waltzing with Huppert around a vast barn I'd watch it over again.