How Michael Cimino transformed an Oxford college into 1870 Harvard – and a young extra saw the first cracks in a movie that became a byname for Hollywood excess and box-office disaster.

Dancing through Heaven's Gate

By Jeffrey Dirk Wilson (St John’s College, 1979)

One dirty day in late February of 1980, no longer winter and not yet spring, I stopped in the porter’s lodge of my college, St. John’s, to have a look at the notices. There it was, an advert for film extras during the spring vac. I had neither plans for travel, nor exams to study for. That led to my role as “dancing extra” in Michael Cimino’s fifty-million-dollar flop, Heaven’s Gate.

A week or so later, I found myself in a hired room in Oxford with a dozen or so undergrads and graduate students. A late middle-aged gent called us to order. A golden glow bathed the name of Michael Cimino, who had made The Deer Hunter. The scenes were set at Harvard of 1870, but Harvard had turned the movie makers down, and so Cimino had decided to trump Harvard and shoot his scenes in Oxford, at Mansfield College.

We would receive dancing lessons in the Viennese waltz. There would be a formal audition. If we got the job, we would owe him a sum of money; if not, we had the lessons for free. He played “The Blue Danube” ad nauseam on a portable record player the size of a small suitcase as we took turns with his female assistant. He could as easily have been a horse trainer. We were not learning how to dance; we were animals being led through a set of moves. Perhaps that is how is I later passed the audition since I do not dance.

I had visited Mansfield College numerous times, so its transformation amazed me. Into the smallish lawn in front had been inserted an extraordinary tree, like some oak nurtured ever since the Puritans founded Harvard. The lawn had been opened, and a massive amount of cement had been poured to serve as ballast to the tree. (The tree was later removed, but the concrete will be there, I think, until the second coming.)

I was in multiple scenes, but the one for which I had auditioned involved a circle of dancers around the tree after Harvard’s commencement program. I was assigned to a shortish, plump, wannabe professional dancer who meant to be noticed. She didn’t want me mucking things up, and she kept telling me so. 

After the circling waltz around the tree, we had to film a climb amongst men competing to reach a corona of flowers. John Hurt and Kris Kristofferson, the only real actors among us, were pushed upward by their classmates. With each take, things got rougher, but Cimino did nothing to defuse the situation. Then there were some minor injuries – and a strike. The ordinary extras said fifteen quid a day was not enough to justify risk of bodily harm.

There were the ordinary extras, the dancing extras, and then there were the dancing extras in the immediate circle of Hurt and Kristofferson. There was also demon greed, and I felt it for the first time in my life. I was making triple what the ordinary extras got, but the chaps in the inner dancing circle did only a little more than me; why should they earn double or triple what I made? Greed was a key theme in the film. It is ironic that greed would possess us in the making of it. Meanwhile negotiations between strikers and management ensued, and an offer was accepted.

I was lucky to be chosen for some close work in scenes with Hurt and Kristofferson. We were to march up New College Lane as if going to our commencement program, to be held in the Sheldonian. Our march was grand fun complete with our own band, and both our stars showed themselves to be very decent mortals, Kristofferson especially. One break when this special cohort was in a pub together, Hurt was telling us about the moment when Kristofferson got to the corona of flowers. At the moment of triumph, Hurt handed Kristofferson his pocket flask, and Kristofferson drank from it. Hurt kept whisky in the flask. He saw the look on Kristofferson’s face and knew something was wrong. Kristofferson then told him it was the first drink he had had in years. The moment was intensely human, as a flash of revelation into the weakness shared by both men and how they stood on opposite sides of it.

In the Sheldonian, we were to be harangued by Joseph Cotten. Now I was in awe. I remembered the Ferris wheel from The Third Man. Here was an actor who could hold his own with Orson Welles when he had been at his best. We were directed when to laugh, jeer, cheer, applaud, or whatever. To this point in the filming, there had been little or no speech—key to a later insight I had about the movie—and I was appalled at the platitudinous pablum which Cotten had to spout over us as the President of our august institution. At one of the breaks, I asked him—my nerve has always outshone my discretion—if he wasn’t embarrassed by the script. He looked at me with derision, and said, “This is one of the best scripts I have ever read.” I was sure it wasn’t.

Those scenes were but a scant prelude to an epic film, the rest of which was shot in the American west. It recounts the Johnson County War of 1890 between American cattleman and eastern European sheepherders. Hurt and Kristofferson, with Harvard behind them, sought to make their fortunes as cattlemen. In the typical western, it was the cattlemen who were the good guys, but here they were murderous. Woe betide the sheepherders who could not even speak English and the whores—including the luscious Isabelle Huppert—who took their money! Unlike their fellows, Hurt and Kristofferson had consciences and sought to bring reason to an irrational struggle, inevitably without success. The film ends with a shot of Kristofferson sunk in gloom aboard his yacht. He recognised the genocide, but survived it in comfort. 

On its British release, I went to see the film in London with an Oxford friend who is now a Tory Member of Parliament. Of course, we were both chuffed to see a movie with me in it, but we both had to admit—and he very graciously and only after I had made a beginning—it was really awful. Even during the filming of the “Harvard” scenes, there had been hints all was not well. Rumours of tremendous cost-overruns rippled through our ranks. A female producer flew in from the States; Cimino exhibited his charm; the line of credit was extended.

There is still something mesmerising about Cimino’s flop. As the narrative advances, one’s heart sinks and sinks until one thinks it cannot go any lower, but there is no bottom. Its wretchedness is as fathomless as the human capacity for evil—enormous in its finitude because it is commensurate with the human capacity for good. That Cimino captures. The screenplay is a catastrophe. The film is better watched as a silent film. Now I can say that out loud since we live after acclaim for The Artist. Cimino and his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, mount scene after scene as if coached by Michel Foucault, representation more persuasive than rhetoric, even more persuasive without it. The title is Heaven’s Gate, but the film has more in common with Dante’s Inferno than his Paradiso.

I had my little moment with Cimino in the wood before his descent through ever more destructive circles, demon greed leering all the way. The sheepherders and their whores die, but the cattlemen lose their souls. That is the epic Cimino made when rescued from its screenplay, inexorable in its searing truth.

Jeffrey Dirk Wilson is Clinical Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.. Images by istolethetv via Flickr.