Heaven’s Gate: 40 years ago, filmed in the Flathead, flopped in Hollywood

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Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park is known for its wind and wild nature, but in May of 1979 the shores of the lake were transformed into a rollicking fictional town of the Old West known as Sweetwater, home to hundreds of immigrants.

It was all part of director Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a film released in 1980 that was made almost entirely in the Flathead Valley and Glacier Park region and would live in Hollywood infamy as one of the biggest flops ever, losing United Artist’s studio about $37 million — a huge amount at the time.

We recently watched all 3-1/2 hours of the director’s cut — a film that 40 years later is both cinematically gorgeous and laughably bad.

The film is based loosely on the Johnson County Wars in Wyoming in the 1890s, where cattle companies ruthlessly went after often innocent immigrant settlers for allegedly stealing cattle.

In Cimono’s version, the bad guys have a death list of 125 individuals they plan to kill for stealing cattle, including most of the main characters, played by Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert and Jeff Bridges.

Huppert is an immigrant madam running a brothel and Walken and Kristofferson are her love interests. Sam Waterston is the main bad guy.

Cimino came to the production with stellar credentials. He had just one multiple Academy Awards for his previous film, “The Deer Hunter.”

But Heaven’s Gate wanders around through Northwest Montana making almost no sense — including a big battle scene that’s shot up the North Fork where hundreds of people start shooting at each other with lever action rifles.

Battles are supposed to be serious events. But in Cimino’s version, everyone takes a break to allow the immigrants to build Roman-style war machines from logs and wagons — overnight no less. In the middle of the battle an immigrant bends over to pick up his hat (you know, ‘because you can’t wage war without your hat on) and one of the battle wagons rolls over the his legs and breaks them.

“My legs are broken,” the immigrant wails. Then he gets shot in the head.

The film is also disconcerting from a local’s perspective because there’s plenty of scenes where a character hops on a horse in Two Medicine and a few seconds later they’re up the North Fork. How did they get across the divide so fast? It’s something you never get used to.

But silliness of the movie aside, the film was big business for the Flathead and a headache for the Park. To make the streets of Sweetwater muddy, truckloads of dirt where hauled into the beautiful Two Medicine Valley and watered down to make mud.

“It was three, four feet deep,” recalled Scott Crandell, who was a reporter for the Hungry Horse News at the time.

The scenes shot in Sweetwater are absolutely gorgeous, but Glacier had to kick Cimino out of the Park because the crews kept damaging the natural flora, cutting down trees and trampling places that weren’t supposed to be trampled. It took weeks to clean it up.

“What took place at Two Medicine was more depradation than in all previous motions pictures combined in the past 30 years. We’ve photographed them all as a newsman,” remarked Hungry Horse News editor emeritus in a June 14, 1979 column on the film.

Cimino wanted to film inside the Park up the North Fork as well, but by then Park Superintendent Phil Iversen pulled the plug on their permit.

Cimino claimed the Park’s pulling of the permit “cost us a great deal of money and caused us a lot of problems.”

But the film also employed hundreds of Montanans as extras and support staff.

In an October 1980 article reprinted in the Kalispell Weekly News by American Film writer Rex McGee, the president of Kalispell’s Chamber of Commerce estimated that United Artists poured nearly $14 million into the Flathead Valley economy.

Cimino built elaborate sets, including a rollerskating rink. (It’s one of the best scenes of the film, where a young fiddler cranks out a tune to throngs of immigrants as he skates around and around the rink.)

Bruce Jacobs was an extra in the film. He lived in Trout Creek at the time. He heard about the film, drove to Kalispell and applied and got the gig, which was less than exciting — he stood on the side of the street in Wallace, Idaho in the period garb he had to wear.

That was it.

He said he tried to get on in other scenes, but wasn’t picked — an irony if there ever was one, because Jacobs went on to break horses for a living.

Columbia Falls mayor Don Barnhart recalled hauling four dump truck loads of topsoil up to the filming location at Tepee Lake, just so the film crew could plant sod for a scene.

When it was done, they tore it all up and restored the area, he remembered.

Rocky Wheeler wasn’t in the film, but he worked close to the actors.

“I drove them back and forth to the locations,” he said.

Wheeler was living in Columbia Falls at the time and there wasn’t much local work.

“I was supposed to join the union,” he said. “I never did.”

He recalled making about $15 an hour.

“Back then it was pretty good money,” he said.

He primarily drove Huppert, up the North Fork every day. But there wasn’t much small talk, at least not with him.

“The only thing she said to me was, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’” Wheeler said. “I was scared to death. I was in awe, to tell you the truth,” he said.

Neither Wheeler or Jacobs said they ever watched the film.

“I was proud of working on that movie, then the damn thing flopped,” Wheeler said.

Writer Les Gapay went undercover as an extra and wrote about it for the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Cimino claimed his piece cost the film millions as well.

But Gapay noted that extras were only paid minimum wage and the work was often dangerous.

“The injuries continued over the several days of shooting the mob scene from different angles. I fell out of a wagon backward into the mud (uninjured) as a driver moved the wagon before I was completely in it. On another day a horse stepped on my foot and X-rays showed that one toe had a crushed bone. Some extras quit in disgust: ‘We’re doing things that stunt men should do,’ said one. In another scene, an actor got severe injuries after a wagon he was driving overturned on him; he sued the movie company,” Gapay said in a column in the 2016 Daily Inter Lake, the year that Cimino died.

Jim Schrankel, who lived in Columbia Falls at the time got a speaking role.

“I was asked if I could ride a horse and see without my glasses I said I did and I could,” Schrankel recalled. “But I didn’t and couldn’t.”

He soldiered on.

“I was told not to shave or cut my hair for the next four months. My boss (Lawrence Melby of Melby’s Furniture, a local furnitures store) fixed me up with riding lessons and I would go for hours without my glasses to be comfortable without them. Understand during this time I was a retail salesman at Melby’s. My sales went down as customers were approached by this bow-legged, shaggy, bearded squinting salesman. After months of this torture, I reported for my moment. The assistant director looked at me and said, ‘We cut your part, sorry!”

He wasn’t paid for his trouble.

“I had a screened in porch all planned for the house,” Schrankel said.

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