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2:45:53 Champion’s last stand

Nate Champion: A Reel (Real?) Hero

By Christine Rapp

[1] In the Johnson County War, one of the few things that both sides of the feud can agree on is the fact that Nate Champion was a hero at the K.C. Ranch. Even though director of Heaven’s Gate Michael Cimino takes a lot of liberties with the plot of the film and the portrayal of history’s characters, he is true to Champion’s last stand. Although in real life the trapper is spared and a friend and his son drive by in a wagon instead of Ella, the magnitude of the battle is accurate. One of the reasons this scene is so vital to the movie is the fact that it is so historically accurate. Cimino paints the unrest in Johnson County and the hatred between the cattle thieves and the cattle barons, but he strays far from the truth. This scene ties the 1890s Wyoming that he has created with the real one; it is the point where real history and reel history cross paths.

[2] Until this scene, you, as an audience member, don’t know whether to like Nate Champion, distrust him, feel sorry for him, or want to kick him out of Wyoming. He is friends with some of the immigrants and is in love with Ella, yet he works for the Stock Growers Association (SGA) chasing after cattle thieves. As a hireling of the SGA, he has access to the “death list” but doesn’t even warn Ella that she is on it. Despite his devotion to Ella, Nate plays second fiddle to James Averill for most of the movie. Jim is the Harvard man who has money, the town’s respect as county sheriff, and most of Ella’s heart. Nate is the poor immigrant who turned his back on his people when the SGA offered him cash to round up his neighbors.

[3] In the scenes leading up to the showdown, Nate begins to emerge from his shell and become a respectable character. He not only builds the courage to tell Ella that he loves her but even proposes to her (albeit in an awkward fashion). When the SGA’s henchmen brutalize Ella and the other girls in the bordello, Nate takes vengeance into his own hands. He immediately storms into Frank Canton’s camp and shoots the last living rapist squarely between the eyes. Much to Canton’s irritation, he valiantly demands warrants for everyone on the “death list” until he is run out of the camp.

[4] Finally, it is early morning at the K.C. Ranch and Nate, his fellow homesteader, Nick Ray, and a passing visitor, Trapper Fred, are sleeping in the cabin. Trapper Fred goes down to the stream to take a bath and stumbles upon Canton and his large band of men, all sporting some sort of firearm. Canton promises that if Fred will lead his new friends outside, the men will hold their fire until he is out of harm’s way. True to his character, Canton orders an open fire as soon as Fred emerges and the trapper is immediately gunned down.

[5] As the shooting commences, Ella flies by in her new rig. The SGA men begin shooting in her direction although no one seems to really aim at her initially. They do manage to hit her cart so that she must jump on her horse and cut it loose from the wagon. At the same time, Nick runs out of the cabin to provide cover for her as she passes. Although Ella escapes unscathed, Nick is shot many times. Nate heroically dives out of the door to drag his friend’s body back inside. As bullets pierce the walls and soar through the windows, Nick utters a painful sigh and dies in front of Nate.

[6] Ella’s neglected wagon is loaded with hay and grass, set afire, and pushed into the cabin. Nate, although he refuses to give up without a fight, is conscious of his danger and sits down to write in his book. Now in real life, Nate and Canton’s men were at a standstill for a good part of the day before Jack Flagg (his friend) rode by leaving his wagon behind. Nate spent much of his time recording the day’s events in his journal. The film battle, of course, must be over in a matter of minutes, so it isn’t until the cabin is blazing that Nate begins to record his thoughts.

[7] Nate’s journal is an important part of the movie because his character generally seems relatively intelligent but is also naïve (he acts like a lovesick puppy around Ella) and ignorant (he has no schooling or writing skills). His handwriting is somewhat childlike, but keeping a journal is clearly something that Nate has been doing for a long time and he plans to record his final moments as well. Nate and Jim have their differences, but in this note, Champion reaches out to him as a friend as well as to Ella. Nate’s final moments portray him as a literate man who believes in a cause and is willing to die for it. He is finally dedicated to the immigrant purpose and gives his life in his desire to fight the oppression.

[8] “I reckon that man’s killed himself,” drawls one of Canton’s men as the house begins to collapse. He says this shortly before Nate bursts out of the house, guns blazing, for one last round. This is actually the only line spoken in the six-minute scene. The fact that no one is allowed to speak serves two purposes. First of all, it focuses on the characters’ actions and prevents them from making any stupid “heat of the battle” remarks. Secondly, it allows the audience to concentrate on the fear and bravery that actor Christopher Walken portrays as Nate Champion. Without the crutch of dialogue and panning back and forth between characters, Cimino can jump to each of the crucial moments in the scene. He doesn’t have to wait for someone to get a line out before moving on to the next shot.

[9] Nate Champion is a turncoat-turned-hero in Heaven’s Gate, but his real-life character was more of a heroic leader turned legendary by this battle scene. Although the movie accurately portrayed his life, it was not nearly as honest about his life. Champion was a roundup foreman turned alleged thief in 1890s Wyoming. Frank Canton actually did have a death wish for Champion but not for an outburst in his camp. Champion never worked for the SGA; he always fought against it, and Canton wanted to take down the leader of the thieves.

[10] Although the scene at the KC Ranch accurately describes Champion’s and Ray’s deaths (Ray was actually shot down when he emerged from the cabin to urinate and was repeatedly shot as he crawled back inside where he promptly died), this was actually the second time Canton attempted to murder Champion. About six months prior to the deadly April attack, Canton’s men broke into Champion’s house in the middle of the night. Although Nate escaped unscathed, he lived in constant unease until his death at the ranch.

[11] From the moment Nick Ray is shot, the scene unfolds much as it did in 1892. Nate must drag Nick back inside where he dies, and the house continues to be riddled with bullets. A friend drives by, leaving a wagon behind which the SGA loads with brush, sets on fire, and rolls into the cabin. The battle actually takes place over the course of an entire day, and Nate has been recording the events in his journal the whole time. Seeing as he didn’t actually know Jim Averill or Ella Watson, his last words were not reaching out to them in friendship but were a farewell to his fellow cowboys. “Shooting again I think they will fire the house this time. It’s not night yet. The house is all fired. Good bye, boys, if I ever see you again” were his actual last written words before he tucked a revolver in his belt and ran out of the flaming cabin with his shotgun.

[12] The SGA men left the note, “Cattle Thieves Beware!” pinned to the fallen Champion’s chest as they rode away. Sam Clover, a writer from the Chicago Herald, who accompanied the invaders to the KC Ranch obtained Champion’s journal and published excerpts from it in subsequent issues of the paper. Clover insisted on having destroyed the evidence after reading it when SGA leader Billy Irvine attempted to gain possession, but whether or not the diary still exists is still a mystery.