It’s 1890 Wyoming and the feud between the cattle barons and the immigrant settlers is about to erupt. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is a mixture of reality and fiction as it depicts the Johnson County War.
James Averill, a Harvard graduate and wealthy landowner, is the Johnson County sheriff. The settlers in Johnson County are stealing cattle in order to feed their families, but the ranchers are tired of the thievery. Their organization, the Stock Growers Association led by Frank Canton, has issued a “death list” to hired cowboys in the county. Men will be paid five dollars a day and an additional fifty dollars for every person on the list who is shot or hung. The list includes most of the residents of Sweetwater in Johnson County, including Averill’s lover, Ella Watson. Ella, a prostitute, accepts payment for her services in stolen cattle. Ella not only loves Jim but another county resident, Nate Champion. Although he originally works for the SGA, Champion turns on the organization and dies heroically in a shootout against Canton and his men. The movie climaxes in a showdown between the immigrants and the SGA with casualties on both sides. Only when the U.S. Cavalry arrives and rounds up the immigrants is the battle over. Ella and Jim are prepared to live happily ever after until Canton ambushes them on their wedding day and riddles Ella’s body with bullets. The movie closes with Jim returning to the east coast to live a life of luxury far away from the pain of losing his love.
Heaven’s Gate is beautifully filmed with historically accurate sets and sweeping panoramas of the west. Although most of the characters in the film are loosely based on real people from the event, Cimino takes great liberties with their lives and backgrounds. In this film, he works to show the plight of the European immigrants and the faults of the Stock Growers Association.