After his 1978 success with The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino hauled out an old project that he had already tried (unsuccessfully) to sell to a producer: “The Johnson County Wars” (script and working title). With a handful of recent academy awards and a golden globe under his belt, he was able to convince United Artists to pick up the movie that they had turned down and that had sat on a shelf for the past eight years. The movie Heaven’s Gate is loosely based on the events of the Johnson County War in 1890s Wyoming. Writer-director Cimino used real characters from the range war but manipulated them to fit his idea for the movie. Cimino follows that trend throughout the whole movie, wavering on the line between reality and fiction.
The plot centers around James Averill, who in this film is the county sheriff, a Harvard graduate, and a wealthy man. In Heaven’s Gate, the citizens under his jurisdiction are immigrants from Eastern Europe who have come to Wyoming to make new and better lives for their families. They steal cattle from the area ranchers in order to eat, but the cattle barons are tired of losing their property. A violent feud ensues between the cattlemen and the immigrants. Cimino’s choice to use foreign settlers as opposition to the ranchers instead of wayward cowboys makes the film a commentary on class and racial inequality. His characters–who are all named after actual historical figures—set the tone of the movie rather than help to portray actual events. For the most part, Cimino used the names of characters to link his film to reality, but there are a couple of places in which the movie authentically overlaps history. The most accurate portrayal is the showdown at the K.C. Ranch. Although the stand-off took the better part of a day, the details are surprisingly accurate from the fact that Nick and Nate are hosting a trapper for the night to Nate sitting huddled in the burning house scribbling in his diary. Cimino needed some sort of hero, and Nate Champion’s actions needed no further exaggeration to be spectacularly heroic. The final battle at what should be the T.A. Ranch has a lot of historical overlap as well. The cattle thieves have the invaders surrounded, they build a moving shield, and the cavalry must come to the rescue. All of these plot pieces occurred in 1890s Wyoming. In order to follow history but build his own characters and relationships, Cimino only drifts back to historical accuracy at the defining points in the war.