Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Heaven's Gate (1980) >>

Defeating the Cowboy

By Christine Rapp

[1] The Johnson County War pitted the cattle hands against the wealthy cattle barons. Although the cattle companies were owned by wealthy businessmen from the east and from Europe, the conflict was not the class war it was made out to be in Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. Many of the cowboys-turned-rustlers were educated before coming west to make their own fortunes. This film turns the rough-and-ready cowboys into hopeless immigrants who are victims of their class and political inferiority.

[2] By the 1890s, the Wyoming range was populated mostly by the cattle barons, cowhands, and homesteaders coming from the east. Although immigrants from Eastern Europe did wander out onto the plains, most of them settled elsewhere by the 1840s. Nationality was simply not one of the issues contested in the Johnson County War.

[3] Had he left the rustlers as western cow thieves, Cimino might have developed a movie very similar to other Westerns of the era. His choice in making them immigrants made the movie about class differences. The wealthy struggled for power as the poor struggled for survival. As Cully tells Averill in the beginning of the movie, "I'll tell you somethin', Jim. I'll tell you somethin'. If the rich could hire others to do their dying for'em, the poor could make a wonderful living."

[4] Cully's line in one of the first Wyoming scenes defines the tone of the film. The wealthy are looking for control and fear death. The immigrants, on the other hand, would do anything to make a living. While they want to live and develop their land, they aren't scared of dying in the same way as the rich. They have little to lose.

[5} In Heaven's Gate the cattle thieves are generally unskilled and living in poverty. They seem to have come out west with little more than the clothes on their backs and no means of support other than to farm the land they purchased. Other than Ella who accepts stolen cattle as payment for her "services," the Europeans take cattle for the sole reason of feeding their families. In the introduction to Wyoming, Champion shoots a man who has killed and is speed-butchering a cow to keep his wife and small child from starving. Later, Champion again catches a young immigrant trying to steal a cow, although this time he lets the young man live. These people are inexperienced in the ways of successful thievery and rarely do their actions go unpunished.

[6] From the moment Averill rides into town on the train, the class difference is clear. He arrives drunk and alone in a plush, shaded rail car. As he exits the train, the camera pans to the top of the train that is stacked with immigrant men and women who have been crammed together in the hot sun. In town, the members of the Stock Growers Association (SGA) relish torturing the immigrants for no reason. Clearly none of these people have had the chance to cause any problems as they have only just arrived. The men are not just worried about their livestock; they are worried about losing their open range.

[7] True to the complaints of many critics, the immigrants do tend to chatter and whine in their native tongues more frequently than is necessary, but they are the obvious victims of the movie. As a viewer, you know that your sympathies should lie with them. Not only are they isolated by their limited ability to speak the language (English), but they are being oppressed by greedy cattlemen who want their land. What's more, they are lacking a true leader. Averill, the sheriff, realizes that they are being treated unfairly but still seems hesitant at using his power as a rich and educated man to help them. Nate Champion, an immigrant himself, considers them friends but works for the SGA. Eventually Champion decides once and for all that he tires of the violence of his employers and steps into the role of movie hero, but this doesn't happen until more than half way through the film. His subsequent murder is the rallying point for the immigrants, but by then it's too late for them to be victorious.

[8] The real-life cattle thieves are far from being unskilled. They were first prompted to start stealing cattle because they were hired to corral the cattle belonging to the barons. On the open plains, cattle--particularly unbranded calves--were easily mixed into the wrong herd. Since this was common practice, the cowboys each decided to start keeping a few and began their own herds. For a number of years, the frustrated cattle barons did little to stop them.

[9] Cattle theft became so rampant in Wyoming that the Wyoming Stock Growers Association decided to hire "guns" from Texas to come and relieve the problem. The men on the WSGA's "Daisy" or "Death" list were not poor defenseless immigrants looking to feed their families. They were fed-up cowboys who knew the laws and knew how to successfully break them without getting caught.

[10] The real Johnson County Cattle War was not without heroes. As in Heaven's Gate Nate Champion's murder spurs the cowboys into action, but Champion was a leader long before his untimely death. Champion did work as a wrangler for members of the WSGA, but he never joined the group hired to execute cattle thieves. In fact, he was at the top of Frank Canton's list of men to dispose of. Canton tried to kidnap and kill Champion twice, for not only did the cowboy escape the first time, but he launched a counterattack on his assailants and injured them without obtaining a single scratch.

[11] It is no wonder that Champion was such a hero. He was good-natured, which meant he was well-liked. He was even-tempered and not one to initiate confrontation. He was also quick with a gun--perhaps the fastest in the county--which earned him respect from his peers and his employers. Finally, Champion was a brave man and people were in awe of him. Aside from his personal beef with Champion, Canton also feared the power in his popularity and natural leadership.

[12] When Champion died in the shootout at the K.C. Ranch, a new leader had to emerge much like Averill had to step up and take charge of the counterattack. In the film, Ella and Averill had to round up a herd of incensed immigrants who had a lot of passion and little direction. Their attack on the SGA was planned, but confusing and disorganized until Averill convinced them to build the moving shield. The teamwork necessary for its construction and movement brought the immigrants together.

[13] In history, Arapahoe Brown and Sheriff "Red" Angus organized the rustlers and directed their actions. The cowboys were hardly trained in the ways of battle, but the hired guns were equally inexperienced so the two sides were evenly matched. The WSGA members and their hirelings trapped themselves at the T.A. Ranch. They had time to barricade the walls against invasion, but they failed to provide a means of escape. The rustlers were able to wear down their forces simply by intercepting their supplies and occasionally firing at the buildings.

[14] Heaven's Gate portrays the arrival of the United States Cavalry as the saving grace for the cattle barons and their men. Since Canton was the one to retrieve them from their post, it appears that they are coming to put a stop to the immigrants. Presumably the immigrants will be punished for this attack as one of the European women puts a gun to her head and commits suicide. Averill walks away without being arrested, but he is clearly defeated and fears the worst. The poor have once again been conquered by those in power.

[15] It is true that the cavalry arrives just in time to save the invaders and that someone from the WSGA escaped for help. Over the period of days in which the men are trapped at the T.A. Ranch, tension is building between those on the inside and those lying wait outside. Mere hours before an attack is staged, the U.S. officers arrive to dispel the fight. Despite what the movie presents, few people are actually killed in the battle. In fact the two casualties from the stand-off were Texas guns who managed to shoot themselves with their own guns and later died from complications with their wounds. The only people punished and arrested are the invaders.

[16] Although they were arrested and arraigned, few of the invaders served any jail time, and those that did were soon released on bail. In anger, the less-than-helpless rustlers began attacking and killing the cattle barons in their homes and looting their possessions. The fight between the two sides did not in fact end at the T.A. Ranch but continued for many of the following months. None of the invaders was ever charged for the murders of Nate Champion and Nick Ray, so the other rustlers took matters into their own hands. Conflict got so heated that the ninth cavalry had to be brought in to keep the peace in Johnson County, spurring the idea of lawlessness in the West.

[17] The real Johnson County War had no winners because the cattle rustlers were rarely (to never) apprehended for their thievery, and the forty-some men who ambushed and killed Nate Champion and Nick Ray were never brought to justice. Contrarily, Heaven's Gate allows the cattle barons to triumph in their wealth and power. Their punishment is a touch of embarrassment that the cavalry had to rescue them from a band of immigrant cattle thieves. Additionally, it is Ella and Cully who are gunned down (rather than an SGA member) as they are about to depart from Johnson County. The real cowboys refused to accept defeat, while immigrants allow themselves to be overcome by those in political and monetary power. Cimino's decision to make the cattle thieves seem generally confused and helpless was the real destruction of the Johnson County cowboy.