Written and directed by Michael Cimino, the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate has gone down in Hollywood history as being one of the all-time greatest movie flops. Costing some $44m to produce, the film only earned $3.5m in box office takings in the US, leading to the eventual collapse of its parent studio, United Artists. Cimino shot over 1.3 million feet of film and the production costs, which escalated out of control, were estimated to be around $200,000 per day.
The film’s plot follows the life of Sheriff Frank Averill who finds himself embroiled in a dispute between Wyoming cattle owners and European immigrants who are accused of encroaching upon local farmers’ land as well as destroying livestock for their own needs. As a result the Wyoming Stock Growers Association resolves to murder all of the immigrants in an attempt to purge the area of this perceived threat. Averill sides with the immigrants, but then finds himself effectively at war with the Stock Growers Association and the hired guns who have been recruited for the massacre. The film is allegedly based on historical events from Johnson County, Wyoming, in the 1890s, although there is little evidence to suggest that events of this kind actually took place in the manner in which the film suggests.
The film opens with a prologue set at Harvard University in the 1870s for Averill’s graduation. The film company had originaly hoped to make these scenes at the Ivy League institution, but Harvard declined to allow them to film.As a result, Cimino chose Oxford instead. Mansfield College, around the corner from Harvard, played host to the graduation ball, with a number of Oxford students being recruited as extras for the dance scenes, and our other neighbour, the Sheldonian Theatre, acted as a ceremonial hall for the graduation itself. As a result, Hertford College, including the Bridge of Sighs, and neighbouring buildings were transformed to a nineteenth-century New England set.
Hertford alumnus Jon Fitton (Biochemistry 1976) was a student here at the time that the film was made, and captured these amazing images of the filming. You can also read more about the making of the opening dance scene in a recent feature from Oxford Today.
All images are Copyright Jon Fritton and are reproduced here with permission.