Heaven’s Gate — The Great Plains
This week on Facebook: My attention was drawn to the death of Michael Cimino who died early this month, remembered more for his epic disaster in directing the film Heaven’s Gate than his cinematic successes that led him to it. I am an aficionado of western movies and despite its critics Heavens Gate was no exception. I saw the demise of the Great Plains as being implicit to Cimino’s theme of the Johnson County war. Hollywood has exploited the origins of this despoliation of the Great Plains in films such as Dances With Wolves and Cimino’s Heavens Gate. His allusions in Heaven’s Gate are still valid in the history of the Great Plains which, in less than 200 years, the intervention of man — unwitting or not — has endangered its environmental stability and continues to do so.
Monday 18/7/16 Heavens Gate — From Hollywood Disaster To Masterpiece: It is thanks to Cimino’s perfectionism that Heaven’s Gate is now feted as a masterpiece. But the director’s painstaking methods also explain why the film went four times over budget and a year behind schedule. When it finally premiered, 35 years ago, its soundtrack could barely be heard over gossip about Cimino’s self-indulgence and the studio’s impatience. The critics pronounced it an “unqualified disaster”, and the viewing public agreed. Ever since, Heaven’s Gate has been a synonym for Hollywood folly.
Tuesday 19/7/16 Dances With Wolves: Dances with Wolves was dubbed Kevin’s Gate in an allusion to Cimino’s budget overruns in Heaven’s Gate but unlike the latter was well received at its opening. Dances With Wolves offers many scenes that help convey the colour, breadth, and vastness of the Great Plains, reimagining Great Plains, cavalry blues, Sioux buckskin and face paint, horses, wolf and buffalo, all blended into a wide-screen lushness with the austerity of a nature documentary. Dances with Wolves carefully and quietly evoked a grandeur where muted earth tones and the big sky dominate. In November 1993 ABC broadcast a longer version of Dances With Wolves that incorporated footage left out of the original American theatrical release, expanding on themes established in the first film and in which more environmental destruction is seen.
Wednesday 20/7/16 Native Americans: The Plains Indian has been one of the most important and pervasive icons in American culture. Make the Indian a wizened elder and see if you don’t think of spiritual wonder and almost superhuman ecological communion. And while the images can be easily moved to the Hollywood backlot, those real people are not so easily detached from the Great Plains themselves, for this difficult environment framed ongoing historical transformations in Native political organization, social relations, economy, and culture. Along with the nomadic bison hunting popularized in the movies, Native Americans engaged in raiding, trading, pastoralism, agriculture, diplomacy, politics, religious innovation and syncretism, warfare, migration, wage labor, lawsuits, lobbying, and gaming. Through these adaptive strategies, the Plains peoples worked to protect and enhance their political power and their ability to sustain themselves economically, and to maintain their cultural distinctiveness
Thursday 21/7/16 The Plow That Broke The Plains: In 1935 Rexford Tugwell, the head of the Resettlement Administration, recruited Pare Lorentz to produce a film that would explain the causes of the Dust Bowl. The film also made a strong case for resettling destitute farmers, for retiring marginal farmland from production, and for restoring grasslands in the West. The Plow That Broke the Plains was shown in independent theaters, school auditoriums, and other public meeting places throughout the country. It was seen by 10 million people in 1937 alone and would become one of the most widely viewed films in American history. The film is still shown to audiences throughout the country to explain the economic and ecological disasters that struck the Plains during the 1930s. The film was, however, instantly controversial. It has since become part of an enduring historical debate about the past and the future development of the Great Plains.
Friday 22/7/16 Water: It may be water, more than anything else, that links us back to Cimino’s film epic Heaven’s Gate, the struggles over water uses have surely reflected the social and economic realities of the Great Plains. Undoubtedly, some Plains people have wrung fabulous riches from water development. Many others have persisted on the land because of advances in water use. However, water development has also created degraded river basins, giving rise to growing environmental demands for the preservation of free-flowing streams. Environmentalists, irrigation companies, urban planners, and Native Americans face great difficulties as they grapple with the consequences of a century of escalating water uses in the Great Plains. Critics doubt the viability of a legal system that accords water mainly as a commodity value subject to technological manipulation while aquifers and rivers disappear. They point to the erosion of not only an environment, but also of a quality of life as water continues to flow uphill to money in the Great Plains. Advocates, on the other hand, note the critical role irrigation has played in the economy of the region. While they may recognize some of the shortcomings of irrigation, they place great faith in water conservation through technological advances in sprinkler systems and in the development of new, less waterintensive, crops. The future of water development in the Great Plains is unclear, but change is in the air.
The Encyclopaedia Of The Great Plains provides all my links except my homage on Monday to Michael Cimino who led me here. Covering a period that is — in reality — greater than the 127 years between the Johnson County war to the present day has been difficult and correlating any connection even more so. In the Johnson County war the Wyoming cattle barons were not fighting to protect the Great Plains from the environmental destruction that was to be wrought by farmers, in their exploitation of the free range the cattle barons were equally complicit. Beneath the ongoing environmental destruction of the Great Plains lies the problem of water.
Dances With Wolves was acclaimed for its portrayal of the Great Plains and in particular the treatment of the Lakota Sioux. An odyssey into the Great Plains set some 30 years before the Johnson County war when the North American bison were still grazing the Great American Desert and were hunted by the Native American.
The culture of the Native Americans was lost by the incursion of the railroad and the exploitation of the bison, the Native American’s migratory lifestyle being supplanted by the static lifestyle of cattle ranchers and farmsteaders. The story of the Native American is unfinished and maybe we have yet to witness the final battle of Wounded Knee.
If the climate of the Great Plains set the migratory patterns of the bison and in turn those of the Native American, the static nature of both ranchers and farmers made them both susceptible the prevailing weather conditions. The drought of 1886 and the severe winter that followed, coupled with an over-grazing of the free range and the introduction of barbed wire, may have contributed to the Johnson County war of 1889. Certainly drought was a contributory factor which, when coupled with a lack of environmental knowledge and nature conservancy, precipitated the severity of the 1930s dust bowl.
While fighting over water rights featured in many Hollywood Westerns, it was an issue lost in the complexity of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Nevertheless, it remains a problem for all those inhabitants of the Great Plains, whether it be the Native American, the rancher, or the farmer, each continuing to fight for their own survival in the region. It is possible to read many allusions into Cimino’s film Heaven’s Gate, even making it an allegory for contemporary world events as Nicholas Barber has done in Monday’s piece. Notwithstanding these I would suggest that water is not only the life blood of the Ogallala Aquifer but the exploitation and despoliation of the aquifer could make the Great American Desert a reality. Costner’s film Dances With Wolves may continue to be a nostalgic look at the Native American and the Great Plains on the cusp of being despoiled, while Cimino’s film Heaven’s Gate may become a constant reminder — an allegory — for the conflicts that water creates on the Great Plains.
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