Heaven's Gate

Movie review by
Stefan Pape, Common Sense Media
Heaven's Gate Movie Poster Image
Epic but brutal Western has nudity, sexual violence.
  • R
  • 1980
  • 219 minutes

Parents say

age 2+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie centers around a conflict between innocent immigrants seeking better fortune and wealthy landowners against their settlement. Disputes are settled with violence. A death list is written up and mercenaries are hired to execute those on it. In a landscape and era full of prejudice and fear, there are very few redeeming messages. But some show compassion, perseverance, and integrity. Disparaging language used toward immigrants.

Positive Role Models

James Averill is a noble sheriff, who uses his wealth and authority to help the immigrants under attack. He is a realist and knows the magnitude of the challenge they face. But he is also compassionate and stands up for those who have no voice in the conflict. He is an anti-hero though, and is flawed. Ella Watson is also a strong-willed female lead, who is independent and determined to achieve her goals. Negative stereotypes of immigrants.


The violence is consistent and, at times, brutal. Several people are shot. Open wounds, blood-spilled clothes, and people holding the dead bodies of loved ones. Innocent civilians are killed, and there are scenes of warfare where the sound of gunshots is deafening, and the body count immense. One scene depicts a gang-rape. There is another sequence depicting a cockfight.


Occasional full frontal nudity, though always brief when it occurs. Character is seen topless frequently, and their bare behind is also depicted on occasion. Two characters are seen naked and cuddling in bed.


There are a few instances of the word "f--k" and several uses of the words "son of a bitch." Character is called a "whore." Disparaging language used of immigrants, such as "go back where you came from."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Several characters drink alcohol throughout, even during a fight. Characters are seen drunk and disorderly, swigging from hip flasks and, in some cases, passed out. Characters also smoke cigarettes and pipes occasionally.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Heaven's Gate is an incredibly violent Western, with multiple death scenes, sexual violence, and nudity. Despite its 1890s setting, the movie remains relevant today as it depicts the prejudice immigrants and refugees often face. The violence and hatred is born out of fear of a community of European settlers in Wyoming. But the film is always sure to paint them as the victims to the actions of the racist landowners. There are few redeemable characters, but the lead, Sheriff James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), is a man with a good heart, using his wealth and power to help those without either. Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) too is an entrepreneur of sorts, and strong-willed, in a sea of men who generally seek to exploit her. The violence is unforgiving and relentless with countless dead bodies and deafening gunshots. There is a gang-rape scene which some viewers may find difficult to watch, and an upsetting cockfight too -- the movie has long been plagued by accusations of animal cruelty during filming. There is full frontal female nudity on a handful of occasions, yet it is always brief and there are no actual sex scenes. Characters use "f--k" on occasion and there are lots of scenes showing characters drinking and smoking -- as befitting the time period -- some of which are incredibly drunk, acting up, or passing out inebriated. Due to the relentless violence, this is a movie aimed at older teens and adults only. It's also worth noting the 219 minute runtime.

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What's the story?

Set in Wyoming in 1890, HEAVEN'S GATE finds a local association, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), intent on hiring mercenaries to murder innocent European immigrants who have settled in the area. Canton's actions are effectively a declaration of war. But the Sheriff of Johnson County, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) promises to help the settlers as best he can, while in the meantime getting caught up in a complex love triangle with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and friend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken).

Is it any good?

Heaven's Gate is a sprawling and slow-burning Western, of epic-scale, that requires your full attention across its three and a half hour runtime, yet succeeds in rewarding the patient viewer. The movie, which encountered a myriad of problems during its production, was considered a major flop upon release, but has a reputation that has grown increasingly more respectable over time, and it's clear to see why.

Director Michael Cimino's tale is pointedly relevant, as much so now as it ever has been when taking the global refugee crisis into account. The performances elevate the material and ensure the viewer remains absorbed, although it can at times feel like hard work. But thanks to the likes of Kristofferson, Walken, and a brilliant Huppert, audiences are persuaded to remain on board as the movie reaches a dramatic finale that ensures the first three hours were worth sitting through.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the extreme violence in Heaven's Gate. Why do you think the filmmaker chose to show this much violence? What effect does it have? What message does it convey? Does exposure to violent media desensitize kids to violence?

  • The movie tackles prejudice and immigration. How did you feel about how the immigrants in the movie were treated? How are these themes still relevant today? What can we do today to help people that are displaced from their homes?

  • The filmmakers have been accused of animal cruelty during the making of the movie. How did you feel about seeing animals being treated badly in the film? Why is it important to protect animals during the making of movies?

  • Talk about the nudity in the movie. Was it handled sensitively or gratuitously? When, if ever, is it OK to show nude people?

  • Discuss the three and a half hour long runtime. Did you find it too long or did you enjoy the experience? How did this movie compare with other Westerns you may have seen?

Movie details

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