The afterparty for the 1978 Academy Awards must have been a wild one for Michael Cimino. The Deer Hunter, only his second film as a director, had just won five Oscars, including the coveted Best Director and Best Picture, and was already being hailed as one of the best films ever made. Movie moguls were lining up to shake his hand and gush praise for his masterpiece. One can only imagine Cimino’s hangover the next morning.
The next year, Cimino began his third directorial project, an epic Western called Heaven’s Gate. Due to his virtuoso status, he was given free rein by his studio, United Artists, to do as he pleased.
This was a mistake.
Heaven’s Gate proved to be one of the most disastrous films ever made. Production ran way over its original $11.6 million budget, ultimately costing $44 million (worth $296.75 million today) and took only $3.5 million gross in the United States ($10.39 million today). Filming also ran on a year longer than was expected, with Cimino shooting a total of 220 hours of footage, encompassing 1.3 million feet of film, and even after months of editing he delivered a final cut that was nearly four hours long. On set, Cimino developed a reputation as a tyrant who would shoot hundreds of takes and obsess over trivial things, halting production for weeks while he waited for the grass to grow to a desired length on a field he wanted to film in, or personally approving each of the thousands of extras used. John Hurt, who had a main role, had so much free time that he was able to go off and make The Elephant Man during the long periods of inactivity on Heaven’s Gate.
When the film was finally released, those hoping that Cimino’s “no pain, no gain” strategy would pay off proved sadly mistaken. One particularly colourful review in The New York Times opined that the film “fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.”
Realising that they had a serious flop on their hands, United Artists pulled the film and cancelled its wider release a week after its debut. The debacle caused the studio, which had been co-founded by Charlie Chaplin in 1919 and released classic films such as the original James Bond movies and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, to sell its assets and quit film production entirely. The disaster sent ripples around Hollywood. Most studios, suddenly scared by what happens when you write a blank cheque to a megalomaniac, refused to give even big-name directors the kind of creative freedom they used to, which is why every film put out today seems to be a remake of a sequel of a film nobody asked for in the first place.
Heaven’s Gate became a byword for Hollywood narcissism and self-indulgence, but it’s a different grim fact that has become the film’s most defining legacy. Prior to the production of this film, there was no requirement for the American Humane Association to monitor film productions. The American Humane Association was founded in 1877 with the aim of ensuring animal welfare, and in the 1940s it first began to consider the place of animals in film production:
“The ongoing expansion of the AHA Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media has raised the standard of care for animal actors worldwide. In addition, technological advancements have created safe alternatives to risky action, enabling filmmakers to maintain their creative vision without compromising the welfare of animal actors. AHA continues to be a vigilant watchdog for animals in film and television and acknowledges the ground-breaking history of this program while expanding and refining procedures to reflect increased knowledge and new challenges.”
The AHA first issued its famous “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” end-credit disclaimer to The Doberman Gang in 1972. However, at that time it was only sporadically employed, with many studios not seeing animal welfare on sets as a priority. This was a time when it was still perfectly common for travelling circuses to have lion tamers and dancing elephants, and the ethics of animals in showbusiness was not a major issue on many people’s minds.
Heaven’s Gate changed this.
Animals have been killed on film sets before, but the almost zealous cruelty that Cimino and his crew demonstrated on Heaven’s Gate forced this taboo into the spotlight of public debate. The exact death toll is unknown, but numerous horses died after being deliberately tripped to simulate horseback skirmishes, while cattle were disembowelled to get fresh entrails for battle scenes and horses were bled from the neck for authentic looking blood, because sometimes red paint just isn’t good enough. Real cockfights were filmed and at one point a horse was blown up with dynamite. One horse owner brought a lawsuit over the abuse done to his animal, and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. That’s just the stuff we know about. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising if somebody had punched a gibbon to death just for the hell of it.
The American Humane Association attempted to monitor production, but were barred from the set, reportedly being turned away from the Heaven’s Gate location shoot in Montana’s Glacier National Park at gunpoint. They responded by issuing an international press release about the claims of rampant animal cruelty and asking people to boycott the film, and organised picket lines outside cinemas that were showing it. Exactly how much this contributed to the film’s box office failure is impossible to determine. However, what can be said with certainty is that the controversy prompted the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to decree that all future films must have an AHA monitor on a set where animals are being used.
Of course, Hollywood and scandal go hand in hand, and the American Humane Association is no exception. Doubts about the AHA’s reliability had been bubbling beneath the surface for some time, but the it was in 2013 that things flared up, following a leaked email regarding the 2011 film The Life of Pi. It revealed that the AHA’s monitor on the film, Gina Johnson, had suppressed an incident where the tiger (if you haven’t seen the film, it mostly follows a young Indian man adrift in a rowing boat with a Bengal tiger, and has nothing to do with irrational numbers) nearly drowned in one of the filming pools. Gina Johnson, in an act of self-incrimination that would seem implausibly naive for even the most inept CSI villain, wrote an email in which she said, “This one take with [the tiger] just went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side. Damn near drowned…I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE!”
Well, somebody did mention it. The email somehow found its way into the public domain two years later, after the AHA had awarded the film the coveted “no animals were harmed” seal of approval. In defence of the AHA, Johnson was immediately dismissed from her job, The Life of Pi’s approval was rescinded, and it’s plausible that nobody else in the organisation knew what she had done. Nonetheless, it raises questions about the quality of AHA’s appraisals, which became even more suspect a few years later when the animal trainer who supplied the tiger, Michael Hackenberger, was charged with a string of animal cruelty offences. It was revealed that Gina Johnson was in a relationship with a production executive on The Life of Pi, and if that wasn’t enough of a conflict of interest, the AHA had recently introduced a “fee-for-service plan”, so productions pay them directly, rather than receiving funding from an impartial third party as had been the case before.
This led to speculation that the AHA’s integrity has been compromised, having become too close to the Hollywood insiders they’re supposed to be policing. The Hollywood Reporter published a lengthy, condemnatory article listing myriad examples of the AHA ignoring or downplaying animal cruelty on sets it was monitoring. Some of these accusations seem a little unforgiving – animals die sometimes, even with the best care given to them. The AHA openly says its approval of a film does not literally mean no single animal anywhere befell any health issues – as it says on its widely circulated pamphlet, “sometimes accidents happen, even though everybody did their best to prevent them. American Humane verifies what happened and serves as a professional, credible and objective witness.” AHA released a statement responding to the allegations, saying that “Regrettably, there have even been some deaths, which upset us greatly, but in many of the cases reported, they had nothing to do with the animals’ treatment on set, or occurred when the animals were not under our care.” It is also worth pointing out that the AHA has done a lot of good for animals on films, for example on the 2008 film Speed Racer, which it gave an “unacceptable” rating after an incident with a chimpanzee on set:
“Unfortunately, toward the end of filming, during a training session in the presence of the American Humane Representative, the trainer, in an uncontrolled impulse, hit the chimpanzee. The American Humane Representative stopped the session immediately, notified production and demanded the trainer be reprimanded and that the trainers abide by their written assurance that only positive reinforcement training techniques be used with the chimpanzees. This trainer’s action was in violation of American Humane Guidelines and a signed agreement with the production. The animal was not injured, but American Humane finds this to be completely inexcusable and unacceptable behavior in the use of any animal. Although this incident did not occur during the course of filming, primates should be worked using only acceptable training methods incorporating positive reinforcement. No animal should be physically punished in the process of training, management or performance. Warner Bros. takes this incident seriously and does not condone this unacceptable act by the trainer.”
So, is the AHA run by a corrupt cabal of profiteers who turn a blind eye to the suffering they are supposed to prevent? Or are these allegations a smear campaign carried out by people with unrealistic expectations, looking to tear down a non-profit organisation to suit their own agenda? The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere between these two extremes. The AHA seem to be well-intentioned, with a genuine desire to safeguard animals on filmsets. However, as the Life of Pi controversy showed, there will always be a temptation towards smoothing over negative incidents, as the AHA are basically required to snitch on themselves if they mess up. As one employee says, “If we acknowledge that something went wrong and wasn’t a ‘tragic, unpreventable accident,’ it means we bear some responsibility. The AHA does not want responsibility.”
However, the AHA does a lot of good, and some of the articles claiming they don’t do their job properly are very selective in what information they highlight and ignore. You could make the Red Cross look bad if you only focused on the mistakes it has made. The American Humane Association may not be infallible, but film sets would be a much worse place for animals without them.
No animals were harmed in the making of this blog.