The Class Struggle in the Old West

Still from “Heaven’s Gate.”

While channel surfing the other night, I was intrigued to see “Heaven’s Gate” playing on Showtime, Michael Cimino’s 1980 revisionist Western that many critics viewed as both a Marxist tract in the vein of Luchino Visconti and the greatest flop in Hollywood history. That the two views could be the most common refrains about the film tells you a lot about the spurious characterization of Tinseltown as “leftist”.

In a fascinating account of the film’s Hindenburg-like crash, “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists”, Stephen Bach describes how in his view a talented egomaniac brought down a legendary film studio that was launched by Charlie Chaplin and others to guarantee artistic independence. None of UA’s forefathers could have imagined that a Marxist-inspired film might be its undoing.

I saw “Heaven’s Gate” when it first came out in 1980 and made a case for it among my Trotskyist comrades who had little interest in films except for the usual Saturday night entertainment. “Heaven’s Gate” was a cinematic tour de force but hardly entertaining. It was a grim study of how class power in Johnson County, Wyoming ensured the victory of wealthy ranchers over small landowners who benefited from the Homestead Act of 1862 that was designed to build support for the Republican Party against Democratic Party plutocrats. Ironically, when the Johnson County War broke out in 1892, the Democrats were the party of the poor farmer with their presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan taking up their cause. All the big ranchers in Wyoming were rock-ribbed Republicans, just as they are today in most cases.

Struggles over land ownership in the West had been very much on my mind lately after reviewing Christopher Ketcham’s “This West” for CounterPunch. Both sides in the Johnson County War were based on cattle ranching and farming. They were inimical to the ecosystem Ketcham’s book seeks to preserve. Perhaps there was at least hope that the smaller and poorer beneficiaries of the Homestead Act would leave a smaller footprint on the land. I also remained interested in class struggles involving cowboys after reviewing my old friend Mark Lause’s “The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots & Class Conflicts in the American West” for CounterPunch last year. Mark had a chapter on the Johnson County War that I was anxious to revisit.

In preparing for this article, I discovered that Showtime was airing Michael Cimino’s director’s cut from 2012, a 234-minute film I had never seen. Back in 1980, I saw a 149-minute version that the studio bosses imposed on the director. I can’t be sure of what Cimino put back in, but I have a feeling that some of it might have been like the long and pointless roller-skating rink scene in the middle of the film. It did nothing to advance the plot and struck me as art film affectation. Despite this, “Heaven’s Gate” deserves attention from anybody who appreciates serious, political filmmaking.

Interestingly enough, the first film about the Johnson County War came out in 1953. That was not exactly a year in which audiences would be apt to feel a kinship with poor farmers taking on the ranching bourgeoisie. Too leftist for the average oater fan, one might gather. I speak of “Shane”, the first film that broke from the John Ford/Howard Hawks mold. For Ford and Hawks, the ranchers could do no wrong. Their John Wayne was an all-American hero who killed Indians only to help civilize the West.

“Shane” was based on a novel of the same name by Jack Schaefer written in 1949. In taking the side of the Homesteaders, the eponymous gunfighter played by Alan Ladd was the exact opposite of Owen Wister’s main character in “The Virginian”. Wiser was a well-known writer of Western novels whose hero in the 1902 novel hangs a rustler just like occurred in Johnson County and all through the Old West. Some scholars regard this novel as the first in the genre ever written, even before Zane Gray.

A.B. Guthrie Jr., a novelist and historian who focused on Western tales, wrote the screenplay adaptation of Schaefer’s novel. The 1991 N.Y. Times obit quotes Guthrie: “I have a sense of morality about it. I want to talk about real people in real times. For every Wyatt Earp or Billy the Kid, there were thousands of people trying to get along.” It turns out that Guthrie was good friends with Bernard DeVoto, the long-time Harpers environmentalist who covered the same beat as Christopher Ketcham. In an analysis of Guthrie’s 1956 novel “These Thousand Hills” in the Fall 1971 “Western American Literature”, David Stineback wrote “To be a successful rancher, however, necessitates, quite literally in terms of fences and irrigation ditches, the division and destruction of openness and of the sense of freedom that comes of openness. And not until the final scenes of These Thousand Hills does Lat Evans face the historical reality of that conflict.”

“Shane” does not aspire to be an accurate telling of the Johnson County War. Michael Cimino comes much closer to that history but his film is also heavily fictionalized. What matters most in both cases is that they take the side of the poor and the oppressed.

The three lead characters in “Heaven’s Gate” are Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), James Averell (Kris Kristofferson), and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). All were key historical figures in the 1892 struggle.

Watson was the common-law wife of Averell and accused by the big ranchers of accepting cattle instead of cash for the prostitutes who worked in her brothel. Supposedly, this was a spur to rustling. The only basis for her being a madam is that she had many visitors to her house. Some historians believe that she was only mending clothing to help make ends meet. Like Averell, her only interest was in raising cattle. In Cimino’s film, she is a horse-riding, sharpshooter like Annie Oakley. She uses her skills against the WSGA’s gun thugs in an exciting climax that has more in common with “Game of Thrones” than what really took place historically.

The real Ella Watson never was involved in a gun battle. When she and Averell were lynched early on by men hired by the ranchers, they became a cause célèbre that helped trigger the massive resistance. As would happen over the next few years, Homesteaders were victims of the same kind of death squads we associate with Latin America, not the USA of the late 19th century.

Kristofferson’s Averell is a Harvard graduate and a suitor of Ella Watson. He competes with Nate Champion for her affections in a plotline similar to “Jules and Jim”. Maybe the choice of a French actress to play Watson reflected Cimino’s affinity for European art films.

Walken’s Champion diverges the furthest from the historical record. In the beginning of the film, he makes an entrance as a hired gun for the big ranchers who kills a poor farmer caught in the act of butchering a rustled steer. Cimino conceived of Champion as a character who breaks with his employers out of an act of conscience. Like having Averell and Champion competing for Watson’s affections, he felt the need to make Champion’s conversion more “interesting” to his audience. Champion was simply a small rancher who challenged the big ones for claiming all unbranded cattle. It would have been better if Cimino’s script focused more on the travails of such a small proprietor. That also would have been a much better tribute to the Italian Marxist screenwriters and directors critics compared him to.

There is a key scene that does correspond to the historical record. The capitalist ranchers of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) have hired killers to eliminate the Homesteaders, including Champion. They surround Champion in his cabin firing hundreds of rounds. After holding them off for hours, he is shot while fleeing and becomes another martyr to the cause like Averell and Watson.

Cimino is very good at depicting the greed and the brutality of the ruling class of Wyoming. They hate the Homesteaders for using what they see as their God-given right to land and water. In addition, they hate them for not being real Americans. In a planning session for their assault on Johnson County, the plutocrats keep vilifying the “foreigners” who have no business in the USA. Cimino wisely has the foreign-born Homesteaders speaking in their native language, using subtitles.

What’s missing from “Heaven’s Gate” is any fully-developed character who is trying to survive on the open range through harsh conditions. Such a character would help the audience understand what fueled the class struggle in Wyoming. Ironically, “Shane” is much better in that respect. Van Heflin plays a major character who works by the sweat of his brow. As Shane rides off in the sunset, Heflin stays behind living the life of a hard-scrabble farmer.

While it is by no means a great film, I can also recommend the 2002 TV movie “Johnson County War” that appeared originally on the Hallmark cable channel. Part one and part two  can be seen on Daily Motion for free. In contrast to “Heaven’s Gate”, it is a modest story based on a Larry McMurtry teleplay. What makes it interesting is its being closer to the truth historically.

McMurtry, who has a well-deserved reputation of being an honest chronicler of the Old West like A.B. Guthrie Jr., is more successful than Cimino in showing what drove the class conflict. In a yearly roundup, the WSGA and the Homesteaders traditionally gather up all the cattle and sort out the unbranded ones. But what triggers the war in this T.V. movie was the unannounced roundup called by the WSGA that would have left the small ranchers in the lurch. It was exactly this kind of double-dealing that finally led to a class war that became a major story in 1892.

How did the American ruling class viewed the “anarchists” who dared to take on the wealthy in 1892? I offer up the N.Y. Times article below on the raid of Nate Champion’s cabin and let you see for yourself. In the sixth paragraph, you will notice a reference to “invaders”. The WSGA and the Homesteaders both used this term to describe the Texas Rangers. They concurred that they were death squads organized to wipe out the poor. Their agreement on this term was the only thing they shared. Also, take note of a reference to Sheriff Angus in the 8th paragraph. He was a local policeman who decided to throw in his lot with the Homesteaders against the rich. I, of course, would not generalize from this defection. Our prospects for winning cops to future struggles is nil.





GILLETT, Wyoming, April 13 –An invading squad of not more than fifty well-mounted and armed men left Listdale’s Ranch, Johnson County, Wyoming, late Friday night for Nolans, fourteen mites away, to kill such rustlers as might be found at that place. The party hid in the willows along the creek to wait for daybreak. The first man to come from the cabin was one of two trappers, after water. He was held up, and a companion who followed to learn the clause of the delay was also made a prisoner.

It is learned from these men that Nate Champion and Jack Ray, notorious freebooters, were in the house. Champion appeared at the door and was fired upon. He fell, wounded, but crawled back.

During all of Saturday an effort was made to dislodge these men. Instead of surrendering they made a most desperate fight, having their shooters and Winchesters and plenty of cartridges. The pursuing party kept out of range and none was hurt, A constant fusillade rattled on the sides of the cabin. In the midst of the shooting Jack Flagg, a daring member of the head council of the rustlers, rode up to call on his friends, and with a knowledge of the trouble he took in the situation at a glance, and fled. He galloped off in a shower of 200 bullets.

After this he studied the scene for several minutes from a safe place among the rocks. Then be rode away to send the alarm and he sent first news.

For a distance of 100 miles every rustler and sympathizer was notified of trouble within twenty-four hours. When Flagg escaped short work was made of Champion and Roy. A wagon loaded with hay was used to fire the cabin. Champion came out, and made for a gulch. A. shot disabled his right arm, and the gun fell to the ground. He reached for his six shooter with his left, and an expert rifleman sent a bullet into the left shoulder. As Champion staggered back, be was half filled with lead.

The Coroner hasn’t had time to get the body and coyotes have eaten nearly all of it. Champion made a great fight for his life. Roy did not come from the burning cabin. He was certainly wounded, and probably killed, by bullets. Of his corpse there is left but the skull and part of the shoulders. He was a hard case. Saturday night the invaders camped at Nolan’s. Early in the morning, somewhat harassed by arrived rustlers, a move was made to a Western Union ranch. where a hundred horses had been led up for use. The animals were gone.

Continuing fighting while moving, the party reached the Dr. Harris, or Ford ranch. called the “E.K.” late in the afternoon to bivouac. In the forenoon they were completely surrounded be the enemy, and great was the consternation to discover that the three wagons. with food, grain, ammunition, and beds, had been secured by the rustlers. This was a body blow.

Since early Monday morning the campaign has simply been a siege. Sheriff Angus appointed about 200 deputies, providing all the rustlers with stars. He could do nothing with them. and claimed he was unable to command them. There was only a little shooting on Monday. Yesterday advances were made to within a few hundred yards of the building by shoving bits of hay forward. It was planned to thus fire the buildings, but for some reason this project was abandoned.

During yesterday and to-day they have been shooting as occasion offered. A party of twenty tried to leave the ranch and was driven back. The loss is three to five.

There are fifty men and Ford’s family. Twenty of these men are from Texas, New Mexico, Indian Territory, and Idaho, commanded by Capt. Tom, a daredevil. Thirty men are volunteer citizens of this State, and many are prominent in business, politics. and socially. They fear that capture means torture and will not surrender.

The fighting rustlers do not number thirty but, with the upper hand, they got recruits hourly. Thieves have come out from Converse, Weston, and Nation Counties, The rustlers, if left to themselves, would drive every hoof from the State.

There is likely to be much bloodshed yet. Two or three companies of cavalry from Fort McKinney could stop the remarkable battle in an hour.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.