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Unhistorical, but Heaven’s Gate is still a great movie!


Re-released on August 2, Heaven’s Gate is the subject of a Movietime special on BCB Radio, August 8


Setting the record straight

Make no doubt about it, Michael Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate is a work of cinematic genius, and its re-release on August 2 should be a cause for celebration among all cineastes. (Not so sure about Cimino’s “director’s cut” replacing the lovely sepia tones of the original with brighter, more brash colourations.)

But while it does record a true historical incident – the Johnson County war in Wyoming (1892) – we need to set the record straight about some significant historical inaccuracies, particularly about the character of Nate Champion, depicted in the movie as a cattle baron gunman who later dies after having a change of heart, in truth a small-time rancher who was one of the first victims of the war.

Heaven's Gate - Nate & Walken
In the film, the first time we see Christopher Walken as the Nate Champion character, he murders an immigrant farmer by shooting him through a sheet.Heaven's Gate Walken through sheet
But the real Nate Champion was the first victim of the Johnson County “war”, when on April 5, 1892, 52 armed men rode a private, secret train north from Cheyenne on a mission to shoot or hang 70 men (not 120, as mentioned in the film) named on a list carried by Frank Canton, one of the leaders of this invading force.

Nate Champion was on that list. He ran a small herd of about 200 cattle on public land, exactly as did the big cattlemen. He insisted that his cattle had as much right to grass on the public range as did the herd of any cattle baron.

The libels upon his character began in the media when a Wyoming newspaper described him as “king of the cattle thieves”. This was followed by an unsuccessful attack on his cabin on the early morning of November 1, 1891, when two of the five assassins were shot and all their bullets missed their target.

On February 8, 1892, a preliminary hearing was held in the case of the attempted murder of Nate Champion. It got nowhere.
When the invading killers arrived from Cheyenne, their first action was to go to the KC Ranch to kill him.

In the middle of the afternoon of April 9, 1892, the attackers set fire to his cabin, forcing him out and shooting him down.
In a Journal he kept during the attack, he wrote:

“Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once. . . they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It’s not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.”

Also slandered in the movie are Ellen Liddy Watson (July 2, 1861 – July 20, 1889), played by Isabelle Huppert, and the Kris Kristofferson character, “Jim Averill” (real name Jim Averell, March 20, 1851 – July 20, 1889).

Heaven's Gate - Averell and Ellen Watson

The people played by Kris Kristofferson and Isabel Huppert, though bearing similar names to real historical characters, led entirely different lives. The real Ellen and Jim had homesteads close to each other, and by July 1889 she had 41 head of cattle. Averell was elected Justice of the Peace by the residents of Sweetwater County, which put him on a collision course with the cattle barons.
Ellen and Jim were both lynched by cattlemen, and though six men were put on trial for the killings, intimidation of witnesses meant that no one was ever convicted.

Cover of "Heaven's Gate"

Nate champion

Nate champion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A map of the TA Ranch during the Johnson Count...

A map of the TA Ranch during the Johnson County War. Depicts the positions of the Invaders, posse, and 6th Cavalry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frank M. Canton, former Sheriff of Johnson Cou...

Frank M. Canton, former Sheriff of Johnson County, was hired to lead the band of Texas killers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ella Watson, lynched by wealthy ranchers in 18...

Ella Watson, lynched by wealthy ranchers in 1889 for cattle rustling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

"The Invaders" of The Johnson County...

“The Invaders” of The Johnson County Cattle War. Photo Taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, Wyoming May 1892. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


  • TV movie, The Johnson County War ( starred Tom Berenger in 2002.  Watson and Averell were referred to as “Queeny” and “Avery”, respectively.
  • Henry Brandon (1912–1990) played Champion in a 1955 episode of Jim Davis’s syndicated western television series, Stories of the Century.
  • Witness to a Lynching, a 1972 episode of Alias Smith and Jones, was based on the Averell-Watson hanging.

See also:


3 thoughts on “Unhistorical, but Heaven’s Gate is still a great movie!

  1. Pingback: Heaven’s Gate UK cinema showings | Karl Dallas Day

  2. hey Karl, nice to read this info here on heavens gate. I haven’t seen this blog before. I’m an artist from Ireland.
    I’m doing a short film on Nate champion, ill send you a link when its finished, shot in Dublin and Wyoming, if your interested here is a 1 minute trailer
    this is also a project I did in 2012, we rebuilt the skating rink in a gallery and also had David mansfield play at the opening..
    all the best


    • Wow really interested. I tried to interest BBC in doing a movie about the real Johnson county war but they never even replied. Re David Mansfield: I suppose you know he didn’t do the music for the roller skating. That was Doug Kershaw. I never got to understand how Louisiana Cajun tune got there!


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