Heaven's Gate (1980)




Director:     Michael Cimino.

Starring:     Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Joseph Cotten (The Reverend Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John L. Bridges), Ronnie Hawkins (Major Wolcott), Paul Koslo (Mayor Charlie Lezak), Geoffrey Lewis (Trapper Fred), Richard Masur (Cully), Rosie Vela (Beautiful girl), Mary Catherine Wright (Nell), Nicholas Woodeson (Small man).

a war in Johnson County, Wyoming between the owners of large-scale ranches and the owners of small ranches in 1892



Spoiler Warning:  Overall, it's a good film.  But there are a couple of things that bothered my wife and I.  Some of the scenes are unnecessarily long.  They seem dragged out.  The big street scene is way too long.  It doesn't take long to realize that the city is packed to the brim with people coming and going.  The scene is too long because we were starting to think to ourselves, hey, this scene is too long and dragged out.  No wonder the film is more than three hours long.  (To tell the truth I fast forwarded on some of the long scenes of scenery and riding from one place to another.)

We had no complaints about the acting.

The history of Johnson County was changed considerably.  Ella Watson was not a prostitute.  She was a seamstress and cook.  She lived together with Jim Averell for awhile and then they got married (but the wedding was not officially recorded).  Jim was not personally rich.  He had a general store and a restaurant of sorts and Ella worked there.  She may have known of Nate Champion, but he was not a big thing in her life. 

Ella and Jim did not participate in the battle between the big ranchers and their hired guns on the one side and small ranchers and farmers on the other.  In 1886 Ella and Jim were both hanged on the same day for cattle rustling by the gunmen of the big ranchers.  The battle did not occur until 1892, around six years after the deaths of Ella and Jim.  In fact, the small ranchers and farmers did not participate in the battle.  The battle was between the rich farmers and their gunmen on one side and the posse from the county seat who came to stop the gunmen.  The cavalry did arrive to stop the fight.  And Nate Champion was killed by the big rancher gunmen.

The triangle love story kept our interest, but it made Ella look very unsure of who she wanted.  She seemed to prefer Jim, but Jim does not promise marriage, whereas Nate does.  She finally settles for Nate.  Her going back and forth with her affections was a bit off-setting.  She told Jim that she loved both Jim and Nate and that stance is not popular with either man. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


late 19th century and early 20th century

Large portions of the west were owned by the US Government.

In the early days of Wyoming, most of the land was in the public domain. During the time of massive immigration, a lot of Germans came to Wyoming. They started fencing in their small pieces of land to make their small ranches. But, as there were lots of immigrants, this took a big chunk of land away from the cattle of the big ranches that freely roamed the land. Also, there was a bit of cattle rustling of the cattle of the big ranchers. This angered the owners of the large ranches and they became very anti-immigrant in their beliefs and politics.


The friction between large and small ranchers started to sky-rocket after the hard winter of 1886-1887. Hungry ranchers took what amounted to thousands of cattle owned by the larger ranchers. The big owners then began: appropriating land; controlling the flow and supply of water in the area; forcing some small ranchers off their land; setting fire to the buildings on small rancher's lands; stopping large numbers of small ranchers from participating in the annual roundup (where cattle with brands different from their current possessors' brands were returned to their owners.)

In 1886, Ella Watson (born 1861) met homesteader James "Jim" Averell (born 1851). The two people started a romance and Ella moved in with Jim at his homestead near the Sweetwater River country in Johnson County, Wyoming.

She was born in Ontario, Canada. Her family moved to Kansas in 1877. In 1879 she marred in Wisconsin. She was 18 years old. Then in 1883 she escaped the abusive marriage to live with her parents. She divorced her husband. She moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Next stop Denver, Colorado. After that, she moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming. She would be employed as a seamstress and cook. Then it was onto Rawlins, Wyoming.

He had married in 1882, but his child and wife died. He began to frequent the Rawlins House, where he became acquainted with Ella, who then moved to his home. He made money by his general store on his homestead property, serving both cowboys and settlers. Ella served as the cook. It is unclear whether the two ever legally married, as the wedding license was never filed.

Ella filed on a homestead adjacent to Averell's in August 1886 and built a small two-room cabin.


Late 1880s

Big Ranchers start killing "cattle rustlers" from the ranches of the small ranchers. Many were exterminated on dubious evidence. Frank M. Canton, Sheriff of Johnson County in the early 1880s, was rumored to be behind most of these killings.


Bothwell began to fence in parts of Ella's ranch and sent cowboys working for him to harass the couple. On July 20, 1889, a range detective, George Henderson, who was working for Bothwell, accused Ella of rustling cattle from Bothwell and branding them with her own brand. The cattlemen sent riders to arrest Ella. While young Gene Crowder watched, they forced her into a wagon, telling her they were going to Rawlins.

The cattlemen's riders lynched both Ella Watson and Jim Averell for cattle rustling. The public was furious over the double lynching. No one was convicted of the crimes because of the intimidation, threats and actual killings of witnesses.


before 1892

A local settler, Nate Champin, began to found the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers' Association (NWFSGA).



Ignoring the WSGA's demand that the NWFSGA stop all operations, the small ranchers' organization held their own roundup in the spring.

Frank Wolcott, leader of the WSGA, hired gunmen to eliminate all rustlers in Johnson County and break up the NWFSGA.

From Paris, Texas came 23 gunmen.

From the WSGA came 4 cattle detectives.

The eventual number came to 50 gunmen.

The WSGA had a list of dozens of rustlers to be shot or hand. The gunmen would give a bonus of $50 dollars for every rustler they killed.


April 8

The first victim of the gunmen was Nate Champion at the KC Ranch. He was a big leader of the small ranchers. In the early morning the gunmen surrounded Nate's place. The gunmen captured two overnight guests sat the Champion place. They shot down the third man, named Nick Ray, while he stood inside the doorway of the cabin. He died a couple of hours later.

It took quite a while for the gunmen to kill Champion. They eventually had to resort to fire to burn the man out. When Champion tried to make a break for it he was shot down.


April 10

The sheriff of Buffalo (the county seat of Johnson County) raised a posse of 200 men and headed to the KC Ranch.


April 11

The posse now besieges the WSGA gunmen at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek.


April 12

Late at night, Wyoming Governor Barber telegraphs to President Benjamin Harrison a plea for help.


April 13

The 6th Cavalry left Fort McKinney for Johnson County at 2 am. They reached the TA Ranch at 6:45 am. The gunmen give themselves up to the Sixth Cavalry. Leader Wolcott and 45 other men are taken into custody. The army also confiscated 45 rifles, 41 revolvers and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.



WSGA group went free after the charges were dropped with the excuse that Johnson County refused to pay for the costs of prosecution.

The Johnson County War resulted in the end of the open range system and the ascendancy of stock ranching and farming.






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