Fire from Heaven: The Making and Unmaking of Michael Cimino’s ‘The Sicilian’ by Chris Evangelista

By Yasmina Tawil

In 1986, David Begelman, head of Gladden Entertainment, and producer Bruce McNall sat down to watch a new cut of their latest production, The Sicilian. The anxiety and anticipation was through the roof: Sicilian director Michael Cimino had already thrown a fit when the producers had insisted the filmmaker cut down the 150-minute movie he initially delivered. “I’ve been cutting for six months!” Cimino had railed, according to McNall’s memoir Fun While It Lasted.  “There’s nothing more to take out!” When Begelman and McNall countered that Cimino’s contract prohibited him from making the film more than 120 minutes, Cimino’s rage seemingly evaporated in a split-second. “Fine,” he replied. “You want it shorter, you got it.”

Now, as the projector rolled at the Gladden offices and McNall and Begelman watched the new 120-minute cut Cimino had delivered in just a few days, they were flabbergasted. Cimino had removed all action beats and forward momentum from the film, resulting in a disjointed, confusing mess. A lavish mountain-set wedding scene was supposed to be interrupted by a violent attack on the wedding party. Up on the screen, however, the wedding scene abruptly cut to a scene at a hospital, where bloody guests were being treated for wounds suffered at an attack that hadn’t occurred on screen. The two Gladden executives didn’t even bother to finish watching the film. The writing was on the wall: Things had gone wrong from the start with The Sicilian, and there was little chance they could improve it from here.

Both the novel and the film adaptation of The Godfather feature a lengthy sequence where protagonist Michael Corleone is exiled to Sicily after killing a police officer. Godfather author Mario Puzo penned a spin-off in 1984 that used Michael’s journey as a springboard for a fictionalized telling of the exploits of Salvatore Giuliano, a real-life Robin Hood of Sicily in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In Puzo’s The Sicilian, Michael is sandwiched into Giuliano’s story: helping Giuliano travel to America. Although the bulk of Puzo’s novel focused on Guiliano, it was this tentative connection to The Godfather that gave Gladden Entertainment enough confidence to shell out $1 million to Puzo for the movie rights. With The Sicilian, the execs at Gladden, having few previous credits to their names, hoped that the end result would be a film with class and poise—something maybe not the equal to but at least somewhere within the same prestigious ballpark as The Godfather. (Though due to rights issues, the film adaptation could not mention the Corleone family.)

Begelman was no stranger to problems. After rising to become president of Columbia Pictures, he was caught forging actor Cliff Robertson’s signature on a check made out to himself for $10,000. Begelman was fired from Columbia, but he was not out of the business entertainment entirely. After landing at MGM and later Sherwood Productions, Begelman would go on to form his own production company, Gladden Entertainment. Perhaps it was Begelman’s own fall from grace and climb back up to the top that gave him the courage to hire Cimino to direct Gladden’s biggest project ever, The Sicilian. Once a highly sought-after filmmaker following The Deer Hunter’s success in the box office and at the Oscars, Cimino’s reputation plunged drastically in 1980, when his epic, expensive Heaven’s Gate was savaged by critics and virtually ignored by audiences. It was eventually considered the film that sank United Artists. Yet just as Begelman’s forgery wasn’t enough to exile him from the movie business forever, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate disaster didn’t preclude him from ever directing again. Although Cimino’s hyper-perfectionism while working on Heaven’s Gate had quintupled the film’s original $7.5 million budget, he was was too talented and previously successful to be written off entirely. In 1985, he returned with the Mickey Rourke vehicle Year of the Dragon, which, despite a script plagued by racial insensitivities, was a meager box office success that kept him working.

As soon as Cimino was hired for The Sicilian, his decision raised Begelman and McNall’s eyebrows. He immediately complained about the script, which had been adapted from Puzo’s novel by Steve Shagan. Cimino also wanted to cast Christopher Lambert, of Highlander fame, in the lead as Giuliano. Begelman was not happy: Why cast a French actor, with a conspicuous accent, as an Italian folk-hero? In a sign of things to come, Cimino would not be swayed: He wanted no one else for the lead but Lambert. In the interest of getting the ball rolling, Begelman and McNall gave Cimino had the go-ahead to cast Lambert and do with the script as he pleased.

Cimino wrote his own draft of the screenplay, and then traveled to Italy to meet with writer Gore Vidal in March of 1986. Cimino wanted Vidal to do a polish on the script. Vidal read the script and thought it needed a whole lot more than a polish—it needed a complete overhaul. Having been in Sicily during Giuliano’s rise to fame, Vidal still knew sources from that time who could help fill the script with local color. Vidal agreed to re-write the script from page one, allegedly having no knowledge of the draft Steve Shagan turned in. Vidal would go on to turn in several drafts as well as pages of notes for the shooting script. He even claimed to sit in on the editing process with Cimino. Yet if Vidal was operating under the assumption he’d receive credit for all his work, he would be in for a surprise.

When Begelman and McNall visited the production in Sicily on their way to the Cannes Film Festival, they were not surprised to learn that Cimino had already gone over-budget and fallen behind schedule. As long as the production didn’t appear to be tipping over into a Heaven’s Gate-level catastrophe, however, they resolved to remain calm. But there was another problem besides budgetary woes and poor time management: The real Mafia was getting in the way of this Mafia movie by controlling labor unions in Cimino’s desired shooting locations.

Begelman and McNall agreed to sit down with the elderly, vintage-suit clad members of the Mafia at a restaurant. During the meal, the producers discovered that though they didn’t want to outright admit it, the mobsters were obstructing the movie because they wanted to be a part of it. Begelman and McNall were happy to compromise by offering walk-ons, extra parts, or bogus crew positions to any interested mobsters. The problem was solved: Cimino now had the access he needed.

Once filming wrapped and Cimino emerged from his editing suite, the producers were less than pleased with the 150-minute cut he delivered in breach of contract. And Cimino’s anger at having to cut the film wasn’t the only issue plaguing the post-production process. While the film was being assembled, Gore Vidal filed a lawsuit against the Writers Guild of America West and screenwriter Steve Shagan to receive a writing credit on the film. Vidal was the first person in the guild’s 47-year history to file such a lawsuit, resulting in the type of headlines the production would’ve liked to avoid. With Shagan awarded sole credit, Vidal proclaimed, “I have been defrauded of my work, which is grounds for court intervention in what is essentially an inside labor dispute.” The case would continue on past the film’s release, with Vidal eventually proving the victor.

The film would be involved with legal action beyond Vidal’s lawsuit. After Cimino delivered his incoherent, action-free 120-minute cut, Begelman called the director and demanded answers. “You wanted a 120-minute film,” Cimino shot back. “That’s what I gave you.” With no other avenue to explore, the producers decided to go to arbitration. Cimino was happy to argue the case, firm in his belief that he had the right to final cut. But Cimino had neglected to mention something: a side letter. The side letter, which was brought up during the arbitration by producer Dino DeLaurentiis, who also had a partnership with Gladden Entertainment, revealed that Cimino, in fact, was not entitled to final cut. The judge ruled that Cimino had defrauded the producers and turned control over entirely to Gladden. Begelman went on to trim the film down to 115 minutes himself.

Opening in 370 U.S. theaters on October 23, 1987, The Sicilian was loathed by critics. “The Sicilian is a dark, gloomy, brooding and completely confusing melodrama,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. Yet despite an overall critical trouncing, the film took in a profitable $1.7 million its opening weekend. There had been so much publicity, both from Vidal’s lawsuit and the arbitration battles with Cimino and the producers, that perhaps audiences felt they absolutely had to see the finished product for themselves. The successful opening weekend would not lead to a trend: Audiences stopped coming and the film left more than half its theaters by its third weekend. It likely didn’t help that it opened at the same time as Fatal Attraction and Dirty Dancing. The Sicilian eventually took in $5.5 million, just a third of its production costs.

There were a few defenders of the finished film. L.A. Weekly critic F. X. Feeney, who praised the director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate, flew to Paris on his own dime, where Cimino’s longer cut of The Sicilian was screening. Feeney called the Begelman-cut version “a masterpiece of executive sabotage,” and praised Cimino’s cut as “a work of genius.” Even Vidal praised the film. “It is a lovely movie,” the writer said. “There are things wrong with it, but there are things wrong with every movie.” Cimino’s cut may arguably be more coherent, yet no number of additional scenes can improve on the film’s overall sluggish pace, Lambert’s stiff performance, poor dubbing, and the film’s insistence on turning Guiliano into something of a saint, absolved of any sort of wrongdoing in his exploits. In one particularly cringe-worthy scene, Guiliano attempts to rob a lavish dinner party being thrown by a countess named Camilla. Camilla proceeds to take Guiliano up to her bedroom and orders him to rape her. “If you don’t rape me, I shall have to rape you!” Camilla breathlessly counters. Additional scenes couldn’t negate such awful material.

Despite the financial failure, The Sicilian did not bankrupt Gladden the way Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate had United Artists. As Gladden’s luck would have it, 1987 also saw the release of their production Mannequin, which took in four times what it cost to produce. Critics weren’t impressed, but it didn’t matter to McNall and Begelman: The film was a box office success. The prestige they’d dreamed of with The Sicilian became an afterthought.

Gladden Entertainment would continue on until 1991, when a $90 million debt led to liquidation. Begelman fruitlessly attempted to offshoot Gladden Entertainment into a new company, Gladden Productions. Unfortunately, there would be no third chance for Begelman. In 1995, depressed and unable to acquire appropriate funds for his new company, Begelman committed suicide. McNall, who had initially made his fortune selling rare coins before breaking into Hollywood, would wind up in jail: His ongoing coin dealings turned out to be a fraudulent pyramid scheme that led him to a sentence of 70 months in federal prison. The failure of The Sicilian may not have done much to hurt Gladden in the long run, but the company managed to ruin itself on its own.

In time, Michael Cimino’s work—particularly Heaven’s Gate, which received a Criterion Collection release—would find reappraisal, and following his death on July 2, 2016, at age 77, warm tributes flooded in. But The Sicilian remained, for the most part, curiously absent from the obituaries and editorials. The renown and demand of his early success, The Deer Hunter, perhaps had tainted the rest of Cimino’s career, giving him a taste of directorial respect and power he would never see again. It’s hard not to consider Cimino’s quick rise and even quicker decline when encountering a particular moment in The Sicilian: “At my age, Alexander the Great had conquered half the world!” Christopher Lambert’s Guiliano proclaims. “They called him ‘Fire from Heaven.’” “Alexander wasn’t a Sicilian like you or me,” another character shoots back. “There’s no fire in our heaven to fall.” Having risen so high, only to be met with one failure after another, there were no more cinematic worlds for Cimino to conquer.

*  Historical details, anecdotes, and quotations in this article are credited to Bruce McNall’s memoir, Fun While It Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune, except where noted through links to online sources. Given his role in the story, it’s worth noting that McNall’s account may contain some bias.