The real disaster movies...
Instead, it shot way over budget, was seized and cut to shreds by studio executives and savaged by the critics on its eventual release.
Made for a then unheard of $44m, it recouped less than $4m at the box office, led directly to the collapse of United Artists and effectively ended Cimino's directing career.
In recent years, however, his film has been radically re-assessed. It's always had its champions, Martin Scorsese among them, and this year a new, 216-minute digitally-restored director's cut was screened to great acclaim at the Venice Film Festival and will shortly be released on DVD.
Fans of Heaven's Gate argue that studio intervention was primarily responsible for maligning a film of real quality. It's certainly ripe for re-investigation, but there's no denying that Cimino was his own worst enemy during the movie's notoriously protracted shoot.
Drunk, perhaps, on power after The Deer Hunter's success, Cimino took perfectionism and nit-picking to a ludicrous extreme. He had elaborate sets completely dismantled and moved three feet to the left, obsessed over the size and shape of background trees and became so dictatorial that the crew began referring to him as "the Ayatollah".
He shot almost 220 hours of footage, went six months over schedule and wildly over budget. The first cut he showed to United Artists was five hours and 20 minutes long. After a disastrous initial release in November 1980, United Artists seized the film, trimmed it to two-and-a-half hours and re-released it in April 1981. It still stank.
After Heaven's Gate, no one in Hollywood would touch Cimino with a bargepole, and by the end of 1981 United Artists had been bought out by MGM.
It's a movie-making disaster if ever there was one, and yet there are, in monetary terms, even worse box office flops. Here are some of the other films that started out with sky-high hopes only to crash and burn spectacularly, destroying careers, discrediting actors and sometimes even killing off entire genres in the process.
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
With an all-star cast and an A-list director in Anthony Mann, The Fall Of The Roman Empire was a big budget extravaganza that aimed to repeat the success of epics like Ben-Hur.
It was filmed on location in Spain, and producer Samuel Bronston staged mass battles involving 8,000 extras and built a huge wooden replica of the Roman Forum.
Having cost $20m, the epic grossed less than $5m and was one of the biggest flops of 1964. It sounded the death knell for the big-budget epic and destroyed Bronston's reputation.
Belfast actor Stephen Boyd, who played Messala to Charlton Heston's Judah Ben-Hur, blamed the film's failure for ruining his promising movie career.
Shanghai Surprise (1986)
In 1986, Madonna and Sean Penn were the new golden couple, and some bright spark came up with the idea of casting them in this frothy period adventure set in 1930s China.
MGM and Handmade Films talked up Shanghai Surprise during production, and used the fact that Penn and Madonna had just married to advance-promote it.
Only problem was, the script was terrible, and poor Madge couldn't act to save her life. Shanghai Surprise swept the board at that year's Golden Raspberry Awards, and often appears on lists of the worst films ever made. It cost $17m and recouped $3m.
1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Despite its huge historical significance, no one quite managed to effectively capitalise on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. Paramount threw $47m budget at this grandiose project directed by Ridley Scott.
Gerard Depardieu was flavour of the month in Hollywood after the success of Green Card, but didn't seem quite right as the intrepid Genovese explorer. 1492: Conquest of Paradise wasn't terrible exactly, but it was boring, and it tanked at the box office, earning just $7m in the US.
Cutthroat Island (1995)
In purely financial terms, this 90s stinker is the biggest flop of them all. Directed by Renny Harlin, Cutthroat Island was a misguided attempt to revive the allure of the old-fashioned swashbuckler and starred Geena Davis as a high-booted female pirate who sets out to find buried treasure with the help of her sidekick, Matthew Modine.
It is estimated that Cutthroat Island lost about $150m when adjusted for inflation. One of its backers, Caroclo Pictures, was driven out of business, and Modine and Davis's Hollywood careers were badly damaged.
Mary Reilly (1996)
Stephen Frears' gothic drama was inspired by the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and based on a novel by Valerie Martin. It retold the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde through the eyes of an Irish servant girl who falls in love with him.
Julia Roberts and John Malkovich were cast in the lead roles, and the film's producers had high hopes that this was going to be something special. But the script was rewritten so often it made no sense at all in parts, and Ms Roberts' Irish accent was excruciating.
Mary Reilly cost $47m and made just $12m worldwide. No one emerged from the experience with very much credit.
Town & Country (2001)
Billed as a sophisticated comedy of manners, Town & Country was set in upper Manhattan and starred Warren Beatty as a wealthy architect with a talent for disaster. Backed by New Line, the film started shooting in high spirits in June 1998 with a budget of $44m.
But the shoot dragged on into 1999 and 2000, due apparently to Mr Beatty's endless demands for retakes. It ended up costing $90m and was given the thumbs-down when it eventually emerged in 2001. Town & Country made just $10.5m at the box office.
This clumsy attempt to capitalise on the high-profile of celeb couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (above) failed spectacularly, and is considered one of the worst movies ever.
An ill-judged comedy about a love affair between two mobsters, Gigli was stilted and crass and bombed at the box office, losing almost $70m.
The film's biggest problem was the lack of chemistry between Affleck and Lopez, who separated soon afterwards on the eve of a lavish wedding.
A daft caper set in the North African deserts, Sahara had disaster written all over it from the word go.
Based on the novels of Clive Cussler, the plot involved an unlikely liaison between adventurer Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and a WHO doctor (Penelope Cruz) who join forces to search for lost Confederate treasure.
All but incomprehensible, it was impossible to take seriously and did poorly at the box office. It ended up losing Paramount more than $90m.
John Carter (2012)
Disney's 2012 action movie did respectably, earning around $280m worldwide. Unfortunately, it cost more than $250m to make and Disney blew another $100m on marketing what they thought would be one of the year's biggest films.
It was a staggering gamble that didn't pay off. Audiences and critics were unimpressed by this muddled movie set on Mars, based on a story by Edgar Rice Burroughs and co-starring Lynn Collins.