‘They sure did dress nice’

spiked-film: A descendant of the American West on the gay cowboys of Brokeback Mountain.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, on general release.

Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain has been hailed as a breakthrough. It is the first serious mainstream film about a same-sex love affair between two cowboys. It is said to strike at the core of Middle American values and turn the genre of the Hollywood Western on its head. Though these observations are true enough, it seems to me – as someone with roots in the Western United States – that in the rush to declare the film’s importance, most critics have ignored one of the most important aspects of the story.

The film tells the tale of two young cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who meet and become lovers while tending sheep one summer on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. At the end of the summer the men return to their conventional lives, marrying and starting families. But when they reunite several years later, their feelings for one another threaten to overpower them.

There is no question that being together is impossible. Apart from the duty Ennis, especially, feels towards his family, there is the very real possibility that if the nature of their relationship were discovered it could get them killed. So they take what they can get, meeting a few times a year for fishing trips in the mountains while trying to maintain their respective lives and relationships. It is an arrangement that becomes progressively more painful as time passes and takes a terrible toll on the men and the women in their lives. The story’s tragic outcome is both predictable and heartbreaking.

Almost everyone agrees that Brokeback Mountain is a fine film. Its success, in spite of the alleged popular ‘homophobia’ in the heartland, shows that at a time when the traditional family is only one of a number of domestic arrangements on offer, same-sex relationships have become downright mainstream. Even many Christian publications felt compelled to seriously review the movie. Christianity Today, an evangelical publication, gives it 3 out of 4 stars and even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which rated the film ‘O – morally offensive’, also says that ‘while the actions taken by Ennis and Jack can not be endorsed, the universal theme of love and loss rings true’ (1).

If there are reservations, they tend to be that the film is not gay enough. Salon dubs it ‘an unconventional love story carefully calibrated to offend no one…it’s a closeted movie’ (2). Cosmo Landesman in the UK Sunday Times complains that ‘it’s a gay move that doesn’t want to be a gay movie. It wants to be like just like those movies about straight love…. [Ang Lee] has taken the gay-love subtext that’s always existed in Hollywood movies – particularly Westerns – and put the subtext on the surface and all the gay stuff down below in the subtext.’ (3) And although it’s true that the film line is fairly inoffensive, it is almost as if there is a desire to recast the traditional Western myth with a transgressive gay sensibility rather than to face up to the reality of the characters’ lives.

It seems to me that the film is as much about the West as about the protagonists themselves, and it’s only in that context that the story works. The Western myth looms large in the American imagination, but the place and its people are not well understood. Over the years, a handful of writers have tried to tell its story and three of the best – Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Diane Ossana – were central to bringing Brokeback Mountain to the screen.

It is based on a short story by Proulx published in the New Yorker back in 1997. Though she may be best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News, a story set in Newfoundland, much of her fiction takes place in the West. When McMurtry and Ossana read the story, they were so impressed they used their own money to option it as a film, wrote the screenplay and worked for the next eight years to see it made. McMurtry says it was ‘a story waiting to be told’ that makes up ‘part of the human fabric of the west’ (4).

McMurtry and Ossana have their own Western pedigree. McMurtry has written numerous books and screenplays about the West including The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize), and the lesser-known but wonderful book of essays Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Ossana is McMurtry’s long-time collaborator. They have jointly written two novels, Pretty Boy Floyd and Zeke and Ned, and adapted several of McMurtry’s novels for the screen.

In some ways, Ang Lee, the director of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility and Hulk, seems like the odd man out, but it is clear he has instinctively grasped the essence of the film. ‘We know the West from movies, as the romanticised world of gunslingers. But the real West, I don’t think people around the world know [about] that much. People like me, coming from Taiwan, outside of America, think [of] America [as] New York and the West Coast. But there’s this big chunk of rural American life that we don’t really know too much about. It’s a love story about those people.’ (5)

From my own perspective, this makes perfect sense. My grandfather was a cowboy, as was his father. He grew up on a ranch in Western South Dakota and worked as a hired hand in the area around the Black Hills and Eastern Montana. My grandmother’s family still lives on the ranch and though I have spent much of my adult life far away from the prairie, the emotional terrain and the physical landscape of Brokeback Mountain feels very familiar. At one point in the film Ennis remarks to his daughter, ‘You don’t have a lot, you don’t need a lot’. This might have been my grandfather. People lived simply and were at home with silence, if not quite so tight-lipped as Ennis.

The era of the cowboy was over almost as soon as it began and today most Westerners live lives light years away from their pioneer forefathers. But the bleak Northern Plains retain much of their original character. I was touched by the detail in Brokeback Mountain; the dialogue and the pronunciation of words like ‘coyote’ was pitch perfect. The shyness of the cowboys waiting in silence outside the ranch foreman’s office, the plain, pictureless postcards Ennis and Jack exchange over the years, and the almost bare walls of Jack’s childhood room are almost more emotive to me than the scenes of the men together.

Brokeback Mountain is both a gay love story and universal one, and that is its strength. It is also uniquely able to say something about West in a way perhaps only a gay love story can.

The reality of the life so glamorised in the Hollywood Western was one of grindingly hard work and constantly struggling against the natural elements. For all its big sky, the West is all about man standing up to nature. Even Brokeback Mountain is deceptive in its beauty, a paradise in summer but virtually uninhabitable the rest of the year. In the end there’s not much left for the individual. It says something about the human spirit that people who live there still manage to dream. The tragedy and the triumph of Brokeback Mountain is not simply Ennis and Jack’s doomed love but that they found a great love at all.

Brokeback Mountain offers a glimpse of the real West, for those willing to see it. It is not complete by any stretch. I missed the dry humour; and I’m also sad to think that all Westerners will be pegged as anti-gay bigots. The reality is somewhat more complex, at least in my experience. As the ranchers around the Black Hills say, ‘It just wasn’t something we ever talked about’. There have doubtless been gay cowboys as long as there have been cowboys, and the inclination, sometimes at least, seems to have been to ignore it. My grandfather recalls a couple of cowboys when he was a young man. They lived together and were partners at the local dances. He doesn’t know if they were gay, and admits it never occurred to him at the time, but smiles when he recalls: ‘They sure did dress nice.’

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Brokeback Mountain, United States Council of Catholic Bishops

(2) Brokeback Mountain: review, Stephanie Zacharek, Salon, 19 December 2005

(3) ‘Emotional Range’, Cosmo Landesman, Sunday Times, 1 January 2006

(4) ‘Much More Than a Pair of Chaps’, Kevin Maher, The Times (London), 22 December 2005

(5) Brokeback Mountain, An Ang Lee Film, A Focus Features Release: Production notes

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