Guy Movies
Brokeback Mountain: Why Cowboys Get the Blues
By Lucia Bozzola
Dec 13, 2005

Hollywood's Man of the West is the man in between: the man on the edge, if you will. He is the man who knows the wilderness and its "savagery." He is an effective weapon against the natives because of this, yet he also has an understanding of man's place in nature that those pantywaist townsmen can never have. Nevertheless, the Man of the West is inextricably tied to the cause of (white) civilization, and it's that cause he must use his violent power to defend. He has to make the savage wilderness safe for women, children, and commerce. But, and here's the rub, the Man of the West isn't really comfortable, or for that matter, welcome, in civilization. This is why cineastes fall into swoons over the closing shot of John Ford's The Searchers. It's such a neat summation of the Man of the West's quandary. John Wayne (who else) carries his rescued niece up the steps of her family's cabin and hands her over into their waiting arms so they can carry her through the door into their home. But Wayne doesn't follow. He turns around and walks away into the desert, framed by the doorway that will close on his receding figure. There it is in a nutshell. You've upheld the civilized family unit, Mr. Western Man. Now get the fuck out.

No wonder movie cowboys only seem to be truly happy when they are out on the trail, alone in their saddles—or in the company of another cowboy. Really, who else would understand their burden? Who would understand what it takes to kill a man in the name of righteousness? Because as we all know from the movies, the western hero can't just shoot off his pistol willy-nilly. There are right and wrong targets for violence. It's the capacity for violence in general that tends to signify the gulf between the Man of the West and civilization, even though it's the correct performance of violence that keeps the cowboy from slipping fully into the realm of savagery. No wonder John Ireland has such admiration for Montgomery Clift's gun in Red River. He knows how to use it.

And if you believe Ireland was only supposed to be talking about Clift's hardware, let me introduce you to the word "subtext." Violence isn't the only thing the Man of the West has to strictly codify in order to remain a reasonably civilized Man. Women may seem beside the point in westerns, as in Red River, but they need to be there to assure the worrywarts in the audience that them thar cowboys are straight, no matter how much time they spend in the company of men. But as Brokeback Mountain's most impassioned clinches reveal, sex isn't so far from violence anyway. Just ask Clift and Ireland.

Yep, it's no coincidence that all critical roads to Brokeback Mountain seem to go through Red River. Of all the potentially gay cowboys populating Hollywood westerns (i.e. close-knit buddies Butch and Sundance, the cast of Johnny Guitar), Clift is the most obvious by virtue of his now un-closeted biography as well as the smoldering glares he exchanges with Ireland before Ireland essentially disappears from the story. It's a quick way to point out that regardless of all the blather about Brokeback Mountain being "revolutionary," the emotions it taps have been there all along. It's also, paradoxically, an easy way to underline why Brokeback Mountain earns the accolade "groundbreaking": Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist don't have to exchange pleasantries about their guns in place of acting on their feelings.

What keeps getting lost in the discussion of those feelings and the efforts to firmly label the film a Hollywood Love Story is that in its own way, Brokeback Mountain is as much a classic western ŕ la Red River et al. but with a twist, as it is a classic romance with a (forgive me) Twist. After all, the western is at heart about the conflict between civilization and savagery on the frontier (a frontier that isn't always literal), and the duty of the western man to negotiate the conflict in favor of the "good" parts of civilization—family, women, justice, honest work. That's how he earns his masculine stripes. He's a brave, honorable, rugged, taciturn loner who does what he's gotta do. This time, however, the frontier overtly involves romantic passion rather than violence. In visualizing writer Annie Proulx and scenarists Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's words about this particular battle, director Ang Lee invokes the genre in a manner that is illuminating in this regard. It isn't just the gorgeous vistas of the titular location that place us firmly in cinematic cowboy country, or the horses, or the campfires, or the cans of beans, or Jack Twist's crappy harmonica, either. It's the hats.

You have to figure that Lee knows all about the western's hat code. Heck, I knew about the hat code years before I started really watching westerns. White=good guy. Black=bad guy. Thank you, Lone Ranger. It's so ingrained that I took little notice of Ennis's white hat in the opening scene until Jack stepped out of his pickup wearing a hat as black as his vehicle. Huh. Now this is interesting. Is this sweet-faced boy really the bad guy? Depends whom you ask. This much is for sure. He's the one who reaches for Ennis's hand on that, um, climactic cold night in the mountains. He's the one who suggests that he and Ennis leave their families and find their own cabin together. He's the one who goes to Mexico in search of male prostitutes (ah, Mexico—the ultimate western border crossing). And he's the one who starts taking "fishing trips" with another rancher in Texas. He's also the one who seeks a life as an ersatz cowboy, first as a rodeo rider, and then as a bourgeois farm equipment salesman married to an ex-rodeo princess whose hair is a study in artificiality. In other words, he's both an over-civilized sham, and a man who has completely crossed the frontier into the sexual wilderness. He's the kind of antihero who is redeemed in comparison to the even worse people around him, particularly his callous homophobic father and his emasculatingly arrogant father-in-law. But he's no Ennis Del Mar.

With his rangy Eastwood-esque frame, guttural voice, and yep-nope reserve, Ledger's Ennis looks and sounds the part of the western hero from his first moments on screen. The film even makes a joke out of his inarticulacy, while revealing his growing affection by having him speak in complete sentences to Jack. Ennis is also, it must be noted, a better shot than Jack. Do I even have to say who does what to whom when Ennis and Jack have sex? And when they leave the mountain, Ennis keeps up his range life even after he marries his rough-hewn sweetheart Alma. He remains a Wyoming ranch hand, a real cowboy who uses violence to keep bad men from talking trash around his wife and daughters. Alma's the one who has to talk him into moving to town. After Alma leaves him for one of those pantywaist townies, Ennis moves back out to the dusty, wide open sticks and tries to correctly channel his energies again by dating a blonde, willing barmaid (and getting into the occasional fistfight). Yes, he's the real Man of the West. He's forced to grapple with the allure of the wilderness, yet ultimately remain true to civilization by quitting his rancher job to attend his daughter's wedding instead of quitting it to have his customary August trip with Jack. After all, as the tagline says, love is a force of nature. Man love, on the other hand, is so beyond the pale that it's as literally unspeakable as the idea that Wayne's white niece in The Searchers had sex with the Apache chief Scar. It doesn't make the wilderness safe for women and children. It leaves them wondering why Daddy keeps going fishing with his friend Jack but never brings home any trout for his girls.

Therein lies the western revisionism that underlines this movie's place in a genre that is all about the right and wrong way to be a man. In opening up Proulx's short story to really show the lives Ennis and Jack lead after their fateful summer in the mountains getting in touch with nature together, Lee and his cohorts shed some added light on the collateral damage left by the Man of the West's in between status. Alma's expression of shock and horror upon seeing Ennis madly kissing Jack may distill his failures as a husband, but Michelle Williams's wrenchingly low key delivery as Alma whispers that she'd have more of Ennis's babies if he'd support them contains the equally sharp condemnation that real cowboys make wretched fathers (and Ennis and Jack share stories about how their rancher fathers were the pits). The western hero may be an icon of masculine nobility, but that comes at a price of female unhappiness and familial disillusionment. Alma's grief and rage provide an outlet for the frustrations women may have with the western's old-fashioned and flawed myths of heroic manhood—myths Ennis unconsciously embraces—even as we are also supposed to (and I did) cry over Ennis and Jack's doomed love.

Then again, how could I not? In Brokeback Mountain, everyone suffers because of manly western myths, and no one suffers more acutely than Ennis. Yes, antihero Jack does meet one of the time-honored antihero ends at the hands of the vile side of civilization that simply cannot abide his "natural" identity. But our hero Ennis, our upstanding frontier man who stays close to the land but resists nature's temptations, and who wants—but mostly fails—to do right by his adoring daughters has an arguably more painful fate (and Ledger makes you feel that pain). He's left alone in his isolated trailer to contemplate what might have been and could never be. Why? Because he did his duty as a Man of the West and didn't give in wholly to the wilderness. He tried to uphold his little portion of civilization, even though he knew civilization would shut the door on his frontier-crossing nature. Wow, it sucks to be a Man of the West. Thank goodness I'm a gal.

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