For fans and critics alike, Brokeback Mountain will forever be known as the "gay cowboy" movie. Almost invariably, the emphasis will be placed on the first half of that label--and understandably so: The love, briefly indulged and long inhibited, between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist is the narrative and emotional core of the film and of the Annie Proulx short story on which it is based. And, of course, the mere fact that a mainstream movie took this doomed romance as its subject represents a cinematic, and perhaps social, milestone.
But, as adapted for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain is also just a cowboy movie, a wistful, elegiac meditation on a vanishing archetype of American masculinity. And, Pat Robertson's complaints notwithstanding, that archetype has been pushed aside not by "non-traditional" sexuality, but by civilization itself.
At the center of this metaphorical narrative, as of the literal one, is Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), a late-teens Wyoming ranch hand who in 1963 takes a summer job tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain with another young cowboy, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). From the beginning, their relationship has the shape of a marriage: The rancher who hires them assigns Jack the role of herder, tasked with spending his time atop the summit with the sheep, and Ennis that of camp tender, responsible for cooking the meals and making occasional forays down the mountain for provisions. But before long, they swap assignments, establishing the gender roles that will characterize their relationship. One cold night, fueled by whiskey, they couple urgently; and though both vehemently deny that they're "queer," they spend the rest of the summer in an intimate idyll.
It can't last, of course. At the end of their stolen season, Ennis and
Jack go their separate ways, acquiring wives, children, and the other
trappings of heterosexual domesticity. But four years later, Jack, who's
moved to Texas, comes to visit Ennis, and their mutual passion again
takes hold. Over the next two decades, the men meet a few times a year for
remote "fishing trips" in which no line ever touches water.
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that these retreats are only about sex--or even love. They are also about the pair's longing for a kind of masculine clarity. It's no coincidence that, with the exception of their first, hurried reunification, their time together is spent not in discreet motels or open-minded cities but in the great outdoors. There, Jack and Ennis are free to be not merely gay men, but men--cooking over a fire and sleeping under the stars, unburdened by the neutering demands of domesticity, of children and wives and bills to pay.
This theme is present in Proulx's story, but McMurtry and Ossana (and director Ang Lee) amplify it considerably. Proulx's Ennis is a fairly ordinary guy, "scruffy and a little cave-chested," remarkable only for his relationship with Jack. The Ennis of the film, by contrast, is the embodiment of a mythic American masculinity: stoic, ruggedly handsome, dangerous when roused to violence but otherwise taciturn to the point of muteness. (This last, defining onscreen quality is missing from the short story, in which Ennis matches Jack syllable for syllable and sings in a "good, raspy voice.") One scene in particular, prominent in trailers for the film (but also absent from Proulx's story), captures Ennis's iconic stature: Attending a Fourth of July fireworks display with his wife and small daughters, he's bothered by a couple of obscenity-spewing bikers sitting nearby. (An encroaching hint of the vulgar, modern counterculture?) When they fail to respond to Ennis's terse request that they temper their language, he knocks them to the ground and stands over their cowering forms, heroically silhouetted by the rockets' red glare. Even if it weren't evident from the rest of the film, that scene establishes that Ennis is no ordinary cowpoke. He's the Marlboro Man. He's Clint Eastwood. He's John Wayne.
Or, perhaps more to the point, he's Texas Ranger Woodrow F. Call, of McMurtry's earlier cowboy elegy, Lonesome Dove. Anyone familiar with the 1985 novel (or the miniseries adaptation) will have no trouble recognizing the similarities between Ennis and Jack on the one hand, and Call (played by Tommy Lee Jones onscreen) and his partner, Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall), on the other. In both cases it's a pairing of opposites, the laconic with the loquacious, the abstemious with the openly pleasure-seeking, the masculine with the (at least relatively speaking) feminine. It's tempting to suggest that McMurtry and Ossana subvert these characters in Brokeback Mountain by making them gay, but sexuality seems largely beside the point. Call and McCrae, after all, were "life partners": Does it really make so much difference whether they were sleeping together? Homoerotic tension has, in any case, been part and parcel of the Western cattle drive at least since Montgomery Clift and John Ireland compared pistols in Red River.