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.
No, the real difference between Call and McCrae and Ennis and Jack isn't about the appearance of homosexuality but the disappearance of homosociability. The former lived in the late 1800s, a time when there were still wide open spaces to conquer, wildernesses where men could be men and could be with men--sexually, platonically, who was to say? In a border hamlet like Lonesome Dove, let alone in the wilds of Montana, no one could complain if two men lived together, given that all the marriageable women had been left behind in Kansas City or San Antonio. Indeed, the life that Call and McCrae shared--two bachelors running a ranch together--is exactly the one Jack dreams of, and pleads with Ennis to undertake. But the modern world denies such a possibility. Land is no longer free to anyone with the nerve to take it, and "civilized" expectations--marriage, children, work--pertain everywhere. Even on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jake must negotiate the conflicting rules of the Forest Service and the rancher who hired them.
Jack, the more fluid character, manages to find compromises with modernity--taking a job selling farm equipment for his father-in-law, soliciting back-alley gigolos in Mexico. But Ennis is a walking anachronism, a poor fit for the world he lives in. Where once being a "cowboy" signified freedom and mastery, the horse and the gun, it is now synonymous with "ranch hand," a menial occupation, a life with shovel in hand. And try as he might, he can't escape the discomfort of civilization: From the beginning, he resists his wife's entreaties that they move into town; after she divorces him he moves farther out still, to a trailer in the middle of nowhere. And yet not quite nowhere. In the film's final, moving scene, Ennis nearly breaks down as he looks at a postcard of Brokeback Mountain that he's tacked to his closet door; beside it, the trailer window looks out on a field of corn that extends to the horizon. It's a juxtaposition of beauty and barrenness, but also of idiosyncratic wilderness and domesticated land, acres upon acres that've been flattened out and made uniform until they no longer have any place in them for men like Ennis Del Mar, gay or not.
The Home Movies List: Re-writing the Western
The Searchers (1956). One of the first true revisionist Westerns, and to this day perhaps the best. The clash between "civilization" and the "wild" has rarely been portrayed more powerfully than it is in the person of Ethan Edwards, the most complex and subversive role John Wayne ever played.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Sergio Leone's masterpiece, a film that de-mythologizes and re-mythologizes the West in equal parts. Written by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento, the film is an encyclopedic homage to the classic Western, but thanks to its power and beauty never an academic one.
"Lonesome Dove" (1989). The production quality--from the days before anyone envisioned people watching TV on high-definition plasma screens--is surprisingly poor. But the strong cast and leisurely six-hour pace ultimately do justice to McMurtry's Pulitzer-Prize-winning saga of the Old West giving way to the new.
Unforgiven (1992). The start of Clint Eastwood's ongoing penance for a career initially built on glamorizing violence? Perhaps. But there's good reason to believe that the relationship between his earlier and later work is somewhat more complicated.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.