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.