Breaking the Social Order: Brokeback Mountain and the Re-Imagined Western

Quickly and inevitably “gay cowboy movie” has become the ubiquitous shorthand description for Brokeback Mountain. While certainly accurate, the label is less definitive than it might seem. Simply put, Brokeback Mountain‘s contribution to the Western genre runs deeper than merely speaking what has largely gone unspoken about cowboy sexuality. That’s the easy achievement; easy to do and easy to recognize. More interesting is how the film excavates one of the Western’s foundational tropes: the hero’s sublimation of personal desire and emotion. Brokeback Mountain shows that there are costs to this sublimation, costs that don’t disappear simply because the protagonist is self-sacrificing for a civilization that depends on him, and it is almost always “him,” to make such choices. As Brokeback deconstructs and explodes one foundation of the Western, it re-imagines the nature and scope of another: the freedom and opportunity promised by the Frontier, and, therefore, by America. The film pushes audiences to accept that this freedom and opportunity includes sexual expression and identity, and the right of people to choose who they get to love.

The reduction of Brokeback Mountain to “gay cowboy movie,” is often followed with the proclamation, “Of course, all cowboy movies are gay cowboy movies.” While glib and precious, this assertion does draw out the presumptive nature of Frontier heterosexuality. The comment also points to the absurdity of denying homosexuality, whether as preference or practice, in stories where men admiring other men and male bonding are central. However, what it masks is that the sexuality of most Western protagonists is more indeterminate than definitively hetero or homo. As classically represented in forms like film and the dime novel, the distinguishing quality of the true Westerner is not his sexuality, but his ability to see what’s right and just and to ensure that those things are done regardless of other desires, including sex of any inclination.

Gary Cooper’s Will Kane is the archetypal Frontier hero. The story in High Noon (1952) springs from two failures on the part of society. First, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a “wild and crazy” killer that Kane caught and helped to put away, is unexpectedly released by a judge “up north.” Second, the people of Hadleyville, the town where Kane as Marshall captured Miller and to which Miller is returning to seek revenge, would rather avoid confrontation than join Kane in standing up to him. From the vantage point of the town fathers, Hadleyville is just starting to reap the rewards of a tamed frontier and confronting Miller would threaten this stability. Will Kane is virtually retired from marshalling; he is told that Miller is not his problem anymore. They also try to persuade him that his new wife means that he now has something to lose. However, unlike the other men in the film, Kane appears to have no truly personal needs or aspirations. Indeed, his marriage to Amy (Grace Kelly) only happened because American society expected men like him to settle down once the wilderness had been tamed.

Ultimately, Kane faces down the Miller gang without help or sanction from the town, risking his marriage and his life for the greater good of civilization and the social order. Kane’s responsibility is to a higher and truer law than the one promulgated by settled and comfortable people. It is precisely at the moments when society loses its way that the Western hero needs to make sure right is done. It is this fidelity to a higher sense of justice and right, even at the expense of one’s own wishes and desires, that makes Kane the model for all true cowboys, even for outlaws and anti-heroes like Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch and Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s Butch and Sundance. And if the Gorch brothers are bound by the code exemplified by Will Kane, Brokeback Mountain‘s good guys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), certainly have no choice in the matter. Ennis, in particular, is determined to see that he and Jack do the right and noble thing after their Frontier days, which is to preserve and reproduce the social order by settling into marriage and having children. That’s just the way it’s got to be.

Where Brokeback departs from classic Westerns like High Noon is in the attention it pays to the post-Frontier period. We never see how Will Kane and Amy end up. We do see how Ennis’ and Jack’s attempts at self-denial work out. And what we find when we peer into that side of the cowboy life is that it looks very different from its prelude, where, in its traditional film form at least, the mytho-poetic pursuit of natural justice and living off of the land in perfect freedom rule the day.

At a basic level, Brokeback Mountain argues that the cowboy’s sublimation of personal desire and emotion can only last so long before something has to give. After four years of trying to stay apart, Ennis and Jack attempt a compromise with society. They meet regularly for “fishing,” and in-between they will lead “normal” domestic lives. More critical than its exposure of the real hardships of living like Will Kane, is the film’s questioning of the necessity, and presumed nobility, of its heroes’ sacrifice. It would be one thing if only Jack and Ennis suffered from the weight of their choice, that would at least be consistent with the Western ideal, but no one seems to be benefiting. Jack is in a loveless marriage. His father in-law has little regard for him. Nonetheless, he’s stuck selling combines for that same father in-law’s dealership, while wife, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), does the books. Neither Jack nor Lureen seem fulfilled by this life. Ennis ends up estranged and divorced from his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams). His relationship with his daughters is clearly uneven and distant. They live in communities with ramshackle landscapes and little in the way of opportunity. They live in a society that would unofficially sanction beating them to death for what they mean to each other. America seems neither better nor worse for their having sublimated their own happiness for the sake of civilization.

At film’s end, Ennis is confronted with a choice between work and attending his eldest daughter’s wedding. As allegories for the whole mythic history of the Frontier, Western stories make their heroes’ actions into metaphors for the wider process of carving order out of chaos. High Noon replays the taming of the Frontier through Will Kane’s confrontation with Frank Miller. Rounding up cattle is the equivalent for Ennis, or, at least that’s his initial thought. So, he chooses work over the wedding, trusting his sense of duty to higher powers more than his own desires. However, having lost Jack, and sitting in his tiny trailer with little to his name and to show for in his life, he pauses, and chooses his daughter, and personal emotion, over external obligation. The earth continues to turn. While emotionally poignant and narratively significant, this deconstruction of the Western’s sacrificial codes isn’t merely an end in itself. It also serves as the foundation for Brokeback Mountain‘s reconstruction and expansion of the genre’s image of Frontier freedom and opportunity.

The Western has always been caught between the romance of the Frontier and the march of civilization, as are Ennis and Jack. The Frontier is where men are made true and strong. Being alone in the wilderness compels individuals to rely on themselves for survival and on their own judgment for the institution of order. Civilization, by contrast, is a flawed necessity. Jack and Ennis’ resort to hunting and fishing for food exemplifies this contrast. Canned beans might feed the masses, but they pale in comparison to game you’ve shot yourself. Within the mythology of the Western, American identity is premised on the idea that the Frontier experience imprints itself on the civic order, leaving an impression of freedom and individualism where you would otherwise find tyranny and collectivism.

Paradoxically, that same freedom and individualism is a key reason why the Frontier must give way to civilization. While the right men flourish in Frontier conditions, men of bad disposition, like High Noon‘s Frank Miller, turn freedom into license. In a different movie, Ennis and Jack might be viewed in this way, but Brokeback Mountain not only refuses this vantage point, it reverses it. Rather than being seen as a deviance enabled by primitive conditions and an excess of freedom, their love for, and attraction to, each other is part and parcel of the romance of the Frontier. That society looks askance at their union is a reason to be skeptical of civilization, not one to be fearful of the wilderness. This contrast is set up in the film’s first hour through scenes of beautifully photographed, bucolic landscapes, and men bonding in conditions of almost perfect freedom. Indeed, right up until Jack and Ennis’ coupling, Brokeback Mountain might as well be Unforgiven (1992) or Open Range (2003) and Jack and Ennis might as well be Will (Clint Eastwood) and Ned (Morgan Freeman) or Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charlie (Kevin Costner). The opening act comes to a close after their employer, Randy Quaid’s Joe Aguirre, spies them, shirts off, cavorting in camp. Looking suspicious and disgusted, Aguirre ultimately forces society’s will on Jack and Ennis by cutting their season short. The remainder of the film explores the consequences of society’s demand that Jack and Ennis part from each other and assume their rightful place in the social order.

Not surprisingly, when they re-start their relationship, Jack and Ennis return to the Frontier, on “fishing trips,” safe from “the blessings of civilization.” However, Jack still believes in a larger Frontier. He tempts Ennis with the same vision almost every Western hero entertains: settling down with a partner on a pretty piece of land that’s truly yours, tucked away from the rest of the world. However, like the genre itself, Ennis is too wary of civilization, and its advance, to accept this dream. So he tries to content himself with memory, and with moments of freedom and contentment where and when he and Jack can still find them.

The film wants us to believe in Jack’s vision. It pushes audiences to think about the meaning of American freedom and opportunity in specific terms, and not just as abstract, high-minded ideals. It asks, following Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous formulation, “what do we mean when we talk about the significance of the Frontier in American History?” Significant how and to whom? In situating Jack’s and Ennis’ relationship within the romantic traditions of the Western, Brokeback Mountain makes their right to be together into a sliver of the impression meant to be left behind by America’s Frontier experience.

Brokeback Mountain‘s rethinking of two of the Western’s articles of faith, the significance of the Frontier and the necessity of its heroes’ personal sacrifices, is far more meaningful than the simple outing of cowboys. However, Jack and Ennis’ homosexuality matters to both sides of this de-/re-construction. It matters because the sublimation of these feelings to the “proper” order of things is a sacrifice that contemporary audiences will recognize as something that can and does happen. The fact that many Americans also believe that it should happen, makes it matter to how we understand the promise of the Frontier. In making its protagonists sympathetic, genuine cowboys, and in love with each other, the film asks audiences to believe that the renewal of American freedom should include the right of Jack and Ennis to have the “sweet life” Jack dreams of. After all, Will Kane put himself on the line so that America could remain free, not only from the wild savagery of men like Frank Miller, but also from the tyranny of its own worst impulses. And in both High Noon and Brokeback Mountain society is shackled by fear and cowardice. Viewed through the frame of the Western, those are qualities that the taming of the Frontier should have banished from American character.