The Western genre, and the Frontier Myth on which it is built, are of great significance for American identity. For decades, cowboys have served as American icons with their tough masculinity and keen sense of right and wrong in films such as Henry Ford's Stagecoach (1939), Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and more recently James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007). The good-bad dichotomy is a well-known characteristic of the classical American Western and generally there seems to be a fairly fixed set of good features such as being on the right side of the law, sticking to social norms, showing confidence and strength, and being an honest, reticent, and modest cowboy; similarly a fairly fixed set of bad features generally includes being on the wrong side of the law, practicing villainy, being emotional and effeminate, and exuding weakness, deceit, and greed in relation to society.
Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005), which is adapted from Annie Proulx's short story published in 1997, contains some of the traits of the popular American Western as it plays on some of the traditional elements which characterise the genre. The two main characters Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) both appear to be rough and masculine cowboys set against the scenery of the Wild West. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something lying beneath the surface of the two horse-riding, whisky-drinking, and cigarette-smoking 'good' cowboys.
The two nineteen-year old men meet each other in the summer of 1963 where they are going to work as sheep-herders in Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. During the summer out in the wilderness, the two young men fall in love and let go of their limiting restraints. When the summer is over, the two men, convinced that neither of them is 'queer', split and return to their respective lives near Riverton and Texas and both marry and start a family. After four years however, they realise that they still love each other and they meet again. This will be the start of recurring 'fishing trips' to Brokeback Mountain until 1983 when Jack dies in a mysterious accident.
By displaying a love affair between two male cowboys, the film Brokeback Mountain presents an altered type of the cherished American icon. Before this film, no Western had dared to question the cowboy's sexuality this explicitly: that the true and admirable cowboy ready to cope with the harsh conditions and great challenges of the Wild West could be anything but heterosexual. In this light, it becomes clear that one more distinct opposition in the good-bad dichotomy can be added: it is good to be heterosexual whereas it is bad to be homosexual. That homosexuality is a bad thing to display in the Wild West can be seen on the inside of the film's own universe, but also on the outside of the film's setting as the film got a mixed response when it was released in December 2005.
Society as an Evil Force
Being outside social norms has always been considered to be a character flaw in Westerns. When Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist give in to their sexual desires in Brokeback Mountain, they clearly deviate from the norms of society. That they are social outcasts is indicated in the film in a number of ways. For instance, their employer Aguirre grimly lets Jack know that 'you guys weren't getting paid to let the dogs guard the sheep while you stemmed the rose' when Jack, one year after his and Ennis' first meeting at Brokeback, returns to ask for a new round of sheepherding. His comment clearly shows that society does not allow or tolerate same-sex love or passion between two men out in the wilderness.
While facing the challenges of rough, wild nature, finding your true identity clearly does not mean that you can carelessly redefine the traditional concept of 'brotherhood'. It is better to remain hard as a bone than to show any weaknesses, i.e. bad traits, out in the Wild West, because otherwise you will be doomed. And after their first meeting, Ennis and Jack are indeed doomed. Ennis, who has a lot in common with the classical, taciturn, lonely rider, is completely controlled by a traumatic childhood experience where a homosexual man from his district was exposed and violently castrated by his neighbours. It has made him concerned about homosexuality and it makes him paranoid:
You ever get the feelin', I don't know, when you're in town, and someone looks at you, suspicious…like he knows. And then you get out on the pavement, and everyone, lookin' at you, maybe they all know too?
Ennis has been thoroughly socialised by the norms of the homophobic society. Jack, who finds it harder to repress his sexuality than the pent-up Ennis, is symbolically sacrificed at the end of the film. When Jack's wife Lureen lets Ennis know that Jack has died in a mysterious accident, Ennis imagines that he was brutally murdered by homophobes similar to the ones who had tortured the homosexual neighbour in Ennis' childhood. Society is thus filled with contempt for sexual outcasts. It is rigid and severe towards any changes. The fact that Annie Proulx herself has called Brokeback Mountain 'a story about destructive rural homophobia'  indicates that Ennis and Jack are not the real villains in this set. Proulx has additionally stated about her two male characters:
Both wanted to be cowboys, be part of the Great Western Myth, but it didn't work out that way; Ennis never got to be more than a rough-cut ranch hand and Jack Twist chose rodeo as an expression of cowboy. Neither of them was ever top hand, and they met herding sheep, animals most real cowpokes despise […] they were not really cowboys (ibid.).
Ennis and Jack want to be traditional hard-as-a-bone cowboys and fit into the norms of society, but they cannot. As opposed to traditional cowboys, the two of them cannot suppress their inner feelings and they cannot live up to the required norms of individuality; they need each other too much. They want to do good, being on the right side of the common norms, but the conventional society forces the two of them to do bad by making them escape into the wilderness and fulfil their needs. So who is the true villain? The vital question is whether good can actually exist in an environment that does not accept differences in others. Ennis and Jack are basically both decent people, who try to stick to the common patterns of society by marrying two beautiful wives, having children, and earning their living as respectable people, but they are trapped in a dilemma created by society itself and thus forced to do bad, i.e. commit adultery, lie, and hurt those around them.
An Attack on the Traditional Western
Brokeback Mountain forced its audience to reconsider their conceptions of the American Frontier Myth featuring the Wild West and tough masculine, i.e. heterosexual, cowboys as it had been established in traditional Western films such as Stagecoach (1939), Star in the Dust (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) starring the great American cowboy icons John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Featuring two gay cowboys seemed to be a direct attack on the beloved traditional Western genre and its significance for the American identity. The visual image of two men, and especially masculine cowboys, having sex seemed to be too bitter a pill to swallow for certain segments of the American population. Thus, the real-life cowboy Jim-Bob Zimmerschied, living in rural Wyoming, strongly opposed the film by asserting that 'They've gone and killed John Wayne with this movie' and 'There ain't no queer in cowboy.'  A lot of his fellow ranchers and cowboys clearly seemed to agree. The film was also met with condemnation from representatives of the religious Right who claimed that the film eroded the genuine moral code of traditional Westerns which for their part did not display any ambiguous attitude toward the concept of manhood and sexuality as such. David Kupelian, World Net Daily editor, for one attacked the film for damaging American identity since according to him, homosexuality is an unnatural, sinful, and destructive lifestyle. He expressed this in his controversial article "'Brokeback Mountain': Rape of the Marlboro Man" (2005). 
Therefore, it was not only on the screen that Ennis and Jack's behaviour was met with contempt. Annie Proulx doubted that her story would ever make it to the screen as "it was too sexually explicit for presumed mainstream tastes, the general topic of homophobia was a hot potato unless gingerly skirted." When the story did make it to the screen, viewers were forced to reconsider their rather hidebound understanding of the true cowboy. It clearly seemed to be about time to loosen up on the traditional good-bad dichotomy. Even though the critics labelled Brokeback Mountain as a 'gay-cowboy' story, it is not just a story about homosexuality but also about love, identity, and current, burning issues, 'hot potatoes' in American society.
1 Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry, and Diana Ossana: Medium Cool, Harper Perennial, London, 2006, 130.
2 Philip Sherwell: 'John Wayne made real movies. There ain't no queer in cowboy', in Medium Cool, 1/1 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ news/ worldnews/ northamerica/usa/1506756/ John-Wayne-made-real-movies. -There-aint-no-queer-in-cowboy.html
3 Medium Cool, 27/12 2005, http://www.wnd.com/news /article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=48076
4 Op. cit., 133.
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