Based on a short story by Annie Proulx published in the New Yorker in 1997, Brokeback Mountain (dir. 2005 Ang lee) opens in 1963 with the meeting of the two protagonists, the taciturn Ennis Del Mar and his affable herding partner Jack Twist. After a sternly delivered set of instructions from flock owner Joe Aguirre, the two young men are launched up into the Wyoming mountains for a summer season of herding sheep. For a while, they fulfil the tasks set to each of them without event, or indeed, any real interaction. One day, however, a bear attack causes the horses to bolt, leaving the pair without food. Thus ensues a series of unexpected events that serve to fracture Ennis’s icy exterior; the shooting of an elk for food, a decision to switch responsibilities, but perhaps most importantly, an evening of heavy drinking that leads to the two men sharing a tent.
Initially perturbed by their intimacy, Ennis slowly warms to Jack’s affections, and the two continue their love affair atop Brokeback for the remainder of the summer. That is, at least, until it is cut short by a heavy snowstorm.
Inevitably, the couple must return to their normal lives; Ennis to his small-town fiancée, Jack to the rodeo circuit where he eventually meets his wife. Both strive to lead a conventional existence despite their feelings for each other, and both are unable to do so. After his wife realises the true motivation behind his bi-annual fishing trips with Jack, Ennis is left a lonesome divorcee living out of a static caravan. Jack, unable to contain his desires, resorts to male prostitutes across the border in Mexico, and ultimately, to a relationship with another man that sees him brutally murdered.
Brokeback Mountain is not a film that sits comfortably within a single strand of the western genre. It certainly owes a lot to traditional western, as Richard White observes, in its depiction of two ‘white… young and laconic’[i] heroes. Furthermore, it deals heavily in the relationship of tradition and modernity in its examination of a gay couple in the conservative atmosphere of 1960s America, and the threat this poses to the community. And, of course, it hinges on the opposition between nature and civilisation as arenas in which the relationship can and cant thrive, respectively. The film borrows the notion of an inability to re-establish the threatened community from the revisionist western; the plot demands that one protagonist die, while the other must live ostracised on the edge of society, and both leave behind families marred by their decisions. On a diegetic level the film foregrounds the breakdown of the community whose story it follows.
However, the film is most indebted to Arthur Miller’s ‘eastern western’[ii], dealing with complex social issues. Although the narrative centres on the lives of two individuals, it speaks more widely about the contextual difficulty faced by many at a time when gay relationships were not socially accepted. Indeed, faced with a torrent of complaints surrounding the tragic ending, screenwriter Annie Proulx stressed during an interview with the Paris Review that ‘ “[…] the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality.” ’[iii] Proulx also asserts that a lot of the American population continue to be outraged by two gay male protagonists, and in Wyoming, they still won’t read it the original story.[iv] The subject matter was not therefore free of controversy.
With its vast blue skies and snow-capped mountains, it is the first third of Brokeback Mountain that focuses most heavily on nature, and therefore on animals. Indeed, if not for the need to herd sheep, Jack and Ennis would not have encountered each other. Here we observe not only the flocks of sheep, but horses, a bear, an elk, and a wolf.
The establishing scenes of the mountain are some of the most visually arresting in the entire film. The sheep are paralleled to nature as they surge across the hillsides like the river running adjacent to them, depicted as inherently natural as the landscape that surround them. Music, used sparingly throughout the film, echoes gently in the background. The flock embodies the notion of the pastoral, conjuring to mind the archetypal figure of the shepherd. In this way, Jack and Ennis’s association with them, and the relationship sparked by their decision to herd the sheep, is presented as completely natural.
But why, as westerns normally feature cowboys, choose sheep over cows? Susan Lee Johnson argues that the sheep are the ‘unrecognised stars of the film’, not only because their presence is historically accurate, but because they offer an understanding of masculinity, one that permits a homosexual relationship[v]. By definition, ‘cattle are masculinised beasts, tended by masculine men’, whereas sheep are ‘feminised beasts’[vi]. The protagonists are not emasculated through their association with the sheep, rather, their affection for each other is permitted a feminine gentleness that would not be as plausible if it were restricted by the brute masculinity of the cowboy trope.
In contrast to the placidity of the sheep, the bear attack tears into the narrative as a moment of dread. Its significance resides in the fact that it plays on the notion of a threatened community intrinsic to early western films. The attack itself is no longer than two minutes, filmed in real time. In those seconds, terror writes itself across the face of the unsuspecting Ennis, who loses a week’s worth of food, and very nearly his life. On a simple level, the bear attack is a vital element of plot progression, since it is the loss of the food that sees the pair of herders bonding over the shooting of a deer.
Delving beneath the surface, the bear both explains and foreshadows the wider threat in Brokeback Mountain. The threat posed during the attack is not to a settled community, but to an individual in the wild. Ennis is not facing the bear down on the edge of a town, he is pitted against it in its own habitat: in other words, the threat is integral, because the bear is part of nature. The bear is a threat on a microcosmic level in the film, but it resonates symbolically of the wider existential threat; homosexuality. Unable to defeat the bear because of its inherent link from its surroundings, neither Ennis nor Jack is able to defeat the homosexuality that threatens the stability of their illiberal communities, because it is integral to their being. It is a struggle that sees Ennis torture himself both physically and mentally, until he is left old and alienated, with nothing but his regret for company. Jack, on the other hand, fights to keep it suppressed, but fails, and looses the battle.
Clearly, then, animals in the film are inextricably linked to sexuality, both in terms of gender roles and of difficulties faced. Interestingly, the only other character in the film that deals closely with animals is Jack’s wife Lureen, who he meets as a rodeo girl. If Jack’s association with the sheep permits him a feminine gentleness, Lureen’s tie to horses marks her out as masculine sexual force. After all, it is she who swaggers up to Jack at the bar and suggests a drink, and even Jack is a little taken aback by how forward she is in the backseat of the car later that evening. Riding the more traditionally ‘western’ animal trope of the horse, it is Lureen who takes the traditional masculine role of sexual initiator.
If animal type is key to the reading of sexuality in the film, it is necessary to return to the most striking visual parallel drawn between animal and human. After a wolf attacks the herd, we see a single sheep sprawled on its back, its rib cage torn open. The image of wolf and sheep is easily one of the most widely recognised metaphors for barbarous predator and innocent prey. The savaged sheep bears uncanny resemblance to another image; that is, the one conjured by Ennis’s retelling of the occasion his father took him to see the mangled corpse of a gay man, slumped on his back in a ditch after being dismembered. The comparison drawn between the two firmly identifies the figure of the homosexual as victim in the narrative, both physically and mentally thwarted by society.
Brokeback Mountain is generically very similar to The Misfits (dir.1957 Arthur Miller). Both films discuss complex social issues, and interestingly both were first published as short stories in print publications. But perhaps most poignantly, the male characters in both films are driven by ideals of a fading masculinity.
[ii] Lawrence Goldstein, ‘The Misfits and American Culture’, in Arthur Miller’s America: Theatre and Culture in a Time of Change, ed. Enoch Brater, (Michigan, The University of Michigan Press, 2005), pp. 109-134, p. 113
[iii] Christopher Cox, ‘Annie Proulx: The Art of Fiction No.199’, The Paris Review, (2009) <https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5901/the-art-of-fiction-no-199-annie-proulx> [accessed 21/12/14]
[iv] Christopher Cox, ‘Annie Proulx: The Art of Fiction No.199’, The Paris Review, (2009) <https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5901/the-art-of-fiction-no-199-annie-proulx> [accessed 21/12/14
[v]Susan Lee Johnson, ‘Reviewed Work: Brokeback Mountain by Ang Lee, Diana Ossana, James Schamus’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 93, No. 3, (2006), <https://www.jstor.org/stable/4486597> [accessed 20/12/14], pp. 988-990, (p. 989)
[vi] Susan Lee Johnson, ‘Reviewed Work: Brokeback Mountain by Ang Lee, Diana Ossana, James Schamus’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 93, No. 3, (2006), <https://www.jstor.org/stable/4486597> [accessed 20/12/14], pp. 988-990, (p. 989)
Lee, Ang, Brokeback Mountain, Focus Features, 2005.
Johnson, Susan Lee, ‘Reviewed Work: Brokeback Mountain by Ang Lee, Diana Ossana, James Schamus’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 93, No. 3, (2006), <https://www.jstor.org/stable/4486597> [accessed 20/12/14], pp. 988-990.
Cox, Christopher, ‘Annie Proulx: The Art of Fiction No.199’, The Paris Review, (2009) <https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5901/the-art-of-fiction-no-199-annie-proulx> [accessed 21/12/14]
Goldstein, Lawrence, ‘The Misfits and American Culture’, in Arthur Miller’s America: Theatre and Culture in a Time of Change, ed. Enoch Brater, (Michigan, The University of Michigan Press, 2005), pp. 109-134.
White, Richard, ‘Brokeback Mountain: A Western’, Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 56, No. 2 (2006), <https://www.jstor.org/stable/4520793> [accessed 20/12/14], pp.65-66.
Bower, Sue, ‘ “They’d Kill Us if They Knew”: Transgression and the Western’, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 62, No. 4, (2010), pp. 47-57.
Wood, Robin, ‘On and around Brokeback Mountain’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3, (2007), pp. 28-31.
Keller, James R, ‘Brokeback Mountain: Masulinity and Manhood’, Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 30, No. 2, (2008), pp. 21-36.