“Brokeback Mountain” excavates the rural mythos for all its possibilities of freedom, while still divulging its oppressive nature.
A Mountain Made For Two: Landscapes in Gay Cinema
In the minutes before daybreak, Signal, Wyoming, looks somber. The dawn teeters on a precipice of indigo and cobalt, and there is a single light in the distance, a dot in a sky awash with murky hues. A freight truck rolls into town, and out jumps Ennis del Mar, a suede jacket in one arm and a paper-bagged lunch in the other. Brokeback Mountain is directed by Ang Lee and based on the 1997 short story of the same name by Annie Proulx, with Heath Ledger playing the role of Ennis del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist. The film came out in 2005 to soaring praise, though not without its fair share of criticism and censorship, stirring much controversy in an America that was still a decade away from legalizing gay marriage. Set against the sylvan sensibilities of rural Wyoming, Brokeback Mountain follows the lives of two ranchers. Jack is eager, rowdy, and a hopeless romantic; a rodeo man through and through. Ennis, meanwhile, is reserved and aloof, discernible by his grunts and sense of mute despair. Beginning with their summer together in 1963 as hired shepherds on Brokeback Mountain, we see their kinship bloom into an intense romance. Later on, both men marry women and become fathers, but nonetheless continue their relationship in private, amidst the safety of the mountainous West.
There has always been something paradisal about love in rural settings. A garden that only knows yearning, a mountain range built just for two. Nature as an idyll in gay cinema is not uncommon, and this aestheticization of rurality builds a sort of elysian homeland for forbidden romance. Young Jack and Ennis forge their relationship on bucolic campgrounds, one tending to the sheep and one setting up camp. They converge every evening solely for dinner, the night often ending with Jack in rambunctious drollery and Ennis drunk and smiling, if only slightly. On one of these nights, Ennis is too drunk and too tired to spend the night with the sheep, and so he stays in the campground with Jack. It is very cold, and the two rustle around for a bit until they have sex, in a scene that is both tender and rough, Edenic and harsh like the landscape itself.
Their union is fated in a most unlikely manner: that two cowboys from opposite ends of the state would meet one summer, both “inured to the stoic life” and curious for the other’s touch (a most risky thing to be curious for in 1963 Wyoming) seems incredible. 1 That their curiosity is satiated makes it all the more divine. And such, the barren landscapes of rural Wyoming take on a mythical form, connoting a spiritual and geographical haven for the gay imaginary, unrestrained by the societal strictures that govern homosexuality in rural town centers. But, like all romanticized things, their time together on Brokeback is unsustainable. A storm entangles their sheep with those of another herd, and mountain coyotes take even more sheep. Their boss, Aguirre, watches Jack and Ennis one day, and sees them playing around. Their summer is cut short and they are fired for not appropriately tending to their herd (it is not until a year later that Jack discovers Aguirre spied on them). The last moment Jack and Ennis share on the mountain is an ominous one, as a ruffling of feathers quickly turns into a full-fledged fistfight, with Ennis leaving blood on both of their shirts. From then on, all of Jack and Ennis’ encounters will try to replicate the halcyon harmony of their early days on Brokeback, always chasing the sanctuary of the mountains, grasping onto the landscape that laid bare their innate desires.
Scholar and critic Shaun Huston claims that rurality can even fuel same-sex desire. He states that “rather than being seen as a deviance enabled by primitive conditions and an excess of freedom, their [Jack and Ennis’] love for, and attraction to, each other is part and parcel of the romance of the Frontier.”2 The myth of the Western Frontier demonstrating, of course, that expansive natural landscapes at the edge of civilization are bursting with opportunity—opportunities for colonial conquest, for victory over the land, and for a taming of the wilderness, as in the context of U.S. settler colonialism. Like a Western film, Brokeback Mountain avails Frontier logic for all its promises of hope and opportunity, though the promise these cowboys cash in on is dependent on keeping the Frontier secluded and ‘untamed.’ That Jack and Ennis’ desire exists only within the bounds of the Western wilderness is a reason for them to love this wilderness, not resent it. In the wake of Jack’s death, Ennis discovers in Jack’s closet the blood-stained shirts from their last day on Brokeback. His own worn-out shirt is hidden inside of Jack’s, entangled like two deer skins in one. “He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.” 3 Same-sex love within rurality is intrinsically rooted to love for the landscape itself—Ennis has not only lost Jack, he has lost Brokeback Mountain. In the final scene of the movie, we see that Ennis keeps the two shirts in his closet below a tacked postcard of Brokeback Mountain, though this time his own shirt is the one that covers Jack’s, like some final protection of Jack’s memory.
Brokeback Mountain, however, is not the only film that explores the lives of gays in a rural setting. Desert Hearts, a cult 1985 film, is set in a ranch in Reno, Nevada, where Columbia professor Vivian Campbell is establishing residency in order to get a quick divorce from her husband. 4 While in Nevada, she falls for the enticing Cay, a casino waitress and neighbor on the ranch. Perhaps some of the most tense, intimate moments between Vivian and Cay occur in Cay’s convertible: sneaking glances while driving through the desolate Western roads, heading to a beach in the middle of the desert. It is when they are parked near the water, dawn creeping in, rain barreling down, that they share their first kiss. Behind the car window, behind mouth atop mouth, we see nothing but the pastoral expanse—the tide rolling like kids down a hill, the loom of the desert a holy thing. And it’s especially noteworthy that Vivian’s first homosexual experience happens in the desert—not in progressive New York where she’s from, not even in Reno where she’s staying, but further out, somewhere only Cay knows. Despite being from the country, Cay is the one who is an out lesbian, at least as much as a woman can be in 1950s Nevada. Vivian is merely a visitor in Cay’s world, looking in on a life of transgression and spontaneity in rural America. The expansive West provides Vivian an opportunity to let her hair down, both literally and figuratively, as she slowly peels off the stiff blouses and suits of her academic life in the city, blonde locks billowing like desert winds.
The open country as a hotbed for queer relationships, especially lesbian ones, is a subversion of the archetypal gay love story. In Western movies, the rural expanse is inhospitable to women. The open land is where men go to escape their wives—the American West a male preserve built for battles and buffalo, and the women relegated to sideline romance. If a woman were to be found in the Western expanse, she’d be a burden, or someone in need of saving. In placing women inside the rural landscape, but outside the male gaze, Desert Hearts reconstructs this cinematic trope and creates a Western imaginary fit for lesbian love. The adventure of the open road is rendered a feminine ideal—no men to be seen in the Nevada desert. On the other hand, masculine Western traditions lend themselves easily to gay male narratives. The Western cowboy finds camaraderie among his fellow men, sharing both triumph and pain, sleeping in the same bedrolls. It’s a tidy slippage from the virile Western cowboy to the gay one, a Frontier myth that doesn’t require much undermining at all.
Francis Lee, director of God’s Own Country, describes how gay narratives can become entangled with the pastoral lands, and speaks about this sense of dissonant attraction to rurality over urban life:
I grew up in Yorkshire in the Pennine Hills in a very isolated area. It was a place that was my home, but I escaped it when I was 20 to move to London to try it as an actor. But all of the time I was away from there, I could never get that landscape out of my head. It felt to have gotten underneath my skin. It informed me so much, emotionally as well as physically. This place was both beautiful and free, but also oppressive and brutal. When I started thinking about making the film, it was the landscape that really felt like a very natural home to start exploring. 5
The notion of the rural landscape as simultaneously free and brutal is a ripe one, the natural expanse not so much fickle as it is manifold. God’s Own Country, much like Brokeback Mountain, excavates the rural mythos for all its possibilities of freedom, while divulging its oppressive nature.
Despite the imminent danger of homophobia in rural areas, and the cloud of oppression that hangs over the landscape, Jack and Ennis do not ever see moving to the city as an option—rural life is all they know. While Jack may spurn caution at times, even he does not dream of life on the urban coast; what he yearns for is to run a ranch with Ennis. Flouting social conventions in rural spaces, no matter how dangerous, is more desirable to him than a progressive, urban community. Ennis is just as tethered to rurality, though not by any notion of desire. Ennis is a man of order; his work is in Wyoming and so in Wyoming he shall remain. Of the two men, Jack is the only one who ever expresses any longing for a better life. In the midst of their biggest fight, on the last trip they will ever take together, Jack makes an aching declaration: “Tell you what, we coulda had a good life together! Fuckin’ real good life! Had us a place of our own. But you didn’t want it, Ennis! So what we got now is Brokeback Mountain! Everything’s built on that! That’s all we got, boy, fuckin’ all.” 6 Ennis, however, is unable to will any of Jack’s prairie dreams to fruition—he is as confined by his paranoia at home as he is confined to the Western expanse. As a child, Ennis was dragged out to an irrigation ditch by his father, forced to look at the beaten and fleshy remains of a local gay couple (it is speculated that his father did the murdering). As such, he has been ripped of any imagination to see a better life—Ennis, much like a Western hero, will always prioritize duty over desire.
Ennis’ worst fears are perhaps validated when Jack dies from what the movie suggests is homophobic violence. David Bell and Gill Valentine’s findings on rural gay life unsurprisingly echo this tragic ending, revealing “tales of isolation, unsupportive social environments, and a chronic lack of structural services and facilities—[often] leading to eventual or projected emigration to larger (urban) settlements which offer better opportunities for living out the ‘gay life.’” 7 And such, these mountains that lay claim to Jack and Ennis’ love act not only as a safeguard of their sexuality but as a limited cage. Neither the claustrophobia of the rural towns that Jack and Ennis reside in nor the mountainous landscapes in which much of their romance plays out offer real pathways to true happiness. In this way, rural Wyoming is seen as a contested place, acting not only as a means for freedom, but as a means of entrapment.
Larry McMurtry, co-writer of the screenplay for the film, says: “The West of the great mountains, of the high plains and rippling rivers, is very beautiful, so beautiful that it tempts many not to see, or want to see, the harshness of the lives of the people who live in the bleak little towns and have to brush the grit of the plains off their teeth at night.” 8 Brokeback Mountain does not shy away from such harshness. There is a stark dichotomy in the symbolism of the mountain range—one side fertile and teeming with celestial ideals, the other barren, calloused with a learned brutality. If Brokeback Mountain serves as breeding ground for Jack and Ennis’ romance, it too doubles as their tomb—the wispy memories of their love ensnared forever in unruly terrain, their yearning carved atop desolate peaks, plain hours spurred into holy ground.
- Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, (Scribner, 1997), 3.
- Shaun Huston, “Breaking the Social Order: Brokeback Mountain and the Re-Imagined Western,” Pop Matters, February 24, 2006.
- Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, 146.
- Desert Hearts, Directed by Donna Deitch (1985).
- Taylor Henderson, “’God’s Own Country’ Unearths a Moving Gay Love Story in Rural Isolation,” Gay Pride – LGBT & Queer Voices, July 13, 2017.
- Brokeback Mountain, Directed by Ang Lee (Universal Home Entertainment, 2005).
- David Bell and Gill Valentine, “Queer Country: Rural Lesbian and Gay Lives.” Journal of Rural Studies, (vol. 11, iss. 2, 1995), 116.
- Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, (Scribner, 2005), 141.