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Brokeback Mountain - Revision of the Western Genre or Homage to the Great West?
The film Brokeback Mountain is constructed in such a way as to be considered both a revision of and an homage to the western genre. It incorporates traditional western motifs and iconography, and adheres to a common plot structure of the genre, but it also omits other traditions familiar to Western literature and cinema and introduces new concepts, making it refreshingly subversive as a Western film.
The Western genre has always been one that encompasses many other genres – romance, war, epics, melodrama, action and comedy. “Experiment seems always to have been varied and development dynamic, the pendulum swinging back and forth between opposing poles of emphasis on drama and history, plots and spectacle, romance and ‘realism’, seriousness and comedy” (Kitses, J. 1969, p.17). Given the flexibility of the genre it is no wonder Brokeback Mountain was able to so successfully introduce new ideas into its plot, while still being clearly recognisable as a Western.
The most obvious revision prominent in Brokeback Mountain is the introduction of homosexuality. The two main characters of the film, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, are gay lovers – a concept not commonly explored in Western texts. While some might argue that there has always been an underlying homoerotic element in Westerns, it is not something readily explored in Western literature or cinema, least of all made the central theme of such. Commonly the romantic interest of the hero is the glamorous femme fatale, desired for her feminine charm and sensuality. Brokeback Mountain subverts this concept by positioning another male as the hero’s love interest, but it is also problematic as it merely inserts Jack into the role of the female temptress, attaching all of the ideologies associated with femininity onto him. For instance, it is Jack who makes the first move when seducing Ennis, using his allure and sexuality to tempt Ennis when he calls him into the tent. He is worldly and uninhibited and leads Ennis down a risky path. On the other hand, Ennis is portrayed as the saint, being much more repressed and restrained by social standards. “You may be a sinner but I ain’t yet had the opportunity,” he says to Jack. So while exploring the romance between the two men, Brokeback Mountain can be considered a critique of the Western genre, but at the same time could also be said to adhere to the motif of the femme fatale, depicting Jack Twist as the temptress to hero Ennis.
Having a story based around gay cowboys, Brokeback Mountain removes Indians as the villain and replaces the enemy with an ignorant, oppressive society. In many Western films Indians provide the conflict and confrontation as the cultures collide, but in Brokeback Mountain they are excluded and instead the heroes of the story, Jack and Ennis, must struggle to find their true selves in a society that would kill them for being ‘different’. Ennis tells Jack at one point in the film, “this thing takes hold of us at the wrong place, wrong time and we’re dead”, and it is this fear that causes the devastating series of events that follow. This form of villainy sets the film apart from other Western films, as no one person or race becomes the villain. Instead social ideologies of what it means to be ‘normal’ are the cause of pain, suggesting that the social construction of identity based on such ideals can have very damaging effects.
To escape from this reality Jack and Ennis make several journeys to Brokeback where they are free to be themselves and to love one another unashamedly. The idea of the West as a concept rather than an actual place is common to the genre. Brian Edwards describes the West as “a paradisal idea associated with uncharted territory, mystery, freedom and the promise of unbounded adventure” (Edwards, B. 2003), and this can be applied to Brokeback Mountain. For Ennis and Jack Brokeback is a place that remains unspoiled and relatively free from the intrusions of an oppressive society. It is their paradise, their Eden. Kitses draws comparisons between nature and civilisation, linking the wilderness of the West to freedom; purity and self-knowledge, and society to restriction; institutions and corruption (Kitses, J. 1969, p.11). By this theory it can be said that Brokeback Mountain is following the traditional pattern of the Western by pitting an idyllic setting that represents a place of freedom and plenty, against the restrictive confines of civilisation.
Unlike most Western stories, Brokeback Mountain is set between 1960 and 1980. The first meeting between Ennis and Jack takes place in 1963, which is long after most Western films are set. “Hollywood’s West has typically been from about 1865 to 1890 or so.” (Kitses. J, 1969, p.8) Being a modern Western, the film introduces several new features into the setting such as modern camping gear, clothing, cars and trucks. Due to the modernness of the film, Ennis and Jack do much of their travelling in cars and trucks rather than riding horses. This is a major revision of the genre as many Westerns place great emphasis on the role of horses and they often play an important part in the plot of the story. They serve not only as a means of transportation but as a companion to their master (Dances With Wolves), a valuable commodity (Dead Man), an opportunity for work (All the Pretty Horses), and often play an important role in battles between the whites and Indians (Major Dundee). They can also act as a symbol of freedom. Their omission from the film serves to further demonstrate the isolating aspects of modern society, as the characters become more restricted by social convention the further they get from nature.
While some recognisably Western iconography has been omitted from the film, other common symbols associated with the genre remain, maintaining Brokeback Mountain’s statusas a Western. For example both Ennis and Jack wear traditional cowboy hats throughout most of the film; settings such as the bar and rodeo feature; and drinking and food has a prominent role in the cowboy’s struggles. “Within the form [are] to be found seminal archetypes common to all myth, the journey and quest … food and drink, the rhythms of waking and sleeping, life and death,” suggests Kitses (Kitses, J. 1969, p. 20). All of these features can be seen in Brokeback Mountain. For instance, Ennis and Jack make several journeys to Brokeback; they are on a quest of self discovery; drink plays a large part in Jack’s seduction of Ennis; and there are references to waking and sleeping: “C'mon now, you're sleepin' on your feet like a horse” Ennis says to Jack. All of these elements make the film recognisable as a Western.
Another recognisable trait of the Western, which is demonstrated in Brokeback Mountain, is the way the plot is structured. Pramaggiore and Wallis describe the Western plot as one that, “often builds towards a climatic shoot out between a protagonist and villainous antagonists … the resolution often depicts the hero, who never seems able to settle down, wandering off into the distance alone” (Pramaggiore, M & Wallis, T. 2005). This framework can be applied to Brokeback Mountain as Ennis fills the role of the hero (to a lesser degree, Jack is also portrayed as heroic) and villainy is linked to ideological notions of normalcy and social restriction. The tension builds from the threat of being discovered as gay lovers, and the climatic ‘shoot out’ takes place when Ennis meets his demise at the hands of a group of homophobic men. Ennis is left relatively alone and unsatisfied with his life, and his fate uncertain. The photo taped to the inside of his closet in the final scene can be interpreted as him ‘going back into the closet’, that is, he feels unable to express himself as a gay man and so represses his homosexual desire, in an attempt to ‘fit’ into a more socially acceptable role. This scene is followed by a shot of a vast, barren horizon beyond the window, reminiscent of traditional Western films, which often show the hero riding off into the sunset. Instead Ennis is left unsatisfied and unable to truly express himself.
So while Brokeback Mountain deliberately follows this framework and incorporates classical Western motifs, it also builds on the theme, creating a new and revised version of the genre. The film pays tribute to all the traditional trademarks of the genre (cowboy costumes, alcohol, and a landscape which represents paradise) but at he same time modernises it to give a fresh take on the portrayal of the West, and demonstrate the restrictive impact to identity brought about by social ideologies of ‘normalcy’.
Edwards, B. 2003, ‘Refiguring the Western’, Narrative and Genre: Study Guide, Deakin University, Geelong, Vic, p.35.
Kitses, J. 1969, Horizons West, Thames and Hudson Limited, London, UK, pp.8 – 20.
M. & T. Wallis 2005, Film: A Critical
Introduction, Laurence King
Publishing, London, UK, p.346.