Marlboro Men, and Much More

Originally published in Lavender (January 6, 2006)


Brokeback Mountain, the film by Ang Lee based on the short story by Annie Proulx (screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), is rapidly becoming the cultural landmark it deserves to be. When I first heard the film was being made, I knew I would be writing a column about it.


But Brokeback is not the film I thought I’d be seeing. And this column is not exactly the one I thought I’d be writing. Brokeback Mountain is more perfect and more profound, more touching and ultimately gut-wrenching, and more simultaneously tragic and uplifting, than I could have imagined it would be.


Let’s get the superficialities out of the way first: Cowboy aficionados will love the look of this movie. At first glance the two main characters, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), seem to be two prototypically hunky, macho Marlboro Men—but without the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” playing in the background the way it used to in Marlboro commercials.


 (Actually, there are a lot of good-looking men in this film—many of the extras in the rodeo scenes are members of the Calgary Gay Rodeo Association.)


The cinematography for the first part of the movie captures lush, wild, expansive, breathtaking vistas of Brokeback Mountain. Herds of sheep move like ocean waves, and two beautiful men live under the stars, cook over a campfire, bathe in a mountain stream, caress and roughhouse and fall in love.


Then the action moves down from Brokeback Mountain to the more pedestrian world below, and both scenery and cinematography become plainer, sparer, and harsher. (Remember The Wizard of Oz? The Land of Oz was filmed in color, while Kansas was in black-and-white.)


Based on the buzz surrounding the film, I thought there’d be more on-screen sex. (Silly me—the “R” rating should have tipped me off.) There’s sex—and rough sex, at that—but the sex scenes are shot obliquely and discreetly. The film contains a few nude shots but no male frontals—the audience might have the illusion of seeing more than is actually on the film. (I’m sure, even as I write this, many people are busy filming the several inevitable porn rip-offs.)


Brokeback Mountain is not a sex story. It’s a love story. It just happens to be a love story between two guys. They spend one summer together tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain, during which time they fall in love. They spend the rest of the film, and their lives, trying to figure out what to do with their feelings.


The end of the film is tragic in one sense. There are no winners—every character has lost. Ennis and Jack’s situation leads to heartbreak, not only for them but also for their wives and children as well—just as, unfortunately, so often happens in real life and in places other than the West.


Yet, paradoxically, the end of the film is uplifting as well. It shows graphically, touchingly, and heartbreakingly that Ennis’ love for Jack has survived in spite of all the pain, sorrow and loss.


As I watched Brokeback Mountain, I couldn’t help thinking of West Side Story. Ennis and Jack are just as much star-crossed lovers as Tony and Maria—characters created by five gay men in the mid-1950s (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins). At that time the story had to be couched in heterosexual terms. But the stories are the same—two people who are not allowed to fall in love but who fall in love anyway, and with tragic consequences. It’s a story as old, sadly, as Romeo and Juliet, on which West Side Story is based.


Many gay men will recognize and resonate with Ennis and Jack’s situation—some because they are currently in a similar situation, and some because they were once in such a situation and have since made the changes that Ennis and Jack were not able to make.


The genius of Brokeback Mountain, though, is that it is not only a film for gay men. The story is told in such a way that anyone can sympathize with the characters and understand and identify with their emotions. Love is love, the makers of the film seem to be saying, and this is what happens when it isn’t given its due.


You might find it interesting and enriching to read the short story on which the film is based. Although the film includes scenes and situations not in the short story, the short story includes a few details that were not incorporated into the film. “Brokeback Mountain,” the short story, was first published in The New Yorker in 1997; author Proulx subsequently included it in her 1999 book Close Range: Wyoming Stories (published by Scribner).



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