Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tackling a New Frontier in Film

One of the most anticipated Westerns in well over a decade is coming to a movie screen near you. Winner of the coveted Golden Lion Award for best picture at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Brokeback Mountain , is due out in mid-December.

Brokeback Mountain
is garnering critical praise and expected to be a strong contender come Oscar time. This isn’t surprising, really. The film’s budget, at $13 million, is modest by Hollywood standards, but it boasts an impressive pedigree. Based on a short story by Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Annie Proulx that first appeared in The New Yorker , Brokeback Mountain is co-scripted by another Pulitzer prize-winner, Larry McMurtry, directed by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ), and produced by Focus Features, the studio responsible for such award winning films as The Pianist, Lost in Translation , and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

A modern-day Western, Brokeback Mountain chronicles a 20-year ill-fated romance set against the magnificence of the arid ladscape of the American West. The premise isn’t new—cowboy heroes are rarely destined for the stability of hearth and home. But there is a notable difference: the lovers in this Western are two men.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhael

At first glance, we might think liberal Hollywood has run amok again, giving us yet another example of deviant popular culture bastardizing a cherished genre. But Brokeback Mountain is actually in keeping with a strong tradition. Westerns, we forget, particularly in their heyday from the 1950s through the early 1970s, often explored controversial social issues. In fact, many of the films that questioned the validity of longstanding beliefs throughout that period were Westerns. After all, who would ever suspect that such a simple and fundamentally American genre could entertain oppositional views?

In 1950, Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart starred in Broken Arrow , one of the first major motion pictures not only to tell a story from the Indian point of view, but to challenge the taboo against inter-racial marriage, which was still illegal in some states until struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967. High Noon (1952), featuring Gary Cooper as a marshal who must face four killers on his own, was scripted by Carl Foreman who was blacklisted by the time the film was released. He wrote High Noon knowing he would be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and used the Western as a metaphor for his own experience of persecution and increasing isolation under McCarthy-era paranoia. The final moment, when Gary Cooper throws his badge in the dirt at his feet, prompted John Wayne to call High Noon the most un-American thing he had ever seen.

This trend accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s as a disillusioned America produced antiheroes battling an increasingly corrupt society where the line between good and evil was ambiguous and blurred. As Burt Lancaster says in The Professionals (1966), “It’s the good guys against the bad guys. Question is, who are the good guys?” The Wild Bunch (1969), with its climactic bloodbath, gave us a world where the only men with a code of honor were bank robbers, killers and mercenaries. Little Big Man (1970) and particularly Soldier Blue (1970) offered clear metaphors for the Vietnam War, showing that massacres like the one that happened at My Lai in 1968 were not new to U.S. history.

Brokeback Mountain , the “gay Western,” as it is being called, is very much within this tradition. Gay rights is at the center of socio-cultural debate today. There is more acceptance of gays and lesbians than ever before but also vituperative reaction against that acceptance. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing this played out in our popular culture. Gay characters and personalities have been common on television since Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997. We see recurring gay characters on such diverse shows as NBCs Will and Grace , HBOs Six Feet Under , and the irrepressible Fab 5 of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy .

But no major motion picture, much less a Western, has shown gay relationships as full and complete interactions between two people—until now. Yes, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a gay man dying from AIDS in 1993, but we saw very little in Philadelphia about his life pre-HIV and the choices he faced. In Brokeback Mountain , characters express their passion and struggle against the love they have for one another because they live in fear of the consequences of living openly. Over the 20 year span of the film, we see how this kind of fear can affect both the individuals as well as those around them. Of his character, actor Heath Ledger says “Ennis punishes himself over an uncontrollable need—love. Fear was installed in him at an early age, and so the way he loved disgusted him. He’s a walking contradiction.”

But why a Western? According to co-scriptwriter Diana Ossana, who a lso co-wrote the screenplay for TV’s adaptation of Lonesome Dove with McMurtry, the Western continues to have something to say to modern audiences. We connect to Westerns, she says, “the good ones are compelling, true-to-life stories, with raw, flawed human characters mostly operating in a harsh, unforgiving landscape. It’s always about survival for [the characters in Brokeback Mountain]” she adds, “not just financially, but physically, with the snow and the wind and the rain and the harsh landscape.”

The big question is, how will this film play across America? Producer James Schamus believes the country is ready. “Even though we think of this as a very polarized country on [the subject of homosexuality],” he says, “we’re less polarized than the media would lead us to believe.” Furthermore, the reality, he insists, is that gay people are represented across all walks of life, including cowboys. “This is a Western, rooted in the experiences of those who really lived in the West. We don’t have gay folks just on the coasts. One of the great things about the story is how true it really rings.”

Gay issue aside, the filmmakers hope audiences will be drawn to the power of the story, the loss, self-denial, and the personal price paid by two people who cannot hope to live and build a life together. Director Ang Lee contends that “to make a great romantic story, you need great obstacles. Ennis and Jack are in the American West, which has macho and traditional values. So everything they feel they have to keep private. It’s precious and something special they cannot articulate.”

As the film’s opening approaches, the controversy is beginning. Wyoming playwright Sandy Dixon doesn’t believe there are gay cowboys in her home state. “Those that want to make a queer story out of it, will,” she insists, “and those that know real cowboys will say it’s all hogwash.”

It will be interesting to see.

Yardena Rand is a member of the Western Writers of America and author of Wild Open Spaces: Why We Love Westerns. Please go to

to learn more. Copyright Yardena Rand.


Gloss Laminate Soft Cover
6 X 9 288 Pages

Author: Don Butler
Editor: Nicole Leah Vecchiotti
Cover Design: Stephen Bright

ISBN: 0-9767003-4-4
Published: March 2005
Printed in the U. S. A. by Morgan Printing

The North Fork spans the turbulent decades on the southwestern frontier following the Civil War, telling the overlapping stories of people from three different cultures, struggling to survive while too often pitted against each other by circumstances beyond their control.

After the war, control of the land known as Comancheria--all of the South Plains, including half of both Texas and Indian Territory--is wrested from the Comanches and Kiowas, opening the way for cattle drives and giant Texas cattle companies. Eventually, the settlers come, hungry for land and seeking a new life.

In addition to such historical figures as Quanah Parker, George Armstrong Custer and Lone Wolf, readers will find a host of colorful fictional characters, including:

Red Eagle, a Kiowa chief, who leads a raid into Texas and returns with an unexpected treasure,

Tom Carter, a trail hand with a quick temper and a faster trigger finger, who finds trouble--and more--on both sides of the North Fork, and

Molly Harding, a Texas farm girl, caught in the conflict between her head and her heart--and in the middle of a thirty-year-old mystery.

Indian raids and uprisings, the destruction of the buffalo herds, creation of the reservations, the Buffalo War, cattle drives, the Red River boundary dispute, the creation of Oklahoma Territory, arrival of the homesteaders, and other historic events shape the destinies of the people along the North Fork--a place where their cultures will clash while their personal lives become entangled in ways they could have never imagined.

A tribute to Southwest Oklahoma history has been crafted by Don Butler....---Altus Times

The mixing of such well-known people as Quanah Parker and Lone Wolf with fictional characters brings a realistic and exciting light to local history.---Vernon Daily Record


The North Fork is set in the place of the author's youth. After retiring from the practice of public utility and municipal law, Don Butler turned to historical writing and research. He and his wife live in Austin, where he once served as City Attorney.

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