Brokeback Mountain's Western roots

Peter Fish,  – January 27, 2006

You won’t find Brokeback Mountain on any Wyoming map. I think of it as rising somewhere in the Bighorn Mountains. West of Buffalo, maybe, or near Cloud Peak.

Brokeback Mountain is, of course, the fictional peak that inspired first an Annie Proulx short story and now the Ang Lee film that has become a surprise hit. It tells the story of two hardscrabble cowboys, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist ― played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal ― and how, in the summer of 1963, they worked herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain, fell into something they couldn’t call love, and kept falling for the next 20 years.

“Wyoming people are not wishy-washy about Brokeback Mountain,” says Bill Sniffin, a Wyoming publisher who has written about the Brokeback phenomenon for his newspaper column. “They love it or hate it.” In a state where gay rights have inspired anger, anguish, and pride ― from the murder of Matthew Shepard to the recent tenure of a gay man as Casper’s mayor ― the story of Jack and Ennis still touches raw nerves.

And yet there is nowhere else where Brokeback Mountain could have been set. After all, the two preeminent Western novels of all time take place in Wyoming. Between them, Owen Wister’s The Virginian and Jack Schaefer’s Shane established every Western archetype you’ve ever encountered: the taciturn cowboy, the pretty schoolmarm, the brutish bad guy, and the stranger coming to town to set everything right. And, especially, a Western landscape that is gorgeous, terrifying, larger than life.

“Much about the place moved me deeply,” Annie Proulx has written. A New Englander by birth, she first went to Wyoming in the early 1990s and now lives there. “Every chance I had, I took Wyoming for my subject.”

“It’s a powerful landscape,” says Sharon Dynak, the executive director of the Ucross Foundation ― the artists colony 10 miles west of Clearmont, Wyoming, that provided one of Proulx’s introductions to the state. “The land, the sky ― it has such an impact.”

The film replicates that impact by wrapping viewers in wide-screen vistas of pastures, brooding skies, and jagged mountain peaks. (Ang Lee filmed these, alas, in Alberta for financial reasons, but they are a reasonable facsimile.) In the story, you feel it via Proulx’s taut, terse prose: “The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire. The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.”

What Brokeback Mountain understands is that, even in 2006, when the world wants to dream about freedom and possibility, it dreams about the West. And that Wyoming is the most Western of the West. Jack and Ennis have their summer, separate, get married, mess up their lives and the lives of other people. But Brokeback Mountain remains their touchstone: “What we got now is Brokeback Mountain,” an anguished Jack tells Ennis. “Everything built on that.”

“People assume it’s a gay cowboy movie,” Bill Sniffin says. “But it’s a lot more complicated.” Like Shane, like The Virginian, like Wyoming itself, Brokeback Mountain gets under your skin, makes you ask the big questions. Whom do you love? Whom will you die for? How will you make your life? At the end of the movie, a postcard of Brokeback Mountain is left tacked to a closet door. The mountain’s a big place, even shrunk to 3- by 5-inch dimensions. It’s big enough to inspire Ennis’s dream, big enough to make you think he might achieve it. And in the end, when he doesn’t, big enough to break your heart.

Info: Brokeback Mountain (Scribner; $9.95) by Annie Proulx;

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