Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


Modified title (by UrbisMediia ) from poster of unknown origin,

Modified title (by UrbisMediia ) from poster of unknown origin,

Brokeback Mountain might be considered one of those seminal films that breaks through an American taboo, not because it presents male homosexuality in a feature film with “name” lead actors, but because it does it with a cherished American icon, one that is recognized all over the world, and is an image which even the current president affects—the cowboy. [1]  


It’s not that the venerable cowboy hasn’t been challenged before.   Who can forget Mel Brook’s send up in Blazing Saddles , whose sturdy cowhands spend their evening around campfires in a chorus of flatulence, or John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy , hustling “fags” on 42 nd Street, for which it received an X rating.


No such rating for Brokeback Mountain ; a sequel might have these two cute guys getting married in San Francisco, or coming out at the annual Gay Parade.   For die-hard American right-wingers and worshippers at the filmic images of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal must seem like the planes that brought down the twin towers American manhood that were erected on the images of Roy Rodgers and his “sidekick,” Gabby Hayes, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.   Those boys might have passed off-screen gas around the soundstage campfire, but nobody dared insinuate that they didn’t keep their pistols holstered through those cold nights on the set.   The private proclivities of Clift and Rock Hudson were diligently kept secret, but that swishy walk of John Wayne’s (nee Marion Morrison) looked an awful lot like a cross-dresser in high heels. [2]


It is one thing to obliquely reference the homosexual acts of classic heroes like Achilles and Alexander the Great in recent films (played by cute guys Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell).   After all, that stuff was back far enough to be consigned to myth or ancient custom.   But cowboys, “rootin’-tootin,’”   “hard ridin” buckaroos, now that’s messin’ with an image that is just a notch down from the stars and stripes as far as American lore is concerned, “pahdna”. [3]   These are the guys that used to run off those “sod-buster” farmers (hmmmm, “sod”; no, I ain’t gonna go there), those weird sheep-herders (and ya know what they’re up to at night), and most of all show those pesky redskins whose the boss of the prairies.   So now what are we going to get, cowboys asking Sitting Bull where he got those “fabulous” beads, and calling those Apaches “naughty leather boys”?   Are we going to have to put up with “cowpokes” (there’s another one) ordering their pasta primavera al dente from the cattle drive’s “chuckie wagon.”   Heck, Ang Lee directed the movie; maybe cowboys will be giving their calf’s acupuncture rather than branding them.   If Brokeback wins will there be sequels that are remakes of western classics, now titled “Pink River,” “Drag City,” “Come Out at the OK Corral,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Cute,” “The Unprotected,” and “Hi, Nooner”?   You can let your imagination loose on such venerable western and cowboy images as quick draw gunfights, bronk-busting, straight-shooters.


Doubtless the multiple nominations and wide-ranging critical acclaim for Brokeback Mountain will be regarded by the Religious Right and Tipper Gore as one more illustration of the evils of Hollywood and the moral decline of American society.   But Hollywood is really only reflecting society, not leading it.   It was more influential in establishing the myth of the cowboy, a myth far larger than it deserved to be, one that reached even silly dimensions of heroes whose hats never fell of when they were in a fight, who kissed their horses and broke into songs about cattle and tumbleweeds.   Cowboys hung on as the icon of the tough, straight-talkin, independent, self-sufficient, Marlboro-smokin’ American man of the outdoors long after most men were carrying lunch buckets into factories or attaché cases into office buildings.   But, like one of the better “rancho-realism” films, The Misfits , long cattle drives, and mustang round-ups just seemed out of place in a country that raised its Big-Macs on the hoof on huge, smelly cattle farms that even sold off their meadow muffins for fertilizer.   The myth of the tough cowboy is trying to make a comeback with rodeo bull-riding, but, to today’s mayhem-jaded audiences, it seems to come off as another “dumb guys doing stupid things for money” pseudo-sport that owes its popularity to the morbid chance that for the price of a ticket you just might get to see a ton of hamburger-on-the-hoof get some revenge.


But Americans like their cowboy mythology.   Like Rambo soldiers or Harley-riding gangs they became versions of manliness in the American culture of serial self-reinvention.   In most cases it is innocent dressing up, a bit of posturing and putting on those tight jeans and cowboy hat.   But it can be more of a concern when our political tough-talkin’   “leaders” think they can “saddle-up” and head out on the range and teach those pesky “brownskins” a thing or two about preemptive war and democracy.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.4.2006)

[1] A rather funny word if you stop to think about it, with its opposite gender components, and a faint whiff of male homosexual connotation to it.   “Cattleman” sounds much more masculine, as does “wrangler”.   I’m not sure about “cowhand”; sounds like it might need some scrubbing.   Strangely, the male cattle word, bull, seems mostly reserved for reference to the stuff that fall out of the back of them.

[2] I never had the heart to bring up such things with my uncle Marco , who admired John Wayne as an American hero.   My uncle, who was decorated for real heroism in North Africa and Italy in WWII, admiring an actor who “played” at being a soldier and never even served in the war.   It was my uncle who I admired.

[3] Hey, whaddya expect when the story was written by a woman and the picture directed by an Asian!