'Brokeback's' love story echoes and deepens themes of classic Hollywood Westerns

“Brokeback Mountain” is a tradition-flouting movie but not because — or not just because — it’s about an ill-fated love affair between two gay cowboys (even it’s not, as we’ve been instructed, “the gay cowboy movie”). More contrary than that, this modern-day Western has shouldered its way into the Oscar best picture nominations, a feat accomplished by no more than a dozen others. Only three — “Cimarron” (1930), “Dances With Wolves” (1990) and “Unforgiven” (1992) — of those 12 ever went on to win the coveted, unrequiting statuette.

Aside from those two anomalous traits, though, “Brokeback” emerges from a main current of Western filmmaking. Out of that current have flowed iconic films in which the wilderness represents the last chance for personal freedom, even reinvention, in the face of the ever-encroaching town, with its hard-and-fast notions of status and type.

The iconic film in this regard is John Ford’s 1939 “Stagecoach,” which won best supporting actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Score, while garnering nominations for best picture, director, b&w cinematography, interior design and editing. When the stage loads up in town for its journey across the wilderness, its passengers are locked into strict social type: Representing respectability are a banker, the wife of a cavalry officer and a mousy whiskey “drummer”; on the shameful side are a drunken doctor and a prostitute; in between them stands one of Ford’s many indeterminate types, a gentleman gambler and killer. During the trip, they’re joined by the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), a cowboy on the run who’s determined to take vengeance on the men who killed his brother, even though he knows imprisonment follows.

The dangers on the trail, especially an Indian attack, elevate character over status, but the biggest turnaround occurs at a lonely way station. There, at night, the drunken doctor and the prostitute attend the birth of the cavalry wife’s baby in a Fordian invocation of Christian imagery. Notably, the interiors of the rough-hewn station are swathed in almost impenetrable blacks, while outdoors the moonlight illuminates the edges of the wilderness. There, the Ringo Kid and the “fallen woman” have a tentative romantic encounter, beginning a process that culminates at the stagecoach’s destination. There, standing in front of a brothel, the Kid waves away concerns with the woman’s profession and declares he will spend the rest of his life with her.

Dealing with a mythic past, Ford is able to bequeath more freedom to his lovers than “Brokeback” can to its. Jack and Ennis, the two secret lovers, do discover their mutual attraction while out in the wilderness. But the lovers’ disregard of social taboos doesn’t result in a romantically triumphant return to civilization, as it did for their Fordian precursors. Rather, the town has extended its reach and stiffened its former flexibility. Jack and Ennis’ best moments will be their first.

The two cowboys are suffering a fate that’s endemic to the modern Western, a genre variation whose timeslot generally runs from the turn of the 20th century until today. A stalwart example is Martin Ritt’s “Hud,” the 1963 adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s “Horseman, Pass By.” The film earned Oscars for lead actress Patricia Neal, supporting actor Melvyn Douglas, and B&W cinematography for the legendary James Wong Howe. It also picked up nominations for its star, Paul Newman, and for best art direction.

“Hud” is a quiet drama for the most part, with even its most life-and-death sequences unwinding in moments of introspective interruption (which makes one wonder why there was no editing nomination). But, despite that, it’s a movie of extremes that, with its story of a diminished ranching family’s degenerate scion, Hud, asserts that the regenerative power of the wide-open Western spaces is now spent. One by one, the tried-and-true moral exemplars of the Western — the good woman, the adoring youngster, the wise frontier veteran — and the character-enhancing physical trials — the cattle roundup — fail to sway Hud from his path of self-indulgence.

“Hud” wasn’t alone in its pessimistic view. 1961’s “The Misfits,” written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, portrayed modern-day Western characters (two cowboys and a woman of a dubious past) entangled in both a tangle of sexual desire and self-destruction. Here, the natural pursuits of the West contain the seeds of imminent self-destruction, exemplified by a round up of horses headed for slaughter. The sense of dramatic closure was hammered home not just by the heavyweight cast — Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift — but by the audience’s knowledge that Gable died before the movie came out while Monroe died before she could make another film.

Within a decade, though, nostalgia came to the rescue of the modern-day Western. The closing of the frontier morphed dramatically from a bitter depiction of moral disintegration into a privileged and preserved moment of tribute. This attitude was never more prettily displayed than in Sam Peckinpah’s picturesque “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” Setting us up for a series of aesthetic surprises, the movie opens with a classic scene of bad guys falling out with one another, as Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left to die of thirst in the desert by two traitorous companions. Cable, though, discovers a well, around which he eventually sets up a prosperous way station.

Cable’s status as a successful prospector (albeit of water, not gold), is joined by other archetypal Western types and situations. Senta Berger stars as a prostitute of deep feelings and wide intelligence; David Warner as a seductive clergyman, a type descended from “Stagecoach’s” drunken doc; there’s even a citified banker. The film’s action scenes include a huge barroom brawl and gunfights.

These characters and situations are certainly vital but, in Peckinpah’s hazy/gritty visualizations, also a bit lyrical. You don’t get the sense of watching tired cliches on parade; it’s more that you’re passing through a dream, rather than a museum of taxidermy. The movie’s tragic conclusion comes also as a shock, as Peckinpah suddenly informs us that we’ve been watching a tale set not in the 1870s, but in the early 20th century and that, as much as anything else, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is a funeral oration.

Oscar ignored Peckinpah’s films, but eight years later, it managed to bestow a nomination for best supporting actor on Richard Farnsworth for his performance as a grizzled old ranch hand in Alan Pakula’s unfortunately titled, but eminently superior, “Comes A Horseman.” Here, there’s no surprise over the closing of the West. It’s the waning days of World War II, but in Montana, small ranchers Jane Fonda and James Caan are fighting the violent attempts of big-time landowner Jason Robards to take over their land. In turn, the unallied trio are standing firm against oilman George Grizzard, who wants to buy out all three ranches, dispose of the pesky cattle, and plant them with derricks.

Just as Howe’s cinematography in “Hud” emphasized an oppressive gray sky, so Gordon Willis’s cinematography in “Comes A Horseman” played up the darkness of the lonely ranch land, which is almost enshrined by the surrounding shadowed forests and the overhanging, monumental sky. This setting ennobles the drudgery of everyday ranch work, which turns out to be the muddy, exhausting quest for an idealized life. Naturally, as part of the package, Caan and Fonda fall for each other. You can say that’s just the dictate of the genre, but you may be getting it backwards: It’s the freed-up ability of its characters to bond that informs the genre.

“Brokeback Mountain” is simply another step along this Western route. In classic Western tradition, the wilderness’s lonely, empty spaces provide the freedom for characters to assert their individuality away from the stifling dictates of civilization. But, as always in modern-day Westerns, the characters are flummoxed by the now unavoidable social expectations of the town, whose influence now reaches through the trees and across the plains.

It’s true that the pernicious urban strictures are, this time, sexual rather than social or economic. But ultimately, “Brokeback Mountain’s” uniqueness resides more in the number of its Oscar nominations than its themes or story.

Henry Sheehan’s film criticism can be heard on KPCC-FM’s “Film Week” and on KCET-TV’s “Life and Times.” His Web site is HenrySheehan.com. He is president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

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