The Idea of the American West in Ang Lee's adaption of "Brokeback Mountain"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Diverse West(s) of Brokeback Mountain
2.1 Establishing the West of Brokeback
2.2 Romantic Notions of the West
2.3 Bleak Notions of the West

3 The American Myth and Brokeback Mountain
3.1 The Cultural Significance of the West(ern)
3.2 Social Success
3.3 Sexuality

4 Conclusion

1 Introduction

Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story “Brokeback Mountain” was to become one of the most successful films of 2005/2006, both critically and commercially. For instance, the film won three Oscars at the 2006 Academy Awards1 and was twenty-second in 2006's box office rankings (IMDB). Considering its topic of two queer cowboys, it is not a surprise that the film caused to some extent controversies. The controversies evolved only partly around questions of quality. To a much larger extent, one of the central questions regarding the film was that of ideology and interpretation. As Michael L. Cobb notes, the film was not only the liberals' favorite of the year, but also received praise from the conservative Christian right:

In spite of its best intentions, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was last year’s Christmas gift for conservative Christians. […] What seems to delight evangelical pundits is that the film can quickly be construed as a docudrama that helps many evangelicals characterize American political and cultural life as a life in need of the message of hope and salvation they offer. (102)

What seems to be ultimately at stake in these debates is the cultural authority of interpreting the film in the 'right' way.

These debates in themselves and the mechanisms behind them are certainly interesting from a cultural studies point of view, however I want to take a different road in this paper. Besides the obvious concern of heteronormativity, this debate also points beyond questions of sexuality and towards the question of American national identity in a broader sense: the film depicts two queer cowboys in Wyoming's wilderness who try to make their living there and ultimately fail.Even such a short plot summary hints at some important aspects of national identity in the film: its connection to the genre of the Western and the ideal of the cowboy and the frontier man, and on the other hand to the concept of the American Dream, i.e. the economic success story from rags to riches. Thus, the film touches upon some of the central concerns of the US as a nation and, implicitly, American studies as a research field. The American West and the frontier have always played an important role in discussions within and outside of American studies concerning the American national identity, both in the classic Myth and Symbol School and later revisions of those ideas.2 Brokeback Mountain adds another, artistic perspective on these issues which will be at the center of interest of my paper.

Borrowing the terminology from Elisabeth Ströker,I am interested in Brokeback 's use of space in order to engage with those questions. Ströker differentiates between three dimensions of space: Anschauungsraum, Aktionsraum, and gestimmter Raum.3 These three dimesions are best explained in relation to the subject in the space (Haupt 72; Illustration 1):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Illustration 1: The three dimensions of space in relation to the subject

Both Haupt and Hoffmann are referring in their exploration mainly to literature, thought. However, these categories, as I will show, are also usable for the analysis of film.

Using that theoretical framework, I argue that Brokeback Mountain critically engages with questions of American identity by openly discussing the ambiguities inherent to notions of the American West. After analyzing in the first part the space as such, the second chapter of the essay then engages with these findings in the broader cultural context of American identity and America's national mythology.

2 The Diverse West(s) of Brokeback Mountain

2.1 Establishing the West of Brokeback

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Illustration 2: The Western landscape of Brokeback Mountain (0:01:06)

Brokeback's initial scene offers an establishing shot for the setting of the film which proofs to be an important aspect of the film's overall narrative about its geographical and cultural setting (Illustration 2): evoking notions of the sublime and the American wilderness, the image connects Brokeback Mountain to what can be considered more classic Westerns, such as most of the John Wayne films set in the American West during the settlement period. The audience is tempted to imagine the lone frontier man in this environment, being on his own and fighting for his life against the dangers of the wilderness. In particular, the use of the dawning sun in these initial moments adds to these Romantic connotations evoked by the film's cinematography. These effects are then caused by an interplay of the visual field and the atmospheric setting: What we see determines how we see the landscape and how we feel about it. Although film is lacking the overtly mediating instance of fiction's narrative voice, the camera itself cannot be seen as a neutral instance of simply showing things as they are. Amongst other things, the choice of the positioning and the focus of the camera, for instance, are influencing the way the audience sees things. Lee's opening moments invoke those notions on purpose. They are used within the next few minutes of the film as an ideological backdrop against which the events of the story happen and which they begin to subvert throughout the plot development.

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Illustration 3: The machine in the garden (0:01:16)

However, shortly following this initial moments, the film makes his temporal setting and the changed spatial environment quite apparent (Illustration 3): We see a truck making its way through the landscape, a symbol of modernization and mobilization of American society. This is not the US of the classic John Wayne Westerns, but rather the era when those movies were shot, as a caption at the beginning of the next scene makes clear which announces the time as 1963.4 Civilization no longer exists next to the wilderness, but rather cuts literally through it and permeates it. Instead of being somewhat exclusive spaces, the wilderness and the civilized world have merged and become more difficult to separate from each other. Notably, the dawning sun cannot be seen in these shots of the truck: the machine is still shown in the light just before dawn, in dim and cold colors which are, as we will see later, typical for the film's visual language when depicting the less romantic aspects of Wyoming and Jack and Ennis' life there. The film establishes this language in these initial shots by contrasting the mountains in the background and the street and the plains in the foreground in terms of color. This permeation of the virgin land of the American wilderness by civilization does not only influence how we see the space in which Brokeback takes place, i.e. the atmospheric setting, but also our view of the possibilities of the characters to act in that space, i.e. the scene of action: It is no longer the space of infinite possibilities, but rather a, partly, civilized space where culture and its rules are controlling men and their actions.

What the visual language then introduces in these early moments is the contrast between two ideas or notions of the American West which are negotiated in Brokeback Mountain. I will call these two different notions in what follows on the one hand romantic notions of the West and on the other hand bleak notions of the West.5 As the next two sub chapters will show, these notions can be found on the level of both visual language and the plot.

2.1 Romantic Notions of the West

The romantic ideal of the American West is shown both on the visual and on the story level of Brokeback Mountain. In what follows, I will show how this notion of the West shows up again and again in the love story of Jack and Ennis throughout the movie. The central focus of this part will be on their moments in Wyoming and in particular on Brokeback Mountain, as these are the moments when that notion becomes the clearest.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Illustration 4: Jack and Ennis at the campfire (0:15:42)

The scenes on Brokeback Mountain (e.g. Illustration 4 and 5) are mainly dominated by warm

colors, good lighting and a feeling of naturalness and infinity. For instance, illustration 4 shows that quite clearly by using the archetypal campfire scene as a signifier of the companionship between the two men, who have not yet become lovers. These scenes of companionship then evoke the “homosexual connotations of male companionship” which have been already a part of the Western genre for a long time (Spindler 40).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Illustration 5: Jack and Ennis herding sheep (0:10:33)

The scenes of herding their sheep (Illustration 5) furthermore evoke those notions which are closely tied to the ideals of Arcadia, as Henry Alley points out.6 Arcadia, the stand-in for an ancient Golden Age, further strengthens the notions of Brokeback as a perfect place for a perfect love.7 The visual language of Brokeback supports these notions by both the colors in the scenes and the wide-shots of the landscapes which suggest a liveliness and an 'infinity' of the space.

In terms of plot and characterization, this romantic notion of the American West can be mainly found in Jack Twist and his dreams of a life together with Ennis. Ennis, a is rather the proponent of the second notion of the American West presented in the film. The following dialogue between them is quite telling. It occurs when Jack and Ennis are back together for the first time in four years and are camping under the open sky next to a river:


1 Ang Lee won in the category Best Director, Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana Best Adapted Screenplay, and Gustavo Santaolalla Best Original Score. Other nominations and winnings included the Golden Globe Awards and the British BAFTA awards. (“Brokeback Mountain”)

2 Starting with Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis (1893), a long tradition of positive perspectives on the frontier can be traced in American scholarship, including early Americanists such as Henry Nash Smith (Virgin Land, 1950) or Leo Marx (The Machine in the Garden, 1964). Later, revisions of these perspectives can be found e.g. in the Richard Slotkin's trilogy on the cultural history of the American frontier (Regeneration Through Violence

[1973], The Fatal Environment [1985], and Gunfighter Nation [1992]).

3 Due to a lack of English translations of either Ströker's monograph or Gerhard Hoffmann's adaptation of the terminology for literary studies, I will use the translation of the terms suggested by Birgit Haupt: “atmospheric setting” (gestimmter Raum), “scene of action” (Aktionsraum), and “visual field” (Anschauungsraum) (70).

4 Proulx herself has commented on the significance of the historical setting in her essay “Getting Movied”: “The early sixties seemed the right period,” as they were both the perfect setting for Jack and Ennis being raised as the characters they were meant to be (130).

5 Neil Campbell has described this tension within both the film and the short story as “the difference between 'nowhere' (the bleak world of Jack and Ennis) and the 'somewhere' that they both yearn for in the wilderness West” (206).

6 However, Alley also notes the tension created by the film: “We need to acknowledge, of course, that even in the film's Arcadian settings, there is much to disturb and discourage what Jack hopes for” (13). However, he maintains that the film offers a more idyllic Wyoming Arcadia then the short story does. As I will continue to show, though, the idea of an idyllic West in the film version is quite problematic.

7 Still, the film depicts the wilderness also as a space which can be dangerous for human beings, as for example in the scene when Ennis meets a bear on his way back to the camp and looses the horses transporting their food (0:14:24). However, the romantic ideal discussed here is still by far the dominating feature of Brokeback 's wilderness.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The Idea of the American West in Ang Lee's adaption of "Brokeback Mountain"
University of Leipzig
Methods and Theories in American Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
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Brokeback Mountain, Raum, Western, USA
Quote paper
Andreas Mooser (Author), 2010, The Idea of the American West in Ang Lee's adaption of "Brokeback Mountain", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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