Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain displays all the traditional characteristics of a romantic tragedy or a Western film, but upon its release it failed to be labeled as such. It was instead placed in the “gay and lesbian” film category. While obviously there is no harm in being labeled a “gay” film, it does distract from the purpose of the film, which is to show the touching story of these two characters. The film is merely a tragic depiction of two people, both of whom happen to be men, who fall in love with each other. It is a romantic tragedy in that contains the genre’s strongest and most popular theme: forbidden love.
Simultaneously, however, the film can be classified as a Western due to the two main characters’ stereotypical embodiment of the cowboy persona. Brokeback Mountain is also eligible to be placed in the romantic tragedy genre. Lee tries to advertise this as the film’s main characterization with his use of landscape, advertisement, and themes. Lee’s use of landscape plays a huge part in the film’s development and push for a romance label. Jack and Ennis are first introduced and begin their love affair on Brokeback Mountain, which is emphasized and featured extensively.
The landscape is very grand and lush and demonstrates the nature of their relationship on the mountain: natural and open. One of the biggest problems in their relationship is that their love is not welcome in their close-minded society, but in this vast open land it there are no restrictions, literally or socially. The landscape illustrates a theme of freedom and vulnerability in its openness and provides color, as well as contrast to the other set designs which are built upon a dull, grayscale color palette. This emphasis illustrates to the audience why the characters constantly want to return to Brokeback.
The way the film was advertised pushed for a romantic label as well, in addition to revealing a lot of the major plot points. Lee has said that he modeled the poster after James Cameron’s 1997 famous romantic tragedy, Titanic. This was because he wanted the film to be known as a romance, rather than a “gay” film. On the poster, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are placed in similar positions as Rose and Jack; however, instead of being placed above a ship they are instead surrounded by Brokeback Mountain, which is in a sense their Titanic.
Every romantic film has one main object that is either the center or the origin of their love. In Titanic, it was the ship of the same name, while in this film it is the mountain. The placement of the characters on the poster foretell their futures in the story; Jack Twist follows Jack Dawson’s tragic ending and Ennis follows Rose. This plot point giveaway was never given any attention because the main focus was on the relationship of the two men rather than the story. The reaction of the public was not solely responsible for the film’s characterization; traditional cinematic stereotypes played a role as well.
At the time of the release, the romance genre was (and can be argued, still is) stereotypically based on a relationship between a man and a woman. In the early days of film, homosexuality might have been hinted at but never outwardly displayed. As time went on, the social climate began to change and it became more acceptable to deviate from the typical on-screen heterosexual relationships, but with caveats: gay characters rarely played more than peripheral or supporting roles, and were often depicted as stereotypical or flamboyant.
Brokeback Mountain was able to show another form of a homosexual relationship, one that was “normal”, accurate, and believable. The film does develop a popular and well-used theme in romantic tragedies, forbidden love. Such a theme has been widely popular and used in many great classic romance novels and films, such as Romeo and Juliet and the aforementioned Titanic. There is something epic and incredibly romantic about forbidden love, because it demonstrates the fight for and the strength of love between any two characters.
These characters show the most fight for their love, because they live in a time and society that their love is scrutinized and could never be shown. Ennis, at one point in the film, mentions that his father took him to see a body of a man that was tortured and brutally killed at a very young age. These actions were later replicated to Jack when he was killed for being a homosexual. When people think of Western films and characters, masculinity is immediately brought to mind. A Clint Eastwood-esque character is summoned: the rugged macho man.
When Brokeback Mountain was first released, it was immediately overlooked as a Western because its two main characters were in love with each other, something that was considered un-masculine. However, in looking beyond their relationship for a moment, the characters do actually display characteristics of a true cowboy. Many scenes illustrate characteristics of theirs that indicate traditional “masculinity. ” For example, one way of demonstrating their “cowboy” persona is their attire.
Marit Allen, the costume designer, has stated that she emphasized the cowboy look because it was thought that the characters would otherwise be overlooked and not given their credit. They wear the classic cowboy hats to cowboy boots, and at times dressed head to toe in denim attire; these are costume pieces that are common throughout traditional Western films. Another example are plot points in the storyline that depict Jack and Ennis as average men doing masculine things. Ennis is the primary caregiver in his family; he is shown as a hard worker and in constant search of jobs to feed his family.
When it comes time to protect his wife and daughters, he shows he is not someone to be taken lightly. In various scenes Ennis is shown getting into fights, one example being the Fourth of July scene where he threatens to fight nearby men making crude comments within earshot of his daughters. Ennis prevails and is shown victorious and dominant, and while the other men lay on the ground submissive, with Ennis towering over them. Meanwhile, Jack also struggles to work traditionally masculine jobs to support himself, partaking in the quintessential cowboy sport, rodeo.
Even the two men’s flirtation is done through traditionally masculine behavior. They constantly roughhouse and often get into fights just before they act on their relationship, such as in their first sex scene. These features, among others, illustrate that the characters fit the true masculine cowboy persona and thus the film can be classified as a Western. Labeling the film as a gay and lesbian film restricts the films plot because it is not solely about being gay, it is just merely a topic.
If the film was categorized under a western or romantic, which are both broad genres, then the audience can focus on a variety of situations that the film shows. The film is entirely eligible to be labeled both, because the film demonstrates the same characteristics seen in both genres. It is a romantic tragedy because it contains one of the most popular and widely used themes: forbidden love and it can also be classified as a western because the two characters and backdrop embody the classic western persona.