Robert Knight (strong, manly name or what), director of the Culture and Family Institute of Concerned Women of America (a not so manly-sounding workplace) has really got his nickers in a twist. "I think this shows Hollywood can pervert anything! Part of the enduring appeal of westerns is the display of brotherhood, unhindered by sexualisation." He goes on in an article on Salon.com, "The western was a morality tale, so to make immorality the heart of this western is to violate the code of westerns." Of course, the film he is getting upset about, and I suspect he hasn't seen is Brokeback Mountain, a western that includes a story about 2 cowboys who meet while shepherding and who develop a sexual relationship with each other.
Lets start with the genre first. The western is wholly a Hollywood invention and it has always been loaded with homoeroticism. The western was/is a device by which a simple storys of "right and wrong" could be shown. The morality displayed was manufactured. Please tell me, what is moral about displaying men gunning down men in cold blood, robbing stages, trains and banks, or massacring Indians by the tribe. Are murderous land, railroad or cattle barons moral figures. Is it moral to display women as helpless virgins (schoolmarms), mouthy, opinionated geriatrics or as prostitutes (showgirls). The central story of the classic film, Stagecoach, is the idealised love affair between wanted criminal John Wayne and outcast whore Claire Trevor that leads to their mutual redemption. No mention of the victims of John Wayne's banditry or the servere medical conditions that Claire Trevor's job would have inflicted! No, it was alright because he was a man and she a woman and they fell in love!
What about the main tool for the cowboy, - the pistol? That long, hard rigid tube that ejects powerful projectiles that induces an orgasmic reaction within the person (generally another man) it enters! Talk about a phallic symbol! Next time someone stands up and defends the freedom to carry guns, have a close look at him (it will generally be a man, - women generally have more sense). Do you detect gay mannerisms and inflections? Do his eyes glaze over when talking about shooting? What about the scene in Howard Hawks' Red River when gunfighters Monty Clift and John Ireland check out each other's pistols, - "My, that's a big one!" in the most lascivious manner imaginable. Cowboys are supposed to be straight shooters, - oh yea?
Whenever men found themselves in a womanless environment, - jail, armed services or the prairie, they would turn to each other for comfort, and never say a word about it thereafter. To some extents, it still happens today, - particularly in prison. Westerns, along with the 'Buddy-Buddy' and road movies that came after, attempted to display these complex relationships that can and did exist in real life between men without women (and some extent women without men) to the degree that was acceptable to the viewing public at the time. It is just that Brokeback Mountain is merely the first mainstream movie to centre on homosexuality on the range, and it wouldn't be in the least controversial were America not unimaginably neurotic and puritanical, - if not tyrannical, about sex, straight or gay, in the first place.