May 24, 2023

Westerns Were Queer Way Before ‘Brokeback Mountain’

While the Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal epic romance made subtext finally text, there is a history of queerness in the movies about the Wild West.

The Wild West, according to Hollywood, is a sun-scorched place of isolation and passion. Cowboys wander on horseback, some faster than others when sending bullets out from their guns. Strange Way of Life, a new short by director Pedro Almodóvar, brings Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal together as cowboys and ex-lovers who confront their past and their present. The premise can make audiences think back to Brokeback Mountain, which forces two men apart, allowing them to escape and embrace in limited retreats. However, not even this movie introduced queerness with cowboys. Westerns indulge in homosocial environments where women are hardly allowed into the close bonds the men have with each other. While the Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal epic romance made subtext finally text, there is a history of queerness in the movies about the Wild West, from black-and-white oldies to erotic tales of free love, and everything in between.

In The Birdcage, drag club owner Armand (Robin Williams) tries to teach his lover Albert (Nathan Lane) how to walk, not strut. He uses John Wayne's swagger as a reference point. The effort proves challenging, with Albert slouching into his gait, his clogs clicking not at all like cowboy boots. "No good?" Albert asks, seeing the look of bafflement on his partner's face. "Actually, it's perfect," Armand replies. "I just never realized John Wayne walked like that." The rugged figure of Wayne epitomizes the Hollywood Western icon, sweaty in hetero masculinity. So it might be surprising he starred in a 1948 movie that is heavy with gay subtext.

In Red River, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) is the adoptive son of Thomas (Wayne), the two having a fraught father-son relationship. The moment to make right-wing conservatives clutch their pearls happens when Matt meets Cherry Valance (John Ireland). The two break the ice by inspecting each other's pistols, Cherry saying, "You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere." They show off, firing at a can to make it fly. To add another queer layer to this, is the Oscar-nominated Montgomery Clift, a Hollywood legend who was surrounded by myths about how open or closeted he was. In the documentary Making Montgomery Clift, the actor's nephew turns to family archives for a less sensationalized account of his late relative. When the doc reaches Clift's role in Red River, Robert Anderson Clift describes the pistol scene, "as about Brokeback Mountain as it was going to get in 1948." While Matt Garth and Cherry Valance formed a decent, no-harm-done bond, other bonds turned deadly.

Bend of the River stars James Stewart as Glyn McLyntock, a reformed border raider wanting a better life for himself. He saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from the hangman's noose, seeing his old self in the man, but as hard as Glyn tries, he cannot redeem the greedy Emerson. After Emerson betrays him, Glyn warns, "Every time you bed down for the night, you'll look back to the darkness and wonder if I'm there. And some night, I will be. You'll be seeing me." Glyn needs to rid himself of the volatile Emerson to save the good life he's made by leaving raiding behind. A final brawl occurs in a raging river, drowning Emerson and washing away his bad influence like a baptism, leaving Glyn free to keep his reformed life and the woman he adores. In a Washington Post article published when Brokeback Mountain was released, Bend of the River gets mentioned specifically because of this climax: "Stewart emerges, in some sense ‘cleansed’ from his flirtation with inversion, his heterosexuality restored."

In how Clift's casting in Red River attaches a queer element, Rock Hudson's small role in Bend of the River does too. The closeted Hollywood heartthrob gets a scene where he prefers to be around the men, rather than the woman interested in him. All these years later, it works like an in-joke. A Hollywood Reporter article, Strange Way of Life provides another queer link to this Western through the costuming, as "(Pedro) Pascal's green jacket is a close replica to the one worn by James Stewart." Still, Emerson's sexuality is not explicit thanks to certain restrictions. The Hays Code imposed guidelines for Hollywood movies between the 1930s to the late ‘60s. If LGBTQ characters weren't banned completely, their sexuality was a punchline, or they were the villains. While Emerson Cole is a threat to Glyn's straight way of life, Westerns weren't so narrow-minded when it changed who the main stars were.

Calamity Jane is a musical about the titular sharpshooter and tomboy played by Doris Day, who sings her heart out across the Dakota Territory. Early on, a saloon owner hires the timid Francis (Dick Wesson) as a performer, without realizing his gender. A rowdy crowd of men wants a woman to sing, so the owner puts Francis into drag. The ruse works for a while. Right as Francis loses his jitters and gets into the act, his wig flies off. The crowd's uproar then leads Calamity Jane to head out to Chicago to fetch a renowned female singer. There, Calamity mistakes the maid Katie (Allyn Ann McLerie) for who she was originally looking for. Even after Katie's true identity is revealed, they become very good friends. So much so, Katie ends up living at Calamity's cottage. "A Woman's Touch," performed by Day and McLerie, is a significant musical number, following them as they get into a routine within the cottage. Katie helps Calamity appreciate a clean home, and paints in beautiful script, "Calam and Katie" on the front door to legitimize their bond. Yes, Calamity and Katie fall in love with men, but their sapphic relationship is too investing.

If the Hays Code wasn't causing repression, that would be the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Its goal was to hunt down possible Communists in the United States. What it was really doing, was forcing people to "name names" in order to save themselves. That paranoia and repression are prevalent in the melodrama Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford as the headstrong saloon owner Vienna. Although Sterling Hayden plays the gunslinger-turned-musician that the movie's title comes from, Crawford is the lead. She's the kind of person who doesn't believe in luck, saying, "A good gunfighter doesn't depend on four-leaf clovers." Vienna plans to make a big profit by having her saloon in proximity to a railroad that will be built.

Her plans bring the hateful ire of rancher Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who fears outsiders, stirring up these fears in the men she orders around. When Emma tells her, "I’m going to kill you," Vienna glares back, replying, "I know. If I don't kill you first." Nicolas Ray, who directed Rebel Without a Cause, and who was bisexual, directed this gender-swapping Western that makes everything bigger than life, from the dialogue to the mix of on-location and studio sets. For the finale, the vibrant style puts Crawford in a blazing yellow top with a red neck scarf and puts McCambridge in a black funeral dress. The two don't underestimate each other, making for the best kind of Wild West enemies. They have deep resentments, especially Emma who intensely stares at Vienna whenever they share the same space. One can't help but wonder if she denied herself a love for the saloon owner, a love that soured.

The lone cowboy, usually an outsider going against societal norms, can be a source of homoeroticism. Lonesome Cowboys picks up in this, an experimental art film by Andy Warhol who gives his take on Romeo and Juliet and satirizes Hollywood Westerns. In place of a hard narrative full of fast draws at high noon, there is improvisation and shirtless wrestling. Five cowboys with luscious hair engage in heterosexual and queer relationships, with realism for the period setting shrugged off. In a New York Times review by Vincent Canby, the critic wasn't impressed with the movie's apparent influence from the Shakespeare classic, writing, "I’m told it was originally intended as a sort of Western Romeo & Juliet, but the only remaining evidences of that plan are a couple of character names. Viva plays Ramona and (Tom) Hompertz is sometimes called Julian." If the action on-screen of Lonesome Cowboys was steamy, off-screen the movie was a heated catalyst for an uprising. In August 1969, not long after the Stonewall Riots in New York, Atlanta police stormed into a screening at Ansley Mall to arrest "known homosexuals." The act of aggression motivated Atlanta's Gay Liberation movement, eventually leading them to launch the city's first Pride event in 1971.

There's a bisexual or polyamorous love triangle happening in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. B. J. Thomas sings, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," and as it plays, Butch (Paul Newman) and Etta (Katharine Ross) spend a day together. Etta also happens to be the woman Sundance (Robert Redford) is involved with. When Sundance asks what the two were up to, Butch tells him, "Stealing your woman." Not in the mood for the joke or simply unaffected, Sundance shrugs it off, "Take her, take her." Etta might be the love interest to both, she might also be the third wheel. The bickering and overall relationship between Butch and Sundance is what makes the movie the classic it is. That, plus the final minutes.

The shootout ending gets featured in The Celluloid Closet, a comprehensive doc on LGBTQ representation in movies. Actress Susan Sarandon offers her critique of the finale, comparing the 1969 western to Thelma & Louise (1991), where she stars alongside Geena Davis. Taking one last stand, Davis and Sarandon's women on the run share a kiss before speeding off to their death. Sarandon says how it's, "in the tradition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, except they didn't go down in a rain of bullets." Etta leaves, letting Butch and Sundance go out in a blaze of glory side by side, the way it was always meant to be. They don't kiss, but that doesn't make it any less intimate.

Director Sergio Leone, king of the Spaghetti Westerns, has the most intimate relationship in Once Upon a Time in the West between Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson), not with the fiery Jill (Claudia Cardinale). At first, the men are distrustful of each other. Harmonica plays the instrument he gets his name from, and Cheyenne can't help but laugh at it. What good is playing music when someone can shoot you right in the head mid-song? Then Cheyenne watches Harmonica demonstrate his skills as a gunslinger. "He not only plays, he can shoot too," he states, a feeling of admiration dawning on him. In the end, Cheyenne is fatally wounded, revealing this when he's away from Jill and alone with Harmonica, Cheyenne tells his friend to leave him, to not see him like this. Harmonica gives the man the honor of turning around, yet he doesn't leave, staying by his side until Cheyenne succumbs to his wounds. This vulnerable moment between the two men is possible because of the absence of Jill or any other women.

In Andrew Herbert's Song of the Loon, there is another kind of tenderness, the skin-to-skin kind. As a softcore porn film, it lets go of the subtext as a city boy journeys into the 1877 American wilderness, romancing with men along the way. The story, based on the 1966 erotic gay novel by Richard Amory, has fur-trapper Cyrus (John Iverson) reflect on a past love with the blonde beauty that is Ephraim MacIver (Morgan Royce). On page 154 of Dirk Vanden's 2012 autobiography, Vanden remembers bringing Amory to the movie's premiere, where the theater's marquee read out, "The homosexual love story for our time...for all time!" Amory reacted negatively to seeing his poetic prose be replaced by sexy Native Americans and blonde twinks. Nevertheless, it's an unmistakably queer take on the genre.

In 2022, actor Sam Elliott got himself agitated by Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog. He wasn't a fan, taking issue, among other matters, that the movie treats cowboys like "Chippendale dancers," and getting infuriated that, "They’re running around in chaps and no shirts. There's all these allusions of homosexuality throughout the movie." His odd criticisms, which he has since apologized for, seemed to have him either be confused or ignorant to the queerness of movies involving the Wild West. Going back decades, there is subtext or a queer lens that can be put on many of these titles. Not all alike either, there is a musical and erotica. It didn't take the Village People to make cowboys gay. For that matter, Brokeback Mountain can't be reduced into being referred to as the "gay cowboy movie," because it was never the first to claim that title.

Chris Sasaguay is a Freelance Writer for Collider, with a passion for slasher flicks, queer representation, and veteran actresses. He remembers using a VCR to record horror marathons off the TV and misses when movie ticket stubs weren't so flimsy. You probably won't anticipate what he writes next, and unfortunately, if you guess correctly, there isn't a prize.

Strange Way of Life Pedro Almodóvar Ethan Hawke Pedro Pascal Brokeback Mountain Heath Ledger Jake Gyllenhaal COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT The Birdcage Robin Williams Nathan Lane John Wayne Red River Montgomery Clift John Ireland Bend of the River James Stewart Arthur Kennedy Rock Hudson Calamity Jane Doris Day Dick Wesson Allyn Ann McLerie Johnny Guitar Joan Crawford Sterling Hayden Mercedes McCambridge Nicolas Ray Lonesome Cowboys Andy Warhol Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Paul Newman Katharine Ross Robert Redford The Celluloid Closet Susan Sarandon Thelma & Louise Geena Davis. Sergio Leone Once Upon a Time in the West Jason Robards Charles Bronson Claudia Cardinale Andrew Herbert Song of the Loon Richard Amory John Iverson (Morgan Royce Sam Elliott Jane Campion