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Hollywood, the Western

Looking Over Brokeback Mountain

I’m intrigued by the success of Brokeback Mountain. In fact, it has to some extent restored my faith in audiences. Several of the people I have discussed the film with are not fans of the Western and were surprised when I suggested that Ang Lee’s triumph was to so skilfully make use of the conventions of the Western genre – and specifically those of what some have termed the ‘Twilight Western’. This term can be used to describe either Westerns set in the dying days of the ‘Old West’ (i.e. 1890-1910) or in the post-1945 period when the Western lifestyle began to feel more and more out of tune with contemporary America. In the main, Twilight Westerns have been produced by Hollywood (and independents) since the late 1960s, although earlier examples include The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray 1952) and Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962).

I’ve been running an evening class with the title ‘Looking Over Brokeback Mountain‘ at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford for the last few weeks. So far we’ve watched The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) and extracts from a range of films including Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) Johnny Guitar (Nick Ray, 1953), Hud (Martin Ritt, 1962), Junior Bonner (Peckinpah, 1972), Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985) and The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993).

We’ve discussed gender in the Western in both the traditional ‘mythologised West’ and the more realist ‘Twilight West’ and this week we look at a little-seen Twilight Western, Stephen Frears’ 1998 film, The Hi-Lo Country. I wonder how it will look in 2006 after the success of Brokeback? Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson play the two young men, but this time they fall out over Patricia Arquette.

The course has also prompted me to read Annie Proulx’s short story collection and I’ve enjoyed all the stories so far – I’m saving up the Brokeback story for the last week of the course.

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