Who are you calling Butch?

All that leather, all those nights with their partners by the campfire... As the Palme d'Or is won by a film that finally portrays two cowboys as lovers, David Thomson wonders why it took so long to tell it straight
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The Independent Culture

Across Wyoming into Montana and Idaho, smoke signals are carrying the message from Venice. It reaches down through Colorado (where Brokeback Mountain also played at Telluride recently) to New Mexico and Arizona. Battling wind, sandstorm and the sturdy resistance of "W" (did you ever think, it's really "double you"?), the coded report has gone like wildfire: "Pink hats are in this year, boys." The code is required because those pioneers of smoke talk - the Native Americans - remain religiously opposed to certain tender understandings among cowboys. Never mind, the truth is out at last (thanks to Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee): after cowboys had done their best on lonely tours of duty to do what a man must do with sheep, steers, coyotes and wolves (and some of these guys are called "Stumpy" for good reason), they did turn to each other. That's right, pardner, some of the best men you ever saw on or off a horse have been gay.

Not that they were ever dumb enough to look happy about it. Conscious of the enormous masculine reliance that an innocent American public had placed on the cowboy (and the Western), they preferred to keep their visage grim and their mouths clamped shut after two fellas came in from a two-month fence-mending tour in the far country and hardly wanted to part. Don't you recall High Noon? Isn't it etched in your memory, the deeply sad face of sheriff Gary Cooper now that he has to get married? For decades, he had the jailhouse to himself along with a quiet life and the pretty certain companionship of a couple of wild boys at the weekend. But now that bright, bossy Grace Kelly has got her hooks into him. It's the end of his world - just look at his face. Can I break it to you gently? Those men arriving on the noon train, looking for "vengeance", they're lovers from the past with just one more desperate attempt to save Coop from marriage. Far-fetched? OK, wise guy, then who is it who kills the last one of them? That's right, it's the little wife, when Will Kane (known across the Dakotas as, "That sheriff will kane you, if you ask nicely") is too damn grief-stricken to off a last lover.

Of course, once I put it that way, the charade becomes clear. Haven't you always noticed how in the Western the manly boys are awful shy of the little ladies? God knows, that was the great mercy of the frontier in that terrible 19th century, as domesticity, settling down, being grown up, laundry and marriage threatened the land of the free and the home of the brave. "Go West, young man" was the cry and the idiots always assumed it was advice to a new entrepreneurial class, instead of the secret handshake assurance that there were box canyons out there, not to mention unflawed prairies, and fresh cold streams where cowboys could skinny-dip together. Away from women. How do you think Texas got that "X" in the middle of its name? Heck, it's the big kiss invitation to lone men riding, and the promise of "teas" with the X. Homo code west of St Jo was always that "tea parties" were where like-minded men congregated. Don't you remember in Giant, where the James Dean character invites Elizabeth Taylor into his shack for some "tea"? Just about the most haunting confession of the gay life in all those endless miles of drab territory in the 1950s.

Now I can hear you muttering to yourself, just like the horses before dawn. It's sinking in, isn't it. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - right? Not, Butch and Sundance and Etta. And I think it's pretty clear from that movie that Etta was just along gathering material for the book she was going to write. Doesn't she tell the two boys that she'll know the moment when it's all over, the moment when a wise woman gets up a little early in the morning and makes her retreat? She knows that the real romance is those two handsome boys and their endless conversational double act. And she is obliged enough to Sundance for going through the amatory motions with her (because men were still gentlemen in those days), but she knew what Sundance's little moustache meant all along. We all knew - same way we all knew when "W' slapped "Brownie" on the back and told the world what a good job he's done. The message is clear: some guys just have no sense when it comes to being with other guys.

Do you really want me to go through all the classic titles teaching a new way of reading them? Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - just about as plain as anyone could ask for. My Darling Clementine - those Earp boys, they're famous for guns, shoot-outs and their big, bad law, but those who knew 'em always swore by their irony and their fine linen shirts. Shane - "Come back, Shane". Do I have to spell every last little thing out for you? She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - and so did all of them. The Man from Laramie - these days, pardner, you go through Wyoming asking for "the man from Laramie" and your summer is booked. The Left-Handed Gun - why, that one, was written by Gore Vidal himself and it's Vidal who taught all those tight-lipped cowboys how to use subordinate clauses and the sonnet form.

Of course, the great thing about this news from Venice is not just that Lee has rediscovered his touch, or even the firm reminder that we all ought to read Proulx, or even the chance to see a few rodeos next year done with a little flair. No, the real breakthrough is that this could bring the Western back. I mean, how many of you always wondered at that odd scene in Red River when Montgomery Clift and John Ireland showed each other their guns and a little gun-play? Of course, in the old version, grumpy John Wayne came along and told them to get on with the cattle drive. But as things stand now, I don't see why we shouldn't have a re-make - Pink River?

And how about a new version of Rio Bravo in which John T Chance, Dude, Colorado and Stumpy (I mean, John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan) sing a few songs in the jailhouse, roll a few cigarettes, yarn a bit and so on, and then wake up one morning and ask themselves why they're living in the jailhouse like that - unless they want a little privacy. Why don't they put on a show?

Now, I know it's not going to be as easy as that. There are wild bunches who still keep a straight face about it all. W, Cheney, Rummy and those guys, they will not relax. It's all, seen

any banks to rob, any hostiles to round up, any wars to fight? Just can't live with the facts of their own nature, I guess. And Brokeback Mountain may win in Venice, but I know places in Oklahoma where it's gonna have a hard time and there will likely be pickets and a few examples made. You see, that real West is so darn hot, empty, uncomfortable and dull most of the year that the men who go there, they just keep those grim, bitter faces on as if they were masks that have grown into their skin. You don't see those stern fellows gathering for a nice tea-party at the Canyon de Chelly. You don't see them collecting wild prairie flowers. No, they'd sooner shoot someone than live with the least threat of tenderness in their afflicted souls.

On the other hand, this is a step forward for civilisation. Don't be surprised if the next time you're in Santa Fe, doing the opera and looking at the Georgia O'Keefe flower pictures, if you find a few lilac-smelling cowpokes fresh from the barber shop - and don't be shy of wondering about a poke for yourself. Don't be amazed if they take you out to a campfire - Lord, you have to see those New Mexico sunsets. Just lovely. And you'll get a three-star French dinner cooked in humble pots and pans on an open fire with just a sprinkle of sandalwood thrown in. Happy trails, pal.

'Brokeback Mountain' will be released in the UK at the end of the year