Brokeback Mountain and Hud are so similar that they seem two of a kind, peas in a pod, polar bookends of the same, but ultimately different, story.
While the similarities in the cinematography and score had me looking at the credits of both movies, obviously, the commonality here is the strong hand of novelist and screenwriter, Larry McMurtry, which drives the look, feel and worldview of both movies. In conceptualizing Brokeback Mountain, I would not be surprised if director, Ang Lee, and company, had a very long look at Hud.
1963’s Hud is one of the greatest American films and in many respects is really the story of America. Then in 2005, Brokeback Mountain appeared. Again, a great American film and, again a story of America, a different America, for sure, but also the same, nonetheless.
The long openings shots accompanied by a spare musical score in Brokeback Mountain evoke the lonely, cold and windswept feeling of the wide open spaces of the West, here Montana. The tone is set as a tractor-trailer truck makes its solitary way across the rolling green foothills, its diesel droning in the distant dawn. We are introduced to Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) as he is deposited cowboy boots and all on the deserted streets of Signal. He tries to stay warm and waits for the boss. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives and finding Ennis less than a conversationalist, has a shave, instead. In Hud, the bleak specter of dying cattle out in the far reaches of the Bannon’s Texas ranch has the Bannon clan issuing equally bleak and matter of fact statements from the backs of their horses. Later on, young Lon Bannon (Brandon De Wilde) admits to a special place in his heart for the whistle of a train disappearing into the night. The way it is and the way it always will be are one and the same here in the big, if sometimes cloudy, skies of Montana and Texas. You live and you die, you have money or you don’t, maybe someone cares about you or not, and you try to get along the best you can while it lasts.
But Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) and Jack are the types to push back. Raw, wiry, opportunistic and hungry, they agitate against the status quo. Both are driven by an excess of pent-up energy that neither chasing greased pigs and rodeo glory nor chasing overheated desires can put much of a dent in. Ultimately, Hud resorts to legal action and Jack gets antsy waiting for Ennis.
For most everyone else caught in the wake of Hud and Jack, limited efforts in pushing back are to little avail. For the most part, they are left to stoically mull their dwindling options and accept fate. The most successful manage baby steps while the rest are simply lost. However, that is not to say they are not tough. They are tough as nails in these tough lands that make tough people make tough decisions. There is no such thing as too much tough in the worlds of the Bannons and the Del Mars.
An iconic American scene in Brokeback Mountain leaves us with a stunning portrait that for just a moment shows Fourth of July fireworks exploding in the night sky over the controlled rage of cowboy Ennis, cowboy hat drawn down tight over his forehead, wearing blue jeans, jean jacket, and cowboy boots, fists balled-up, standing over foulmouthed bikers, crumpled at his feet, bleeding and dazed, destroyed, his wife and little girls cowering in background, at once horrified and amazed, protected, and honor defended. This American image could be Ralph Lauren or Marlboro, if watered-down, but commercialization would cheapen it, make it less graphic, too easy and less complicated. But this American image is too important for that. This American image is iconic.
But the Del Mars ain’t got nothing on the Bannons. The Bannon ranch is home to the horrific scene of Caterpillar bulldozers digging a pit which is then filled with diseased Mexican cattle, lever-action Winchesters aimed by raincoat-wearing riflemen standing above and raining hell into the pit. This is tough stuff and not easy to watch. Lime is spread and the big Cats cover it up, but two Longhorns remain. The Government men want them dead, too, and they are going to do it themselves. Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas) stops them. If anyone does this, it will be him. He orders the Government men off his land. He says he has chased those tough longhorns all over the ranch for years. He says he is not sure he can do it, but guesses he can. He fires his rifle twice and storms off to the ranch house, inconsolable, yelling at his men to bury the cattle now. This is tough stuff by tough people in a tough land. This kind of American spirit underlies a tough Western mentality that is not only alive and well today, but is familiar both in legend and in practice.
Later on in Hud, things come to a head over Alma (Patricia Neal), the live-in housekeeper, cook and only woman on the ranch. World weary and beaten, she catches a bus out of town. Like Ennis, her world has been nothing but dead ends and disappointments. At least, she is getting away from Hud, who, ever on the make, takes one last stab at her at the bus station. But Alma is done with, her words, cold-blooded bastards. Like Ennis she is powerless to do much but bounce around. Then Homer is found crawling across the road, worn out, too. The only winners in Hud and Brokeback Mountain may be Lon and Alma, Jr. (Kate Mara), that’s right, Alma, Jr., Ennis’ daughter. But they both have a long way to go. Lon merely walks off the ranch, suitcase in hand, while being badgered to stay by Hud following along in the now metaphorically trashed convertible Cadillac. And Alma, Jr., is going to marry a roughneck. One can only hope he is not of the “cold-blooded bastard” stripe. In these parts, having a heart is a liability and love means basically having to say goodbye.
As both Hud and Brokeback Mountain draw to a conclusion, the windows looking out from Hud’s and Ennis’ respective worlds offer a glimpse of their future prospects. We watch from the outside as, in disgust, Hud waves off the departing Lon, possibly the only person who ever admired him, grabs a cigarette to go with his six-pack, shuts the door at the Bannon ranch house in our face and draws the window blinds down on us and the world. There is no hope for Hud. As Homer had indelicately put it, Hud was not fit to live with. As for Ennis, we see that hope remains as he acknowledges that his little girl is getting married. Incapable of soliloquy, Ennis might finally be getting it. In the final scene, after tearfully placing his shirt over Jack’s shirt and shutting the closet door, the camera pans to the window of Ennis’ homely trailer which stands in marked contrast to that of Hud. Looking out from within, we see that the window is open, the grass is green, the skies are blue, and the sun is shining. One is left with a glimmer of chance for Ennis.