Yee-haw! 5 of the best LGBTQ cowboy films
Ticking off an almost unfathomable amount of boxes on the internet bingo sheet, Pedro Almodóvar’s upcoming short film Strange Way Of Life sees theatre veteran Ethan Hawke and acting’s current “daddy” of choice Pedro Pascal starring as a newly-reunited cowboy and sheriff.
Initially, it’s portrayed as any old reunion, but as a new trailer reveals, romantic tensions from the past begin to kick up the wilderness. “Years ago you asked me, what two men could do living together on a ranch,” husks Pascal’s character Silva, as he tenderly cares for a seemingly-wounded Sheriff Jake. “Now I’ll answer you.”
"It’s a queer Western, in the sense that there are two men and they love each other,” explained director Pedro Almodóvar, on the Dua Lipa: At Your Service podcast. “It’s about masculinity in a deep sense because the Western is a male genre. What I can tell you about the film is that it has a lot of the elements of the Western. It has the gunslinger, it has the ranch, it has the sheriff, but what it has that most Westerns don’t have is the kind of dialogue that I don’t think a Western film has ever captured between two men. And now I think I’m telling you too much.”
While Almodóvar has certainly used his distinctive signature style to put his own spin on the genre, he’s not the only director to explore queer themes by venturing out into the Wild West. Ahead of Strange Way Of Life premiering at Canne Film Festival, here are some other classics from the LGBTQ+ cowboy canon.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Based on a 1997 short story of the same name by American novelist Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain stars Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger as ranch-hands Jack and Ennis. Far from the gunslinging shoot-outs and epic chase scenes you might expect from a classic Westerns, it begins with a dreamscape unfolding on its rural ranges; while tending to sheep far out in the wild, Jack and Ennis become romantically involved. Afterwards, they’re left pretending that it never happened, and fearing for the brutal consequences they’d face if found out. A love story that never has a hope of trotting off into the sunset, it’s a desperately sad spin take on a genre usually steeped in performative masculine symbolism.
Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981)
After being reduced to a sobbing wreck by Brokeback Mountain, the “zexy, zany and zensational” swashbuckler Zorro, The Gay Blade feels like a perfectly ridiculous remedy. The premise of this campy parody is simple: following the sudden death of his father, sword-slinging lothario Don Diego de la Vega learns that he is to inherit the coveted title of Zorro, but is quickly sidelined by an injury. So who does he call? His gay twin brother Bunny, of course, who throws himself into the role with panache and a hugely over the top glittery gold take on Zorro’s trademark costume. Completely farcical? Absolutely - but doesn’t it make a refreshing change from queer tragedy?
Johnny Guitar (1954)
In the majority of classic Westerns, women tend to take a back seat - mostly appearing as swooning damsels in distress amid the macho gun-fire, or propping up the bar in town saloons. In Johnny Guitar, meanwhile, strong-willed saloon owner Vienna runs the whole show, much to the chagrin of the fuming male locals, and her fiercest rival Emma. Though it’s never explicitly spelled out, the queer subtext is strong with this one – in one scene, the titular Johnny begs Vienna to lie about her apparent love for him (“How many men have you forgotten?” he asks. “As many women as you’ve remembered,” she quips right back) while other characters seem strangely threatened by Vienna for reasons they struggle to pin down. “Never seen a woman who was more of a man,” says her cook. “She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” Emma wants Vienna dead, sure, but there’s something else simmering beneath the surface that means she just can’t give up the chase. 1954’s answer to Killing Eve, if you will.
The Power of the Dog (2021)
A critical smash hit, this revisionist Western adapts Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. Set on a Montana ranch, the story examines tense interpersonal relations and toxic masculinity as scheming brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) attempt to manipulate everyone around them. Particularly cruel and self-loathing, there seems to be more to Phil’s resentful facade than meets the eye - and it later emerges that he’s battling to hide who he really is.
Another subversion of the archetypal Western and its roaming loner, 2022’s Cowboys follows a Montana father and son who escape together into the wilderness on horseback. Dad Troy has recently separated from his wife Sally, who refuses to allow Joe - their son, who is trans - to live as his authentic self. As the pair race towards the Canadian border, with the police in hot pursuit, a complex and intensely moving story about family dynamics and gender identity unfolds.