Brokeback Mountain | 2005
Adapted from Annie Proulx’s story by Larry McMurtry, who wrote the magnificent The Last Picture Show, and with a couple of powerfully understated lead performances, Brokeback looked like a shoo-in for Best Picture, but 2006 turned out not to be the Academy’s finest year.
Although it’s set in ‘Riverton’, a real town in the Big Horn Mountains of central Wyoming (much larger and prosperous than the film version), and in Texas, it was filmed largely in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta. Oddly, the film was made around many of the same areas as Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar.
Getting the big disappointment out of the way first, there really is no ‘Brokeback Mountain’ – it’s an invention of author Proulx. The spectacular ‘Brokeback’ country seen in the film is the Kananaskis Range around Canmore, on the Trans-Canada Highway southeast of Banff, about 60 miles west of Calgary.
The various peaks seen in the film include such landmarks as Windtower and Three Sisters, near Canmore, Moose Mountain to the east and Fortress to the south. For a phenomenally detailed location breakdown of practically every shot in the film, don't miss findingbrokeback.com, the ultimate fansite.
It’s 1963 and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) arrives in the town of ‘Signal, Wyoming’ looking for work. There’s no ‘Signal’ in Wyoming (though there’s a Signal Mountain in the Grand Tetons which may have inspired the name), and the town is really Cowley, on Crowsnest Highway, about 100 miles south of Calgary.
He’s waiting by the trailer used as the office of Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), which occupied the parking lot alongside Back Country butcher store on the north side of Osler Street at Railway Avenue.
It’s along the town's main street, Railway Avenue, that Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), also seeking employment tending flocks of sheep, turns up in his beat-up old truck.
After awkwardly introducing themselves, the two walk through town to what appears to be the nearest bar, where Jack has a bit of a struggle to engage the monosyllabic Ennis in conversation.
In reality, the bar is about 100 miles north of Cowley, near to Calgary. It’s the 95-year-old, one-room Blue Bar, Railway Avenue, between Main and Strangmuir Street in Carseland (there are an awful lot of Railway Avenues among the film’s locations). The usual startling blue frontage was dulled down to suit the film’s palette of more earthy tones.
Grumpy old Aguirre hires them and they’re soon herding sheep up among the meadows and rugged peaks of Kananaskis. To visit the exact spots where the pair unwittingly form a powerful bond, check out detailed directions on findingbrokeback.com.
The first camp is set up at Canyon Creek Road at Range Road 64A, at the foot of Prairie Mountain (south of Moose Mountain).
The wooden suspension bridge overlooked by the two jagged peaks of Mount Kidd, where Ennis orders provisions and admits he’s already sick of beans, crosses the Kananaskis River on the west side of Hwy 40, about 20 miles south of Hwy 1.
And the second camp, where the unspoken tension between Jack and Ennis erupts in a night of energetic sex as they share a tent, is a couple of miles southwest of Canmore, alongside the Smith Dorrien Trail, immediately southwest of Whiteman’s Pond.
When the summer job ends, the two go their separate ways, with Jack getting into his truck alongside Cowley Fire Dept and City Office, 518 Railway Avenue at Cameron Street (just a block northwest of Aguirre’s trailer), while the emotionally repressed Ennis has an emotional breakdown in the alleyway on the other side of the Village of Cowley building.
With no inkling of how much his life has been changed, Ennis goes ahead with the long-planned marriage to Alma (Michelle Williams) at St Thomas’ Anglican Church on the southwest corner of Hwy 547 at Range Road 264, about 20 miles southeast of Calgary.
You won’t be able to catch a movie at the ‘drive-in’ where they watch Maury Dexter’s 1964 Surf Party, as this scene was faked on the softball diamond north across Hwy 547 from St Thomas’s.
Ennis and Alma move into a home and bring up two daughters in a house on the Hart farm, Hwy 520 at Range Road 283, about 25 miles north of Cowley, though Alma is keen to move into town and has her eye on a place “over the Laundromat”.
A year passes and Jack returns to ‘Signal’ only to discover his services are no longer required, realising that Aguirre had found out about what happened up on Brokeback.
Running short of cash, he returns to ‘Texas’ to try his hand at the rodeo but doesn’t last long on the bucking steer. The rodeo is supposedly in ‘Electra, Texas’, but to find a real rodeo ground, the production travelled no further than Rockyford, northeast of Calgary, at the intersection of Hwy 263 and Range Road 233. There’s been an annual rodeo at Rockyford, in July, for more than 50 years, and you can find the grounds on 1st Avenue E, north of town.
The Western bar, where Jack tries to buy Jimbo the rodeo clown a drink in the hope of getting a job, was the King Edward Hotel, 438 9th Ave SE at Fourth Street SE in Calgary itself. The hotel has since closed, though apparently there are plans to renovate it as part of the city's Downtown East Village revitalisation project.
He gets together with her at authentic cowboy bar and restaurant Ranchman’s, 9615 Macleod Trail South, back in Calgary again. The city's most famous western bar, Ranchman’s not only houses a museum of rodeo memorabilia and photographs, but one of those Mechanical Bulls you’ve always wanted to try. You can also see Ranchman’s in 1993 comedy Cool Runnings.
Meanwhile, Ennis and family are celebrating the Fourth of July at a baseball diamond just southwest of Fort Macleod, east of Cowley. As fireworks explode, so does Ennis, taking out his pent up fury on the two loudmouths crudely sounding off in front of his wife and kids.
In fact, Fort Macleod generally stands in for ‘Riverton’, where Alma has realised her dream of moving to the apartment above the Laundromat in the 1906 JC Edgar Building, 2422 3rd Avenue at 25th Street.
And it’s here that the fragile equilibrium is disturbed when Ennis gets a postcard from Jack with a photo of Brokeback, to say he’ll be passing through.
The post office in ‘Riverton’, where Ennis posts his enthusiastic but typically curt reply “You bet”, is Main Street at 1st Avenue, back in Rockyford – home of the rodeos.
Alma is taken aback at Ennis’ uncharacteristic excitement at the imminent arrival of an old fishing buddy, but that’s as nothing when she glimpses them through the window caught up in the passion of the moment.
So when Ennis tells her he’s to a bar to talk old times with Jack, she knows better than to wait up.
The motel at which the two inevitably end up is Motel 9, 610 Hwy 9, east of the town of Beiseker, northeast of Calgary.
There’s little more than a resentful silence from Alma when Ennis takes off to the mountains for a couple of days, on a fishing trip with Jack. The cliffs where the pair go skinnydipping are on Bow River just northeast of Seebe, though the area is fairly inaccessible.
Fast forwarding to 1975, the marriage of Alma and Ennis ends, with Alma getting custody of the children as she’s granted a divorce from at the Town Hall, 236 23rd Street, in Fort Macleod.
Hearing of the split, Jack heads up to ‘Wyoming’ but when he’s rebuffed by Ennis, who’s looking after his daughters for the weekend, he turns south to ‘El Paso’ on the Mexican border.
As the story leaves the US for Mexico, the production itself briefly visits the States from Canada. The establishing shot of the ‘Mexican’ border town is of La Mesilla in New Mexico, near Las Cruces, and about 30 miles from the Mexico border – the building in the foreground is the Old Tortilla Factory on Avenida de Mesilla at the corner of Calle de Parian.
After this moment of scene-setting, it’s immediately back to Alberta for the ‘Mexican’ alleyway where Jack cruises to find a little physical relief. This runs alongside Café Rosso, behind the industrial building at 803 24th Avenue SE in Calgary, now much smartened up and, after the demolition of some shabbier buildings, now facing an open car park.
Ex-wife Alma’s new home is a conflation of two separate places in Calgary. The interior scenes were filmed at 315 Sharon Avenue SW in the Sunalta district, but the exterior seen is a couple of miles northeast across Bow River at 913 18th Avenue NW, Mount Pleasant.
Thanksgiving with Alma turns into a heated row, with Ennis storming out toward the ‘Black and Blue Eagle’ bar. His explosive temper erupts again when he loses his rag with a truck driver outside the ‘bar’, which was actually an unoccupied premises next door to the Masonic Lodge, 1211 Railway Avenue (yes, another one) at Aberdeen Street in Blackie, a small town on Hwy 799 south of the wedding church location.
More peaceful times follow as Ennis meets up with Jack in the wilds away from friends and family, with a striking shot of Mount Smuts and The Fist (which is exactly what it looks like) in the Spray Range, Spray Valley Provincial Park, south of Spray Lakes Reservoir near Canmore.
But even here, the seeming impossibility of being able to live together begins to gnaw away at their relationship and the friction sends Ennis heading off to another bar. This time, it’s the historic Queen’s Hotel, 207 24th Street, Fort Macleod. where Cassie (Linda Cardellini) comes on to him and he begins a more conventionally acceptable relationship.
For a moment Jack, too, seems on the verge of moving on, when he and Lureen attend a benefit dinner-country dance at ‘Red River Social Club, Childress, Texas’. The dance hall interior is Royal Canadian Legion #1, 116 7th Avenue SE, Calgary, between Centre Street and 1st Street SE, but the exterior, where Randall Malone (David Harbour), the husband of Lureen’s friend, haltingly drops tantalising hints to Jack as they chat on a bench, is in front of the CIBC Bank, 201 Main Street at 1st Avenue, barely a block west of the rodeo grounds in Rockyford.
There’s one more brief spell in Brokeback country, when Jack and Ennis camp by the eastern tip of Upper Kananaskis Lake. The predicament threatens to engulf them and Jack gets to utter the film’s signature line: “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
It seems Ennis, though, has found a way to quit Cassie,. She’s clearly still carrying a torch for him when she comes across him toying with a slice of apple pie in the Java Shop of the Greyhound Bus Station, 2302 2nd Avenue on the northeast corner of 23rd Street/Crowsnest Highway, Fort Macleod. You’re too late to sample that pie yourself – the coffee shop has since closed.
There’s to be no happy reconciliation with Jack. When a postcard is ominously returned marked ‘deceased’, Ennis discovers that his friend has died – in somewhat mysterious circumstances.
He visits Jack’s folks at the Twist family ranch, on Range Road 252 just south of Hwy 9, a couple of miles east of Beiseker, back where the Motel 9 was filmed.
Jack’s mother provides him a little comfort and, in a quiet coda, Ennis’s grown-up daughter visits him to tell him she’s marrying Kurt. Just to the southwest of Beiseker, Ennis’s trailer stood on a plot of land on the west side of 1st Avenue.