August 13, 2022

Recently Sam Elliott made the news following comments about current Oscar front-runner The Power of the Dog. On Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Elliott complained that, among other things, the film contained “allusions of homosexuality” and spoke about his perception of some costumes to have some homoerotic overtones. While roundly criticized for these regressive comments, as well as other ridiculous comments about where the film was shot and how much director Jane Campion actually knows about the American West, Elliott accidentally proved the film’s central theme as to how gay people are often erased entirely from the mythos of the Old West.

The Power of the Dog is directed by Jane Campion, who also wrote the screenplay adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel by the same name. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a typically masculine rancher whose brother George meets and marries a woman named Rose and moves her and her son Peter onto their ranch. Phil antagonizes Peter for his lisp and effeminate manner. Phil, after a period of time, warms to Peter and begins showing him certain ranching skills.

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Elliott’s comments about the “allusions of homosexuality” are correct in that the film suggests that both Phil and Peter are gay. Phil had an important mentor in the unseen Bronco Henry, and the film implies that there was an element of homosexuality in Phil and Henry’s relationship. Phil has magazines of naked men with Henry’s name on them, he masturbates with Henry’s scarf, and he credits Henry with saving his life by lying body-to-body with him in a bedroll in freezing weather, but he won’t answer when Peter asks if they were naked. And the reasons behind Phil’s initial antagonism towards Peter seem to be homophobic in nature, taking a dislike to Peter’s lack of masculinity.

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power-of-the-dog-Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee
Image via Netflix

But Sam Elliott complaining about these allusions, about how this wasn’t the American West, is exactly what the film is intending to prove. Until the gay rights movement in the 1960s and 70s, gay people weren’t open about their true selves, as it was a taboo subject and often illegal too. But they have always existed. Gay people have existed as long as people have existed. But they were often erased from history, for a few different reasons. One was that the straight people who would document history didn’t want to acknowledge something often seen as immoral and unnatural. They would erase someone’s sexuality to make history easier to digest and to hold the status quo.

But more to this film’s point, the gay people of the time would often hide, making it easier for them to seem like they didn’t exist. They would pretend to be straight or just never be in a relationship, to keep from being ridiculed and ostracized. Phil concealed his homosexuality to fit into the hyper-masculine world of ranching, and he’d cover any perceived hint of his true being by ridiculing anyone who acted outside the rigid gender norms of the time, such as Peter. It’s a self-defense mechanism, but one that comes at the expense of others.


Elliot’s comments are the kind of bigoted, denying comments that lead to the erasure of homosexuality in history. He is mythologizing the past with his worldview – ignoring the fact that many people, now and then, don’t share his experiences or perspective. Many Westerns erase various groups who were present and who helped create history. There were women, people of color, and yes, homosexuals who were a part of the history, and by trying to act like the only people who could’ve existed in 1920s Montana were straight is to be at best oblivious and at worst willfully ignorant.


the-power-of-the-dog

It is also to the film’s point that due to the nature of the culture around the West and ranching, gay people of the time would face the kind of homophobia that Elliott is peddling. The idea that gay men couldn’t possibly do something so masculine is the underlying implication of Elliott’s quotes. How could gay people exist in a culture meant for “real” men? This thinking would cause men like Phil to hide their sexuality and become outwardly homophobic to cover themselves and would cause men like Peter to feel like outsiders, bullied by “real” men for having interests outside their own and mannerisms that may be more effete than what is considered masculine.


Thomas Savage was the author of the original 1967 novel from which the film is adapted. He wrote most of his work within the Western oeuvre, and he used these writings to explore his own sexuality and the repressive nature of the Montana he grew up in. He spent a lot of his life in the closet, and he wrote about these experiences with bigotry and strife in his books, specifically The Power of the Dog. While critically acclaimed, it didn’t really sell many copies until 2001, when it was republished with a new forward by Annie Proulx.

Annie Proulx was the author of the story that was adapted into the film Brokeback Mountain, and Savage’s work, specifically The Power of the Dog, was massively influential to her. And the film’s receptions are very similar too, beyond the themes they share. Brokeback Mountain was a critical success and Oscar front-runner. And both had to deal with criticism from notable actors as to the combination of the Western genre and homosexuality. Brokeback Mountain garnered criticism from actors Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis, with both emphasizing how John Wayne, iconic movie star and the personification of the Western genre, wouldn’t like it.



brokeback mountain, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal sitting together, cowboys

Of course, The Power of the Dog benefits greatly from being released 16 years later, into a world where the view on homosexuality has progressed. When Brokeback Mountain was released, gay marriage had only been legalized in Massachusetts, and only two years prior had the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to criminalize gay sex. But while it’s better than it was, the world is still not free of discrimination against gay people. Florida is attempting to pass the “Don’t Say Gay” bill statewide, and conversion therapy is still legal in a majority of states. Elliott’s comments still represent the way a lot of people think about the world – that this type of behavior has no place in such a storied and genuine genre. And while these thoughts may seem innocuous, just vaguely homophobic, these comments at the start of a snowball can lead others to feel emboldened to do actual harm, whether through legislation or actual hate crimes.

Sam Elliott didn’t make the point he thought he was making when he spoke about The Power of the Dog. He thought he was stating the obvious, that homosexuality and the American West go together like oil and water. But really the point he made was the same as the film. As much as many may try and deny it, homosexuality was a part of the American West, as much as lassos and horses. By trying to deny it, now and then, all it does is cause hurt to gay people, either making them hide or making them the target of harassment. This creates and upholds a culture of toxic masculinity, wherein nobody wins.


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