12.03.2012

The homosexual in the text: Morgan Royce as Ephraim McKeever in "Song of the Loon" (1970)



Thirty-five years before Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee, 2005), there was Song of the Loon (dir. Andrew Herbert, 1970), a gay romance of the North American frontier that has since become something of a cult item.  It claims to be set in the late nineteenth century, but many of the film’s conflicts and situations reflect those relevant to the experience of gay men circa 1970 rather than 1870.  In staging its fantasy of gay love against the backdrop of the nineteenth-century frontier, Song of the Loon suggests a profound discomfort with twentieth-century gay culture.  Stories of the American frontier, epitomized by the Hollywood Western, are nearly always stories of escape or flight from the social order; as a Western about the fantasy of fleeing the gay mainstream, Song of the Loon is no exception. 

The film is set almost exclusively in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, which are revealed to be crawling with gay white men in search of sexual knowledge and gay Native American men from whom they gain spiritual enlightenment.  The film’s primary point of identification is Ephraim McKeever (pictured, left), a blonde city boy recovering from a bad break-up with a cruel lover (or something—the details of the plot remain somewhat murky).  McKeever meets up with a series of friendly Native men who preach the gospel of free love (“you suffer from the white man’s disease: jealousy”) and set him on the path to self-acceptance.  He also finds love with a buckskin-wearing daddy named Cyrus Wheelwright, and the two eventually decide to set up house together in a log cabin of their own.  We’re treated to many picturesque shots of Ephraim and Cyrus riding horses through the mountains, hunting, and bathing nude together to the sounds of cheery music; simulated sex scenes are more cute than arousing.  The emphasis here is on the “naturalness” of gay love, and, as such, it has an innocent, chaste, hazy quality.  The film (and its 1966 source novel, unread by me) could be said to insist on the value of homosexuality by spiritualizing it: as it’s depicted here, gay love is so pure it’s transcended sex altogether.

Song of the Loon thus becomes interesting when put in the context of its time, namely the dawn of the explosion of gay subculture in metropolitan centers such as San Francisco and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  (For contrast, see Richard Stockton’s The Meat Rack [1969]; the two might make an interesting double feature.)  Song of the Loon does not sing the praises of gay community or call for political action, nor does it show any interest in acknowledging the range of homosexual identity—there’s nary a femme to be found here.  Instead, it imagines a secluded, ruggedly masculine space away from the city altogether, where men may find a private retreat.  Song of the Loon’s deep anxiety about the gay urban scene leads to its fashioning a vision of gay life that is, to quote John Ford’s classic Stagecoach, “free from the blessings of civilization.”

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