The new celluloid version of C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" finally arrives in theaters on Friday, the same day the smaller but also eagerly awaited "Brokeback Mountain" debuts. The two films could hardly be less alike: One is the family blockbuster of the winter season with heavily marketed Christian overtones; the other is a small love story about two cowboys. And yet their simultaneous release this weekend could touch off the year's first real box-office culture clash.
The Disney/Walden Media version of Lewis' Narnia tale comes with all the bells and whistles of a crowd-pleaser -- CGI wizardry and epic battles -- and the studios are hoping, no doubt, that it will become just the first installment of a lucrative fantasy series, à la "The Lord of the Rings," but with more episodes (there are seven books in "The Chronicles of Narnia"). In a marketing campaign built on the lessons of "The Passion of the Christ," Narnia has also been skillfully sold to the Christian audience via special church screenings and a plethora of Sunday school teaching materials that tie into the film, much of it orchestrated by Motive Entertainment, the company that helped launch "Passion."
"Brokeback Mountain," on the other hand, is a quiet drama made very much in the mold of classic American tragic love stories, and has been compared to everything from "Titanic" -- even the movie posters are purposefully similar -- to "Gone With the Wind." But while in no way political in itself -- the story sticks close to the characters and the arc of their relationship -- a film about two cowboys (even one with the tag line "Love is a force of nature") cannot help finding itself suddenly sucked into a political vortex beyond the filmmaker's control, given the current cultural divide over gay rights. It's a film that "bucks Hollywood convention" and "explores the last frontier," and in a year that has seen a ferocious national debate over same-sex marriage, a taboo-busting movie that brings together two rising young male Hollywood stars locking lips on the big screen is bound to stir controversy.
Or you'd at least be forgiven for thinking so. Because it turns out that there's a concerted effort -- on both sides -- to avoid turning "Brokeback Mountain" into a political battle.
Instead of boycotts, picket lines or enraged letters to the editor, conservative Christian groups are hoping to kill the film with silence. Robert Knight, director of the Culture & Family Institute at Concerned Women for America, says his group has made a conscious decision not to campaign against the film. "People aren't going to walk around outside theaters with protest signs," Knight says. "This is not 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' which was such an affront that people felt they had to respond. This is something that could be and should be ignored.
"We've actually discussed whether to do some sort of action," Knight says. "But the consensus was, why give it that much credit, or why call attention to it?"
Peter Sprigg, vice president of the Family Research Council -- the group that a year ago led a campaign against "Kinsey," the biopic about America's favorite/most-hated sex researcher -- says his group came to a similar conclusion. "We talked about whether we should do something, but at this point we don't have any plans," says Sprigg. "Some of these things, we don't want to draw attention to them. We would almost be doing them a favor if we were to mount a big campaign -- we'd be making a martyr out of the movie, so to speak. I don't think we want to fall into that."
Even Focus on the Family, which on Thursday announced it would stop using Wells Fargo because of the bank's contributions to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), has been mum, indicating that it would release some sort of statement on the film, but that it had no campaign planned.
What happened to the phone tree and newsletter agitation of years past, like the protests that surrounded Ellen's coming out on "Ellen," or the American Family Association's sustained campaign against "Will & Grace"? Perhaps the Christian right believes there's no such thing as bad press, and the surest method to induce box-office death is total silence. "Hey, it's about time," says Curtis Mork, a coordinator at the gay activist group Wyoming Equality in Cheyenne, Wyo. "They're getting smart. I've always said, the more they complain about us, the stronger we get."
Of course, predicting how a film like "Brokeback Mountain" will affect the national consciousness before it comes out is a dicey game at best. "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Passion" (and for that matter, "Last Temptation") came with their controversies pre-packaged, while other recent hubbubs (NippleGate, anyone?) seemed to arrive from out of the deep blue. But that hasn't stopped the cultural conservatives from declaring "Brokeback" a non-issue before the movie is out (or they've even having seen it). Conservative radio host and movie critic Michael Medved says, "When I've spoken to people about it, the general reaction is bemusement. In other words, 'Look at this, everyone's excited about a gay cowboy movie.'" Medved also feels that "Kinsey" -- based on a true story rather than fiction -- raised conservative ire in a way "Brokeback" can't. "'Kinsey' was an issue, not because of gay content, but because it was dealing with a significant historical figure. I could be wrong on this, and I acknowledge that I could be wrong, but I just don't see a lot of agitation in the cultural conservative community about 'Brokeback Mountain.'
"There may well be a sort of forlorn hope on the part of the movie's producers and promoters that conservatives will make a huge issue of it, and thereby generate a certain amount of box-office heat," he adds. "And my very strong guess is that most conservatives will refuse to oblige them."
But there may also be a much simpler explanation for the right's hands-off approach to the film. "Imagine protesting 'Titanic' or 'Gone With the Wind,' " says Dave DeCicco, communications director at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. "It's a really bad idea, because you're going to have broad appeal with the movie. One of the things people in this country enjoy is a love story. The right-wing lunatics are maybe smart enough to back off."
Damon Romine, entertainment media director for GLAAD, points out that critics are already "overwhelmingly embracing" the movie, and that a campaign against it might ultimately backfire. "If people think that publicly attacking this film is a good use of their time, it says far more about them and their agenda than it does about 'Brokeback Mountain.'"
"At its most basic level, this is a story about relationships," he says. "The love that these characters experience in many ways transcends categories of gay and straight; this is a universal love story."
The focus on the movie's love story has been central to the planning of the movie from the very beginning. According to Newsweek, the movie's producer, James Schamus, told director Ang Lee early on that the film would be marketed directly to one audience. "Yes, of course," said Lee, "the gay audience." No," Schamus replied, "women."
Schamus says he, too, hasn't heard rumors of a brewing outcry against the movie. "We're not really getting a sense there's much to talk about on that front, or that there ever will be," he told Salon by e-mail. He has previously made it clear he's not interested in taking on people who object to the film's content. "If you have a problem with the subject matter, that's your problem, not mine," Schamus told Newsweek. "It would be great if you got over your problem, but I'm not sitting here trying to figure out how to help you with it."
They may be backing off from a coordinated attack, but when pressed, they certainly can't hide their disdain for it. "I don't think it's going to be another 'Philadelphia,' because it's one thing to garner sympathy for a man dying of AIDS; it's another to tell America that they should accept two cowboys lusting after each other," says the Culture & Family Institute's Knight. He also brushes off the potential effect of an Oscar nomination or win -- which helped catapult "Philadelphia" into mainstream consciousness -- by citing a canard about the failure of Oliver Stone's biopic on Alexander the Great. "I don't think it will matter. I mean, look, 'Alexander' was doomed when word got around that it had a bisexual aspect to it. People don't want to see that. They don't want to see two guys going at it. It's that simple."
While Stone was among those blaming the rumors of bisexuality for his film's dismal box-office showing, it has to be said that the critical reaction to "Alexander" was almost universally negative, a fact that probably had more to do with its financial failure than did its hero's implied bisexuality. "Brokeback," on the other hand, was generating Oscar buzz as soon as it premiered, and Heath Ledger is already heavily favored for a best actor nomination.
Oddly, there's more outrage over the perceived damage the film will do to the hallowed masculine image of cowboys. A story about the movie in the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune -- cited by Matt Drudge -- quotes lifelong resident and playwright Sandy Dixon as saying she doesn't know a single gay cowboy: "There's nothing better than plain old cowboys and the plain old history without embellishing it to suit everyone." Or, as Knight puts it: "A cowboy who's lusting after his buddy isn't fit to wear cowboy boots." (Curtis Monk, who leads an AIDS-awareness program and also coordinates events for Wyoming Equality, tends to disagree. "I alone personally know 15 gay cowboys who come to our dances.")
But Knight is really fired up about the affront to the ghosts of westerns past: "I think this shows that Hollywood can pervert anything. Part of the enduring appeal of westerns is the display of brotherhood, unhindered by sexualization. You often hear the phrase 'to be a straight-shooter.' That means to speak plain truths and walk easily amid the natural bonds of affection, without the distraction of misplaced sexual urges. In other words, the audience can relax. Their hero is not going to get weird on them.
"The western was a morality tale, so to make immorality the heart of this western is to violate the code of westerns. That's why it's not going to work."
Lee, talking to the Hollywood Reporter, has actually insisted the movie is "not a Western. No gunslingers. I don't want to undermine the sanctified image of the American Western man. It's a love story of real people in the West."
There's also more than a slight tinge of boosterism going on here, in the face of "Brokeback" opening against "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Knight links box-office success with moral authority. "You know, that's going to be quite a contrast," he says. "You're going to have a roll-out of a film that's going to be a blockbuster, and it reflects basic Christian values, going up against a limited release of a movie that mocks traditional morality. And I'll betcha I know which one is going to win.
"I think Ang Lee is off his rocker if he thinks he can have the same commercial success with two cowboys instead of a cowboy and a cowgirl, as other movies do."
The comparison, though, is deeply flawed. "Narnia," with its $150 million budget and months-long P.R. campaign behind it, is a bigger movie opening on a much greater scale (more than 3,000 screens). "Brokeback," with a budget of $13 million, is technically considered an independent film, and will open on only five screens, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
But still, the Narnia phenomenon may be in part responsible for the general silence on "Brokeback" by siphoning off a lot of effort that might otherwise have gone into a campaign. Sprigg cites Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of the Christian magazine Movieguide, who has called for a different approach to influencing pop culture. "The idea is that rather than a negative response of boycotts and picketing and things like that, to encourage a positive response to movies that portray positive values," Sprigg says. "And particularly, I've seen articles encouraging people to go see some of these positive movies on the first weekend because the first weekend box office has a lot of influence on how the film is received overall. I think that may be more of a growing response."
That's certainly going to be the response with "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," with many churches purchasing group tickets in advance and planning bus trips to theaters.
No matter how it does at the box office, neither the film's producers nor its detractors on the right get to ultimately decide how "Brokeback Mountain" will play out in the culture, whether it will be a defining moment, the way "Ellen" was in 1997, or just the butt of more "South Park" jokes. (Cartman once defined independent movies as "those black-and-white hippie movies. They're always about gay cowboys eating pudding.") But even Knight admits there's a chance the film will be the big event of the weekend.
"Maybe after years of MTV shoving sexual license in kids' faces there's a whole new generation ready for two cowboys going after each other instead of the cowgirl," says Knight, "but I hope not."