We asked our chief (and ofttimes only) commenter Graham Hill to write an article for us. He’s suppled a wonderful piece about Monument Valley. Here’s Graham —
Welcome to JOHN FORD country…
This is MONUMENT VALLEY the holy shrine of western movies, located on the very borders of Utah and Arizona… This is Indian land… Just a small part of the 16 million acres, covering five states that belong to the Navajo nation.
But to the rest of the world, it is the ultimate icon that represents the fabled American West.
“Printing the legend” or rather perpetuating the lie, is what dime novels and HOLLYWOOD have been doing from the very beginning… And no western director embraced that philosophy more than John Ford. The famous quote taken from the script of his own THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE western, is the least one to make use of the great outdoors as its backdrop. It was practically sound-stage bound.
When he was in his prime though, Ford had staked out his own western landscape in Monument Valley and made it his trademark that you saw in seven classics.
Monument Valley is a harsh landscape that is logistically challenging even today.
Although everyone associates the great buttes and mesas as being John Ford country, you may be surprised to learn that he was not the first director to introduce it to the world, as that honor belongs to The Vanishing American, a 1925 silent film based on the novel by Zane Grey directed by serial auteur George B. Seitz, that holds the honor of being the first to include sequences shot on location in Monument Valley. It was a low-key screen debut: A couple of quickie bits were staged in front of the valley’s distinctive rock skyline, but the bulk of production took place near Tuba City, 90 miles to the southwest.
In fact, even John Ford could not find everything he wanted in Monument Valley, and very often it is combined with the rocky scenery of places like Moab, Kanab, Sedona, and even the rocky parts that are within HOLLYWOOD’s own backyard out in the San Fernando Valley.
But to audiences, all the rocks looked alike… And once you opened to a great Monument Valley panoramic shot, they’d easily cut to somewhere else that was hundreds of miles away, and you’d assume it was all in the same area.
In September 1929, a company from Fox Film Corp. traveled to Monument Valley to shoot parts of The Lone Star Ranger, starring George O’Brien, the first talkie Zane Grey Western, and the first sound film of any genre made in northern Arizona. Ten years before he blazed into the national consciousness in Stagecoach, John Wayne, still answering to the moniker Duke Morrison, worked in Monument Valley as The Lone Star Ranger‘s prop man. Eleven months later, Fox Film announced it would trot him in front of cameras there as leading man of King of Wild Horses (aka Alcatraz and Wyoming Wonder), a never-completed remake of Tom Mix’s silent Just Tony in which the newly anointed actor was set to play opposite the more prominently billed (and much bigger movie star) Rex the Wonder Horse.
Ford’s first venture into Monument Valley was STAGECOACH, but it only occupied less than four minutes of screen time. Still, it made an indelible impression on moviegoers and studios alike in 1939, as the western genre became big box-office.
In late August 1938, six weeks before he brought John Ford to Monument Valley to scout locations for Stagecoach, Flagstaff rancher/movie coordinator Lee Doyle arranged for an MGM crew to film exteriors there (and in Sedona) for George B. Seitz’s Out West With the Hardys; inexplicably, the Mickey Rooney-starring sitcom would pull into theaters (more than three months before Stagecoach) with no easy-to-ID Monument Valley real estate in sight. In 1940, Seitz returned to Monument Valley for the third time to direct indie producer Edward Small’s Kit Carson with Jon Hall.
Goulding’s Lodge, is where Ford, Wayne, and the other major stars would stay during production in the valley, and the updated quarters are not only the best place for a Western fan to stay, but also where several key scenes in Ford’s Westerns were filmed.
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, a 1949 John Ford-John Wayne collaboration was filmed outside Mr. Harry Goulding’s potato cellar, the lodge’s Movie Room was built as the mess hall for the crew of The Harvey Girls, a 1946 musical film. Visit the Stagecoach Dining Room, to see the property’s movie memorabilia. The old trading post and motel buildings at Gouldings were featured as the buildings of Fort Starke in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949.
The fort’s front walls, gate, and blockhouses were constructed several miles away, against a backdrop of Castle Butte to the left and West Mitten Butte to the right, atop a sharp rise. Careful use of camera angles allowed the crew to inter-cut these scenes with those back at Goulding’s to make it all seem like one location.
This same area where Fort Starke was built is also where the cemetery scene in perhaps the greatest Western ever made, THE SEARCHERS (1954), was set. Stand on the rising slope where Wayne and Texas Ranger Captain and minister Ward Bond buried Ethan Edward’s family after the Comanche raid and you just might hear the echo of Wayne’s voice warning, “That’ll be the day!” with the Edwards ranch-site back on the Utah side, in the distance.
Southeast of Goulding’s is Rock Door Canyon, the site of Henry Fonda’s Custer-like cavalry charge in Fort Apache. There’s a decent road right down the middle of the canyon where Fonda’s cavalry charged to glory and a little further on near the rest center and parking area you’ll notice the long mesa that was the background for “Thursday’s last stand.”
To my mind, the biggest most iconic “Rock Star” of any western movie, is the one that Henry Fonda is fighting in front of above, and the one John Wayne who is riding in front of below paced by the Indians in THE SEARCHERS…
The locals call it Camelback Rock, but my wife and I named it THE SEARCHERS Rock in May of this year, but you’ll need a Navajo guide in a 4×4 vehicle to access it, as with any off-the-road area within the Navajo Tribal Park that is Monument Valley proper, or even outside it.
And would you believe, of the hundreds of thousands of tourists and western fans who take tours or brave the uneven rocky 17-mile loop in the Navajo park each year, we are among the very, very few who ever asked about THE SEARCHERS Rock, let alone would want to visit it.
The big irony of Monument Valley though, is that just a mere few dozen westerns were ever shot there, regardless of not wanting to encroach on “John Ford country” or not… But Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Sergio Leone’s 1968 ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST… really show off its breath taking majestic beauty the BEST!
There’ll be more articles on our Western Location trip of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and if you need further info, simply ask by COMMENTING…
Thanks so much Graham. We welcome guest articles from all our readers.