The Duke's co-star: A movie pilgrimage to Monument Valley

by Alan Solomon

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

1 June 2007

A full moon adds drama to the Left Mitten, a Monument Valley formation familiar to fans of John Ford and his John Wayne westerns. (Alan Solomon/Chicago Tribune/MCT) 

MONUMENT VALLEY, Ariz./Utah—He remembered the first time he saw this place. It was October 1948, and the chill of high-country autumn had already set in.

He was here to work with Victor McLaglen and Ben Johnson and John Agar and Arthur Shields and John Ford and the tall guy from the small town in Iowa.

The movie was She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Nearly 60 years later, that film is still wonderful—and alone among the key players, Harry Carey Jr. is still around. He is 86. His voice, by phone from his Santa Barbara, Calif., home, is 59 years younger.

“When we worked there,” Carey said of Goulding’s, then the only public lodging anywhere near Monument Valley, “it was very primitive. There weren’t even any bathrooms. The shower we had on Yellow Ribbon was a five-gallon tin can with a hose in it and holes in the bottom. Duke Wayne and everybody, that’s what we did.”

But it was surrounded by magnificence.

“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever worked in films, and I’ve made films everywhere. Of course in those days, the air was a lot cleaner ...”

The Duke. Also still around. When you consider an iconic figure like John Wayne, born 100 years ago and gone for 28—well, pilgrim, death is just a technicality.

Now, for many of us of a certain age, it’s hard to imagine what people who didn’t grow up with cowboys and cavalry charges think about places like this. Maybe they think about that “I Disappear” Metallica video. (Hey, children—impressed?) Or a certain Chevy commercial filmed here, in Ford country.

But we can’t entirely separate Monument Valley from those old movies ... which explains this, um, pilgrimage as we contemplate the man’s centennial.

The Navajos who live and work here certainly understand.

“They rode right along there,” said Rosie Fatt, who grew up in the shadows of the great spires, as she showed a visitor her country. “When they got to the bottom of it down there”—she was pointing now—“you saw a young girl running down the sand dune.”

The young girl was a young Natalie Wood. The riders were Jeffrey Hunter—and John Wayne.

The dune is still there. That’s the beauty part. OK, the dune—along with perspectives on film history and, yes, on John Wayne—might have shifted a bit since 1956, when John Ford made The Searchers on this stunning landscape. But the dune is still a dune, and the buttes and mesas are as they were when Ford made them his Old West signature—so leave us go amongst them.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the official designation, is not an easy place to get to. Most of the park is in Arizona, though some extends across the border into Utah. Closest town, such as it is, is Kayenta, in Arizona, about a half-hour south on U.S. Highway 163.

Even just a few years ago Kayenta was little more than a gas station, a convenience store, a simple restaurant in a trailer and a Holiday Inn for tour groups and strays who couldn’t get a room at Goulding’s. Today there are two more motels, and you can get a decent meal at the Golden Sands next to the Best Western or, if you happen to be there when it chooses to be open, at the Amigo Cafe.

Or ... well ... there’s a McDonald’s, Burger King and a Sonic.

On Goulding’s Trading Post and Lodge: This Utah motel/restaurant/gift shop/museum near the park’s only gate is almost as much a Monument Valley fixture as Merrick Butte. It was Harry Goulding, struggling to save his Navajo trading post during the Depression, who went to Hollywood and induced Ford to come here for location shots on a movie that would star Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine and a semi-obscure kid actor sprung from B-Westerns.

The How Harry Met John Ford story varies from storyteller to storyteller. (They’re all good stories, by the way.) The consensus truth: In 1938, a desperate but determined Goulding somehow canoodled his way into a meeting with the famously persnickety director, showed him some black-and-white pictures of the valley and sold him on sending a camera team—crudely housed but adequately fed by Goulding and his wife, Mike.

Stagecoach, released in 1939, was nominated for seven Academy Awards (Mitchell won for best supporting actor), introduced the world to Monument Valley and made John Wayne a star.

It also made Goulding’s a going concern. Owned since 1981 by the LaFont family, the property includes a stone cabin that sits alongside a supply shed.

If you’ve seen She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, you’ve seen that cabin.

In time, Wayne and Ford would return to this red-rock country to make four more films together: Fort Apache, released in 1948; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949; Rio Grande, 1950; and, in 1956, The Searchers.

Carey was in the last three. He would work with John Wayne in 11 films—none more revered than The Searchers.

“Greatest Western that ever was,” he said. Its greatness, he said, was the Duke. “I’ve never seen him so dedicated. The part of Ethan really got under his skin.”

Wayne and Ford would make more films, some together and some not, and Ford would shoot other movies in Monument Valley—but any serious retrospective of either career certainly would include Stagecoach, The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

In all three, and so many others, Monument Valley is an uncredited co-star. It’s an interesting sensation to see a Monument Valley movie—especially Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers—then come here and see the real thing, then go back and watch the movie.

Things aren’t quite where they should be. Horses and riders go in circles. These are movies shot in a real place, but they weren’t documentaries; Ford filmed She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 28 days—astounding quickness by today’s standards—and you shot where the light was.

For visitors, as it might have been for John Ford, the light’s best in the afternoon.

It’s possible to drive your own vehicle on a designated, rutted sand/rock “road” and see much of the tribal park. Possible. Not smart. Letting a Navajo guide drive you around on a Jeep tour is the better idea, because it will save your car’s underside, get you into backcountry open only to tribal members and their guests, and give you a better clue of what you’re looking at.

“The Chevrolet commercial,” said Fatt, my guide, as we bounced along, “was done right up at the top of the Right Mitten,” she said. “And a Jeep commercial took place right up on the top of Merrick Butte.”

And there was John Ford Point.

“One of John Ford’s favorite viewpoint areas,” she said. “The Searchers was filmed in this area—and also the Subaru Outback commercial.”

Movies and commercials and rock videos aside for a moment, the universal reality of Monument Valley is the grandeur. That’s what draws international visitors, including Martha Schultzke of Nuremberg, Germany.

“It’s famous, ja? In the guidebooks in Germany, it’s on every cover.”

And visitors there are. In summer, when the numbers rise with the heat, it can get a little tense.

At Artist’s Point, an astonishing overlook—Stagecoach scenes were filmed near there—it gets so crowded in high season, Fatt said, that tempers flare over people refusing to move their tripods or just being in the way.

And with so many vehicles around, private and tour, “it gets really dusty in the summertime.”

Which might have been what Harry Carey Jr. experienced on his most recent visit a couple of years ago. Because when I stopped by in late February, when only a few tourists were around, the clarity of the air was startling. The sky was a deep blue, Camel Butte looked like a camel and Elephant Butte looked like an elephant.

And something else.

“You know,” noted Lee An Denison, who works in the Goulding’s gift shop, “they have his initial out there in the desert. “

His initial?

“It’s called `the Three Sisters.’ And it makes a big `W.’”

That is silly. Monument Valley is not a silly place. Spiritual, certainly.

“Some people I meet, it’s like their 12th time being here,” said Cinda Atene, who grew up on this land and today is a park interpreter. “They always say, `There’s something here that brings me back.’

“I’ve even seen men cry here.”

And on clear nights when a full moon is scheduled to rise, dozens of photographers—even on a bitter cold February evening—will set their tripods along an appropriate ridge and wait to capture an instant when moon and butte play off each other just right.

One of those bitter cold nights, I was among them ...

“It is different,” Harry Carey Jr. said of today’s Monument Valley, “because they paved some of the roads and, of course, there’s tons of tourists now. It doesn’t have that same starkness and that same wild `out-West’ look it used to have.”

But anything less than spectacular? That’ll be the day ...


John Wayne movies filmed in Monument Valley (all directed by John Ford):

Stagecoach, 1939
Fort Apache, 1948
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949
Rio Grande, 1950
The Searchers, 1956

Other movies filmed there by John Ford:

My Darling Clementine, 1946
Wagon Master, 1950
Sergeant Rutledge, 1960
Cheyenne Autumn, 1964

Other notables filmed there (a selection):

The Vanishing American, 1925
Kit Carson, 1940
Billy the Kid, 1941
The Harvey Girls, 1946
How the West Was Won, 1962
2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
Easy Rider, 1969
Mackenna’s Gold, 1969
Wild Rovers, 1971
The Trial of Billy Jack, 1974
The Eiger Sanction, 1975
Legend of the Lone Ranger, 1981
National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983
Starman, 1984
Back to the Future III, 1990
Forrest Gump, 1994
Wild Wild West, 1999
Mission: Impossible II, 2000
Windtalkers, 2002



GETTING THERE: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park straddles the Arizona-Utah area near the Four Corners junction with Colorado and New Mexico. There’s a landing strip for small planes near Goulding’s Lodge, but for most, access means a road trip. It’s about 330 miles by car from Phoenix, half (as far as Flagstaff) via Interstate Highway 17. Figure about 5½ hours. From Las Vegas, the drive is a little shorter and a little slower—and often spectacular.

Nearest actual town is Kayenta, Ariz., a modest supply/market center for the Navajo Reservation and tourist base, about 20 miles south of the park entrance.

GETTING AROUND: Three choices: Drive yourself along the 17-mile circuit open to visitors, take a Jeep tour—which gets you onto backcountry roads reserved for Navajo guides—or hire a horse. Most visitors would be satisfied with the self-drive tour, though they would miss some of the park’s better scenery, petroglyphs and the historical information guides provide. Another caveat: The road is unpaved and sometimes crude; nervous drivers might do well to consider the alternatives. Tour prices start around $50 for a half-day; expect to pay about the same for 90 minutes on a horse. Contact the park for a list of concessionaires. There’s no unauthorized hiking.

STAYING THERE: The area’s 800-pound gorilla is Goulding’s (435-727-3231), a few miles west of the park entrance on the Utah side, with a variety of options from standard motel (the Lodge) to separate cottages and a large RV campground—and fine views from most rooms. Also, free John Wayne movies. From June 1 through mid-October, doubles run $175 (subject to change); lower the rest of the year. Kayenta has a Holiday Inn (888-HOLIDAY), Best Western (800-780-7234) and Hampton Inn (800-HAMPTON); in season, rates at the three range from about $105 to $120. Reserve early in summer.

DINING THERE: Limited. Goulding’s has a year-round restaurant that’s pretty decent, combining familiar cafe/diner fare with some creative uses of Navajo frybread. Best option in Kayenta, aside from a fast-food cluster and the hotels, is the Golden Sands Restaurant, nothing fancy but a good place to try a local specialty, mutton stew (accompanied by frybread). The park visitor center has food service open during the main tourist season (spring through fall).

INFORMATION: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park office: 435-727-5874

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