Have you ever had a dream that continued, serial-like, between snatches of post-REM wakefulness, smearing separate neural spasms into a seamless epic? Watching an afternoon of John Ford westerns creates the same sensation. The plotlines and hairstyles and warring Indian tribes may vary, but whether it’s ‘Texas’ or ‘Arizona’, whether in black and white or color, whether the man with the gun is John Wayne or Henry Fonda, they all exist in a ostensibly Western space. Yet they may as well be on Jupiter, or Middle Earth, or Tatooine for its remoteness; a vast hermetic enclosure like THX-1138’s “prison without walls” where the background never changes. That’s because Ford shot them all in Monument Valley.
Named Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii (translated variably as ‘Valley of the Rocks’ or ‘Changing of the Rock’) by the native Navajo population, the majestic, semi-terrestrial landscape located on the Arizona-Utah border stirred something in Ford. Unlike other immigrant directors (Frank Capra) who expressed their love for America through the chaste celebration of its spiritual ideals, Ford was in complete carnal rapture with America’s sensual geography. For him, the physical beauty of Monument Valley became a Rorschach of buttes upon which he could project his visions of an ideal America. As he himself maintained, “I think you can say that the real star of my Westerns has always been the land.”
Stories differ about Ford’s first acquaintance with the locale that would figure prominently in nine of his films, but the account Ford himself preferred was this one: in 1937 Harry Goulding, grasping for a way to make his remote encampment solvent, traveled up to Hollywood with a clutch of photos of the view from his trading post, unrolled a sleeping bag in the studio offices, and waited. Ford liked the site’s craggy majesty, as well as how pleasingly remote it was from the meddling eye of Hollywood. Much to the Depression-pinched Goulding’s delight, Ford moved a production crew to Monument Valley three days later.
That crew arrived to shoot Stagecoach (1939), the film that consummated the cinematic marriage of John Ford and John Wayne. As the outlaw Ringo Kid, Wayne joins a motley crew of Western archetypes disgraced prostitute, alcoholic doctor, Confederate gambler, milquetoast traveling salesman, respectable woman with a mysterious ailment all making their uncertain journey across Indian country.
Ford was still figuring out how to best shoot his new environment. Granted, it’s practically impossible to create a bad composition out of the breathtaking mesas. The familiar projections of rock especially East Mitten and West Mitten, the mirror-image buttes that get their nicknames from their spindly wind-carved “thumbs” become iconic even in their debut. Though much of their grandeur gets lost in flat, contrast-less exposures, Stagecoach still has much to recommend cinematographically. Interior sets have ceilings, visible in low angle shots emphasizing the difference between the claustrophobic indoors and the limitless exteriors. It predates the famously ballyhooed technique of Citizen Kane, which is no surprise, since Orson Welles once said he learned filmmaking by studying the works of “classical” film makers, by which he meant “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”
Appropriate to the otherworldly locale, the social rules of the film are different, as well. It’s an egalitarian territory where the women’s votes even that of scapegoated hooker Dallas count, and races are allowed to mix. “Yes, but she’s…she’s…savage!” squawks meek salesman Mr. Peacock when he realizes Chris, their Mexican host, is married to an Apache. “Si, senor,” Chris blandly agrees. “She a little bit savage, l think.” It’s all very far removed from the “Kansas City, Kansas” Peacock worries he’ll never see again. The gnawed moonscape outside makes it clear we’re nowhere near Dorothy’s domain. Ford may not have yet figured out how to light and shoot his newest, biggest actor but in Stagecoach he’s already made sure it hit its metaphoric marks.
By My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford had figured it out. Also in black and white, Ford and cinematographer Joe MacDonald discovered how to express not only remoteness, but portent, gravity, and doom. The most noir influenced of the Ford westerns (made right smack in the thick of the atmospheric genre’s first flowering), Macdonald carries John Huston’s iconic Maltese Falcon palette of chiaroscuro, deep focus, and haze to Monument Valley, dust and gunsmoke standing in for the San Francisco fog that sheltered Sam Spade.
The clouds overhead sparkle with dark menace as the Earp brothers ride into Tombstone, Arizona. It is a madman’s paradise and anarchic homestead where a decent man can’t even get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor without the mirrors shattering in a barrage of random gunfire. Still half-lathered, Wyatt Earp played by Henry Fonda, whose austere presence fits this film better than Wayne would have stomps into the crowd and spanks the offending parties with a few judicious shots from a six-shooter. A grateful populace appoints him sheriff despite his protests. He warms to the job but learns that, despite the badge, in this town punishment is not his to mete out.
That’s the domain of the cultivated, sensual-eyed brute Doc Holliday (Victor Mature, belying his meatheaded muscleman reputation with a nuanced performance). By this point, Ford not only knew how to juice the most from his exteriors, but he understood how to successfully emphasize his interiors, as well. The first meeting between Earp and Holliday is set at the corner of the saloon’s long wooden bar, a slick ebony vortex that extends into the frame’s vanishing point like a blacktop highway. Thus, the scene is set for the careful pas des deux between the town’s arbiters of written and unwritten law, and creating a deep-grounded visual tour de force of gloss, shadow, highlight and deep focus.
The most gorgeous of Ford’s Westerns is his masterpiece The Searchers (1956). Much has been said about its metaphoric and philosophical legacy, but to see it on a big screen (at a drive-in? In the heat of August? Someday I might be so lucky) is to be first of all awash in a desert paintbox. Illuminated with available sunlight, Ford finds as many subtle variations in the arid rock formations as Monet found in his explorations of Rouen Cathedral. The movie is a cascade of violet against yellow, sky-blue-pink clouds, sagebrush and goldenrod. When Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) stands before the cloudless, robins-egg heavens, the piercing blue of his eyes creates the illusion that we are looking through his face to the azure flood behind him.
It’s that visible connection to the land that Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in the pinnacle of his collaboration with Ford) despises in his traveling partner. Martin’s part-Cherokee, and it’s all Ethan can do to contain his irrational rage towards him, and the non-Cherokee “injuns” who kidnapped and by now, likely savaged his little niece, Debra. Driven mad by revenge, he scours acres of terrain with unquenchable tenacity, certain in his heart he’ll be just as likely to kill the defiled Debra when he finds her as he would rescue her.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader saw much in Ethan’s quest that translated to his own “God’s lonely man” urban gunslinger, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976). The same way that an extra-squalid mid-‘70s Times Square represents Travis’s internal decay, the wild, unforgiving frontier represents Ethan’s own jagged interior terrain, pitted and bleached by the dually soul-corroding agents of racism and vengeance. Ford’s famous final shot from the inside of a cabin frames the land’s awesome vastness in a tidy doorway silhouette, the shaded entryway back to civilization through which all may pass except for Ethan. Knowing he’s dirtied by revenge and horror in a way that’s bigger than wiping your boots at the door, he turns and returns to the brutal wide open that’ll have him.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964) was Ford’s final trip to Monument Valley as a director. Something called the “Monument Valley Tribal Park” gets prominent billing in the credits, but it looks a little seedy, like an abandoned tourist attraction. Oddly, Ford uses lenses that flatten depth and strange compositions that obscure his actors behind poles and foreground objects. Impatient with the slow healing of his cataract surgery, Ford prematurely tore off his bandages and lost the sight in one eye, so it’s tempting (but too reductive) to justify Cheyenne Autumn‘s ‘half-blind’ compositions from the effects of this injury. After all, Ford made his masterpiece The Searchers with said stunted monocular vision.
Besides, Captain Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark) is no Ethan Edwards. Without “God’s lonely man” at the center, it’s proven that a singular location alone cannot make a western. With a cluttered cast, the embarrassing dated practice of casting Italians and Mexicans in prominent Indian roles, a yakety-yak narrator, and a dead cavalry man with an arrow in his back (even though the Cheyenne have been shooting guns for the past 45 minutes), it’s a sorry farewell to a beloved locale.
But Ford’s last visit is, luckily, not ours. Monument Valley has, because of Ford, become visual shorthand for the American West. Its formations have appeared in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Back to the Future II and III. (No, it’s not the alien landing platform in Close Encounters of the Third Kind that’s Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a rare exception to the Valley’s cinematic ubiquity.) When The Mittens appear in a Marlboro ad or as a quick landmark behind Forrest Gump‘s cross-country jog, it means The West. And John Ford alone is responsible for that.
Much is made about the implacability of his Valley, how the seasons turn and the dusk follows dawn without concern for the tiny humans inhabiting its plain. But for all that threat and apathy, Ford’s landscapes don’t feel brutal or savage. They feel true and open worthy of a healthy respect, but also deserving of love, the love of a long and fruitful partnership. One butte now bears the name ‘John Ford’s Lookout’ in tribute, but he’d already received a more fitting accolade. The Navajo tribe, as a thank you for years of employment and camaraderie, presented him with a deer hide thusly inscribed: “In your travels, may there be beauty behind you, beauty on both sides of you, and beauty ahead of you.” When the travels are shot by Ford in Monument Valley, that’s a given.