Monument Valley

Filmmaking and Myth

by Joe Zentner

In the opening scene of Fort Apache, a classic John Ford film, Henry Fonda portrays a starchy career army officer, an Easterner, riding his horse through a quintessentially western American landscape.  The sage flats seem to stretch forever among the craggy buttes that tower into a clear-blue sky.

The film’s dramatic scenery is not trickery created on a soundstage.  It is not a composite.  It is not a computer-generated backdrop.  Rather, it is Monument Valley, a real place, a wild and sparsely settled region on the Arizona-Utah border and long a favorite shooting location for Hollywood filmmakers, especially those who made Western films a defining genre, a eulogy to the early days of an untamed frontier.  

If you feel as though you’ve been here before, you probably have, at least metaphorically.  Ever since John Wayne saddled up here in the classic Western Stagecoach, Hollywood has exploited the stark beauty of Monument Valley.  My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, How The West Was Won, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and many other Westerns were filmed here, among the orange-red sandstone buttes that form one of the most remarkable topographies on earth.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Video

Roots of the Western

The roots of the Western are found in disparate sources: folk music of the colonial period; James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, including his frontier adventure The Last of the Mohicans; Mark Twain’s classic Roughing It; author Bret Harte’s short stories; and Zane Grey’s 60+ novels that inspired dozens of films, including The Vanishing American (1925)—the first film ever shot in Monument Valley.

The central plot of the Western involved maintaining frontier law and order, as depicted in a fast-paced action story.  Most were rooted in archetypal conflict, such as good versus evil, white hat versus black hat, American settlers versus the Indians (usually portrayed as savages), civilization versus lawlessness, schoolteachers versus saloon dance-hall girls, sheriff versus gunslinger.

Conflicts grew out of patterned situations, including ranchers versus farmers (Shane), settlers versus Indians (The Searchers), and outlaws versus civilized people (High Noon).  Typical scenes in Western films included gunfights, train robberies, bank holdups, runaway stagecoaches, cattle rustling, stampedes, pursuing posses and barroom brawls.

The film that is generally considered to have given birth to the genre was Edward Porter’s pioneering The Great Train Robbery (1903), shot on the East Coast (New Jersey and Delaware), rather than the film’s supposed Wyoming setting.

Vitally important, especially in filmmaking’s early days, was the immediacy of the American West.  When Hollywood first established itself as the center of film production, the frontier was so close at hand that gunslingers/quasi-lawmen such as Wyatt Earp sometimes served as movie set consultants.  Hollywood’s physical proximity to the Wild West made Western mythology tangible and powerful.

In the early 1980s, Westerns began to disappear from cinema screens with changes in public tastes and with fading memories of the trail-blazing past.  The repetitive presence of Westerns on television, as well as recognition that the Native Americans’ way of life was virtually annihilated during this country’s formative period, contributed to the disappearance.

John Ford

John Ford (1894-1973) was known particularly as a director of Westerns, although his cinematic tributes to World War II veterans and Americana have also been praised.  Ford excelled at prying complexities out of worn but fascinating stories.



He was born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to John and Barbara Feeney, both of whom were natives of County Galway, Ireland.  They had 11 children, the tenth of whom was christened John.  Many of the director’s films recall his ancestral heritage.  After riding as a Klansmen in director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), young Feeney sought acting roles.  In 1921, he turned to directing, using the name of the Jacobean dramatist, John Ford.

The year 1939 is sometimes cited as the greatest year for American cinema.  It was certainly a bumper one for Ford.  In a 12-month period, he directed Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath—all recognized as masterpieces.  In Stagecoach, Ford used a “B” grade actor, one John Wayne, to make a statement about the American frontier spirit.  Other performers whom Ford would use during his directorial career included Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Jane Darwell and Ben Johnson.  The group would collectively become known as the “John Ford Stock Company.”

In 1941, Ford won an Oscar for that year’s best picture, How Green Was My Valley.  When the awards were handed out, however, Ford, as head of the Navy Field Photographic Unit, was on a destroyer headed for Hawaii.  Much of the footage we now take to be actual combat footage of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was actually staged by Ford and shot shortly after the Day That Will Live in Infamy.

John Ford and Monument Valley

The outdoor setting that Ford loved most was Monument Valley.  There, the director defined enduring images of the American West with some of the most beautiful and powerful cinematography ever shot.

As a measure of his versatility, John Ford won Academy awards as best director for The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man—none of them Westerns.  Filmmakers who have admired Ford’s work include Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Orson Welles.  Welles, who, after viewing Stagecoach 40 times before embarking on his masterpiece Citizen Kane, said he was influenced by “the classical filmmakers, most notably, John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”

For all that, Ford is less well known than some others, although his accomplishments include perhaps the best film biography of all time (Young Mr. Lincoln), the best war film (They Were Expendable), a masterly romance (The Quiet Man), a sublime film about childhood (How Green Was My Valley), and classic adaptations from fiction (The Grapes of Wrath), as well as, of course, the Western, on which he left an indelible signature.


John Wayne

Some actors who became closely identified with Westerns included Tom Mix, W. S. Hart, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, but none better epitomized the genre than John Wayne.  He dominated movies like a national monument dominates the landscape.  His image worked its way into the American consciousness as a metaphor for America itself.

Marion Morrison, who would become known by his persona, John Wayne, was born on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, the first child of Clyde “Doc” and Mary Morrison.  In 1912, after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Doc decided to move to a warmer climate, purchasing a small homestead near Palmdale, California.  In 1914, his family joined him.

After the homestead failed, the family moved to Glendale, where Doc got a job in a local pharmacy.  Even though still in school, Marion also worked, delivering newspapers in the morning and prescriptions for his father in the afternoon.

The youth eventually won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California.  While there, he began working at Fox Studios, moving props.  In time he became friends with Ford.

In 1930, Raoul Walsh, a director, was asked by Fox to film a Western, The Big Trail.  The script called for a young trail scout.  No one suitable could be found to play the role.  Walsh discussed the matter with Ford, who suggested that he look at the rangy young fellow named Marion Morrison.  Walsh liked what he saw and arranged a screen test.  Morrison passed.

There was, however, one problem: the name.  It would be difficult to convince the public that someone named Marion Morrison could be a tough trail scout.  Eventually, the name of a Revolutionary War general, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, was suggested.  “Anthony” was soon replaced with “John.”  Consequently, with no say in the matter, Morrison acquired his screen name, John Wayne.

In 1930, The Big Trail, starring Marguerite Churchill, Tyron Power and John Wayne was released.  It was epic in scope, but a flop at the box office.  Despite that, Wayne found work during the Great Depression, while waiting for stardom.  Between 1931 and 1938 he appeared in 56 “B” grade movies.  In 1939, Stagecoach, starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford, was released.  It was an instant success, and it proved to be Wayne’s springboard to stardom.

Stagecoach also introduced another star: Monument Valley.  It marked the first time that Ford shot there.  It would not be the last.  Ford used the backdrop in many of his later Westerns.

Between Stagecoach and True Grit, John Wayne made many memorable movies, including They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, Red River, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.  In 1969, Wayne starred in True Grit, playing U. S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn.  He won an Oscar.  In 1976, John Wayne made his last movie, The Shootist.  Ironically, it tells the story of aging gunfighter, J. B. Brooks, who had been diagnosed with cancer.  Brooks arranges a gunfight in the local saloon, where three men with “old scores” to settle, have been invited to try and kill him.  None succeed.  Brooks kills them all but is wounded doing so.  A shotgun blast by the barkeep finally does him in.  John Wayne himself died of cancer in 1979.


The Western film genre over the years portrayed much about America’s past, glorifying and romanticizing it, some would say, but certainly including embracing a mythical bygone era.  Part of the allure of the Western was its simplicity.  As film critic Richard Schickel has noted, because “most everyone wore a six-shooter, complex moral conflicts could [seemingly] be resolved in clear-cut violent action.”  Such quick resolution elevated the West to mythical dimensions, a place where legends were conceived and nurtured.

The movie industry fed viewers a steady diet of myths, legends and heroes (many not noted for taking the moral high ground) for decades.  In the process, the myth of the Western thoroughly pervaded American popular culture—from clothes, including denim jackets, jeans and cowboy boots to children’s toys, including cap guns and tom toms.  The lexicon entered the language in phrases as “round up,” “hog-tied” and “bury the hatchet.”  Western films held peoples’ interest until cynicism, generated by many factors, changed our collective psyche.  Over time, it was perhaps inevitable that we would begin doubting the heroes of the Wild West.

Cinema and Monument Valley

The red-rock monoliths look like sliced London broil.  An eagle circles overhead, without flapping its wings.  Wild mustangs meander in the sunshine.  Monument Valley, located near the Four Corners area, is spiritual and uplifting, an ethereal experience which few other places on Earth can duplicate.  Thanks to Hollywood, virtually everyone knows the ingredients of the Western movie—the lassos and the Colt 45s, the longhorn steers and the hanging trees, the stagecoaches and the Stetson hats, the outlaws and the lawmen, including purely fanciful ones like Matt Dillon, the gamblers and the gunfighters.  And virtually everyone knows the settings of the Western, including, of course, the rock “mittens” of Monument Valley.

John Ford’s images of the individual, dwarfed by the landscape, huddled against the brutality (and primal beauty) of Monument Valley are unsurpassed.  It is not, by any means, a true history, but as Ford commented about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “when the legend becomes truth, print the legend.” 


There is one hotel (The View) within Monument Valley. Lodging is available just outside the park at Kayenta, AZ, 22 miles south. (See map below) (Rates, availability and reservations online)

Nearby Goulding's Lodge and Trading Post. Goulding’s offers rooms and a pool, it has a restaurant and campgrounds (with RV hookups), and it books Jeep and horseback tours.

Also check the View a new hotel on the Monument

Camping & RV Parks


Park Backcountry Camping

There is no backcountry camping in Monument Valley. Camping is available only in designated campgrounds.

More on Monument Valley Park
Off the beaten trail A Monument Valley Adventure




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