How Monument Valley Became the Most Iconic Landscape of the American West

The Amer­i­can West has nev­er been a place so much as a con­stel­la­tion of events—incursion, set­tle­ment, seizure, war, con­tain­ment, and exter­mi­na­tion in one order or anoth­er. These bloody his­to­ries, san­i­tized and seen through anti-indige­nous ide­ol­o­gy, formed the back­drop for the Amer­i­can Western—a genre that depends for its exis­tence on cre­at­ing a con­vinc­ing sense of place.

But where most West­erns are sup­posed to be set—Colorado, Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, Kansas, or Montana—seems less impor­tant than that their scenery con­form to a stereo­type of what The West should look like. That image has, in film after film, been sup­plied by the tow­er­ing buttes of Mon­u­ment Val­ley. The Vox video above tells the sto­ry of how this par­tic­u­lar place became the sym­bol of the Amer­i­can West, begin­ning with the iron­ic fact that Mon­u­ment Val­ley isn’t actu­al­ly part of the U.S., but a trib­al park on the Nava­jo Nation reser­va­tion, inside the states of Utah and Ari­zona.

“For cen­turies, only Native Amer­i­cans, specif­i­cal­ly the Paiute and Nava­jo, occu­pied this remote land­scape, field­ing con­flicts with the U.S. gov­ern­ment.” That would change when set­tlers and sheep traders Har­ry and Leone “Mike” Gould­ing set up a trad­ing post right out­side Nava­jo ter­ri­to­ry on the Utah side. Gould­ing tried tire­less­ly to attract tourists to Mon­u­ment Val­ley dur­ing the Great Depres­sion but didn’t get any trac­tion until he took pho­tos of the land­scape to Hol­ly­wood.

The movie world imme­di­ate­ly saw poten­tial, and West­ern direct­ing leg­end John Ford chose the stun­ning loca­tion for his 1939 film Stage­coach. It would be the first of scores of films shot in Mon­u­ment Val­ley and the ori­gin of cin­e­mat­ic iconog­ra­phy now insep­a­ra­ble from our idea of the rugged Amer­i­can West. The land­scape, and Ford’s vision, ele­vat­ed the West­ern from low-bud­get pulp to “one of Hollywood’s most pop­u­lar gen­res for the next 20 years.”

Pho­to by Dsdugan, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Stage­coach pro­vid­ed the “break­out role for Amer­i­can icon John Wayne” (who once declared that Native peo­ple “self­ish­ly tried to keep their land” for them­selves and thus deserved to be dis­pos­sessed.) And just as Wayne became the face of the West­ern hero, Mon­u­ment Val­ley became the cen­tral icon of its mythos. Ford used Mon­u­ment Val­ley sev­en more times in his films, most notably in The Searchers, set in Texas, wide­ly praised as one of the best West­erns ever made.

Ford’s final film to fea­ture the land­scape takes place all over the coun­try, appro­pri­ate­ly, giv­en its title, How the West Was Won. Its all-star cast, includ­ing Wayne, sold this major 1962 epic, mar­ket­ed with the tagline “24 great stars in the might­i­est adven­ture ever filmed.” But it wouldn’t have been a true West­ern at that point, or not a true John Ford West­ern, with­out Mon­u­ment Val­ley as one of its many land­scapes. The imagery may have become cliché, but “clichés are use­ful for sto­ry­telling,” sig­nal­ing to audi­ences “what kind of sto­ry this is.”

From Stage­coach to Marl­boro Ads to Thel­ma and Louise to The Lego Movie to the Cohen Broth­ers’ com­ic clas­sic West­ern trib­ute The Bal­lad of Buster Scrug­gs, the image of Mon­u­ment Val­ley has become short­hand for free­dom, adven­ture, and the risks of the fron­tier. But like oth­er icon­ic places in oth­er for­bid­ding land­scapes around the world, the myth of Mon­u­ment Val­ley cov­ers over the his­tor­i­cal and present-day strug­gles of real peo­ple. We get a lit­tle bit of that sto­ry in the Vox explain­er, but most­ly we learn how Mon­u­ment Val­ley became an end­less­ly repeat­ing “back­drop” that “could be any­where in the West.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ser­gio Leone Made Music an Actor in His Spaghet­ti West­erns, Cre­at­ing a Per­fect Har­mo­ny of Sound & Image

The Great Train Rob­bery: Where West­erns Began

John Wayne: 26 Free West­ern Films Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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