Movie Genres: Westerns and Arizona’s Monument Valley

If the Grand Canyon is Arizona’s most recognizable spot, Monument Valley, a place known for its complete isolation, historical significance, and majestic beauty, is the most important one as far as American movies–and mythology–are concerned. Stark and awesome, with cathedral-like butts and mesas rising out of the flat red desert, Monument Valley is a larger-than life backdrop, against which individuals’ conflicts assume mythic proportions.

John Ford’s Stagecoach (l939), one of the most beautiful Westerns ever made, marks the director’s first use of Monument Valley. No film has exploited the visual resources of the Western landscape more brilliantly than Stagecoach. Ford shot the major part of the journey in Monument Valley, an excellent choice because this topography embodies the mixture of epic grandeur and savage hostility that the story requires.

The landscape has always been an integral part of the Western-both as an ingredient of the genre’s popular appeal and as a force in shaping its dramatic action. After Stagecoach, Monument Valley became Ford’s private reserve, a fixed terrain, for the next quarter of a century. Ford used Monument Valley again and again: 8 of his 13 sound Western were shot there, including Fort Apache (l948) and The Searchers (l956), both starring John Wayne.

In Ford’s Westerns, Monument Valley became more than a locale or a backdrop. It became, as film critic Andrew Sarris observed, his “stylistic signature.” Thanks to Ford, our response to Monument Valley is akin to our reaction to other national landmarks that are integral to American mythology.

Of the numerous Westerns shot in Arizona over the years, two deserve special mention. The Western has always been regarded as the great American morality play, but this genre has also been flexible enough to accommodate the ideas and fashions of the times.

Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (l950), the first Hollywood film to preach for an accord between Native Americans and white society, was shot in Technicolor in the Tucson and Sedona areas. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as an ex-army man who risks his life for the mission of reconciling between the two opposing groups.

Broken Arrow was part of a brief cycle in Hollywood that reflected a more liberal politics toward the Indians. This pictorially stunning film has probably done more to soften racial hostilities than most movies designed to instruct. This highly acclaimed film made a serious, if self-conscious, attempt to present Indian life with sympathy and authenticity. Cochise, the peace-loving Apache leader, is the real hero of the film. However, as was Hollywood’s custom at the time, Cochise was played by white actor, Jeff Chandler.

The movie ushered a new era of movies featuring villainous whites and misunderstood Noble Red. But it does have a compromising ending: The permanent peace is reached only after the death of Stewart’s wife. This ending reflecting the racial barrier in 1950, a time when a white star was not allowed to marry an Indian girl and live happily after. In the movie’s last image, having lost his Indian wife, Stewart’s hero rides through the wilderness alone, condemned to a lonely life in a no man’s land.

Also filmed around Sedona, is Johnny Guitar (1954), a politically subversive (anti-McCarthy) Western, which is at once poetic and neurotic. Johnny Guitar can be viewed and enjoyed on different levels. Ray’s contrast of modern issues with the landscape of the Western genre makes this movie particularly interesting. On the one hand, the narrative is about a woman’s (Joan Crawford) fight to protect her property (and thus her autonomy), which will become imminently valuable when the railroad passes through her land. On the other, the film is an unusual love story between an aggressively modern woman and Johnny Guitar, her emasculated lover from the past, now afraid even to wear his gun.

Johnny Guitar is the first Hollywood Western, where women are both the protagonist (Crawford) and antagonist (Mercedes McCambridge). The film’s portrayal of gender is innovative and ahead of its time–most of the men are seen as cowards and weak, whereas the women are the strong leaders. Arizona serves as perfect “laboratory” for Ray’s highly experimental color film. Ray’s auteurist signature is visible in the bold color scheme, experimental lighting, mise-en-scene, architectural compositions, camera movement, and editing.

Released before McCarthy’s fall, Johnny Guitar is actually a veiled depiction of the “Red Scare” in Hollywood. With McCarthy’s rampage hitting Hollywood hard, director Nicholas Ray voluntarily blacklisted himself in protest. The movie contains some biting and scathing comments on McCarthyism–but it also reflects Ray’s loneliness and personal isolation.