Arizona: Hollywood’s Love Affair with the Desert

The most memorable image in Grand Canyon (1991), Lawrence Kasdan’s existential comedy about urban life in Los Angeles, is its last one. The six characters of the film, all transformed by unsettling encounters, go to the Grand Canyon.

Standing at the edge of this monumental sight, they are silent, awed by nature’s grandeur, which somehow dwarfs their individual concerns. Crossing all lines, the Grand Canyon represents a communal, emotionally shared experience. The movie seems to be urging us to find that place, literally or figuratively, where we can share some part of ourselves with those around us. The final sweeping shot of the Grand Canyon stands in diametric opposition to the movie’s opening, a chaotic traffic jam, which brings out the worst in people– violence, foul language, aggressiveness, etc.

Thelma and Louise

The Grand Canyon has featured prominently in the American cinematic legacy. Thelma and Louise (l991), the controversial feminist road comedy, also ends at the Grand Canyon–albeit in a more mythic way than Grand Canyon. Geena Davis, a repressed housewife in curlers, and Susan Sarandon, a cynical waitress, climb into an l966 Thunderbird convertible, leave their men in a small town in Arkansas, and hit the road. “I have had it up my ass with sedate,” Davis says early on. The two women want freedom, and in the most devastating way find it. Riding across the heroic landscape of the Southwest, they get high on their newly found liberation.

Written by Oscar-winner Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise is giddy, intoxicating comedy, with a looming sense of fatality. At the end of the film, with an army of police cars behind them, the two female buddies choose to leap into void and drive their car into the Canyon–instead of of going to jail and to their previous oppressive surroundings.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon may be Arizona’s most famous touristy spot, but it is certainly not the only locale used by American movies. The following survey shows how Hollywood has used Arizona’s diverse settings and rich geography over the last six decades. One should not be surprised to find out that many silent films were shot in Arizona. In l926, Rudolph Valentino, the noted silent star, and his leading lady, Vilma Banky, spent some time in Yuma, shooting Son of the Sheik. Since the silent era, there has not been one year, in which at least a couple of Hollywood film crews have traveled to the neighboring Arizona for on-location shooting.

The films chosen for this article represent the variety of genres that have taken advantage of Arizona’s spectacular landscapes. Westerns, or “horse operas” as they used to be called, are the most celebrated genre and the first to come to mind when thinking about Arizona. But there have also been road comedies, melodramas, action-adventures, science-fiction, and even musicals and comedies. Chronologically, the oldest of the 11 movies in this piece is Stagecoach, made in l939, and the most recent, Grand Canyon, was released in l991. The narratives of these movies can be realistic or mythic, but their stories are all set in Arizona–some in rural, others in urban settings. For this reason, the popular l955 film, Oklahoma! based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s landmark Broadway musical doesn’t qualify. Filmmaker Fred Zinnemann and his crew “cheated,” when they shot in the Nogales and San Rafael areas a story about Oklahoma.

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-John Wayne in Arizona

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.

Broken Arrow

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.

Joan Crawford and Johnny Guitar

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.

Sidney Poitier’s Lilies of the Field

The purity of the Arizona landscape, its uninhabited expanse, has been used for mythic purposes in many movies. Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (l963) is mostly known for the Oscar-winning performance of Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role. In this modern and idealistic parable, Poitier is charmingly cast as Homer Smith, an ex-G.I. handyman who helps a group of nuns from behind the Iron Curtain to build a chapel in the Arizona desert. Unmoved by their mission, he is at first only interested in making a day’s wage. But in no time, Smith finds himself softening to the simplicity of the nuns’ preaching. Treating him as if he were sent by God, in answer to prayer, the mother superior thinks he should not expect any pay.

The friendship between these two outsiders, a black man who needs to assert himself, and a strong-willed political refugee, is fascinating to watch. Beneath Poitier’s casual bravado and candid irreverence, one senses his strong need to reaffirm his racial pride. Lilies of the Field boasts a gritty Southwestern look. Shot in black and white, the movie speaks the sinewy poetry of the desert, finding its real music in the landscape itself.

Streisand’s A Star Is Born

The third version of A Star Is Born (1976), a lavish musical updating of the old classic, also uses Arizona in a mythic way. The quintessential Streisand movie of the l970s, it teamed the stage and screen star with another recording artist, Kris Kristofferson. Deciding they both need to get away from the pressures of showbusiness and Los Angeles, the two lovers build a spacious ranch in Arizona, and for a time they live an idyllic life; they ride horses, make love in the mud. Soon afterward, however, John’s personal demons begin to surface, and he falls deeply into alcoholic despair, finally getting killed in a car crash.

Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

The Western film is not to only genre to have benefited from Arizona’s rich and diverse landscape. Many Road Comedies were shot there. In Martin Scorsese’s highly praised Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (l974), Ellen Burtsyn won the Best Actress Oscar for playing a recent young widow, struggling to launch a new life for herself and her adolescent son. The movie offered a new screen heroine: a feisty and sarcastic (even self-mocking) mother, engaged in an open and friendly relationship with her precocious son. Set in the countryside, a less familiar territory in American films at the time, Alice drives a station wagon from New Mexico to Phoenix, finally settling in Tucson. The landscape includes motels, diners, drive-in restaurants, gas stations, rest areas, all icons used in road comedies.

Robert Getchell’s rich screenplay provides an excellent view at a woman’s odyssey to find herself. Scorsese’s film is full of funny malice and absorbing vitality–and, of course, great acting. The young Jodie Foster made a stunning screen debut in this film as the tomboyish Audrey. (For Foster fans, her first line in the film, referring to a strange character, is: “Weird. Weird. It’s even weird for Tucson, and Tucson is the weird capital of the world.”)

The Cannonball Run Movies

Hal Needham, the former stunt man, who broke into the big time as the filmmaker of Smokey and the Bandit movies, directed The Cannonball Run (l981) and its sequel, The Cannonball Run II (l984). The movies concern a no-holds barred cross-continental highway race, of vehicles of all sizes, shapes, and fitness (sports cars, vans, motorcycle, even a Rolls-Royce) from Connecticut to Southern California. Decorated with an unending series of highway gags, the highway is made alive with a loud musical score, romantic pursuits, spectacular car crashes, and sudden breakdowns.
Burt Reynolds is the star, with Dom DeLuise as his sidekick. But there are numerous cameo stars. Roger Moore plays a rich nut named Goldfarb, who persists in thinking he is Roger Moore. Farrah Fawcett as an environmentalist who rhapsodizes about trees. Dean Martin and Sammy Davis run the race as a disguised pair of hard-drinking Catholic priests. Inoffensive and intermittently funny, the two Cannonball Run films provide innocuous entertainment.

When moviemakers think of Arizona, they tend to think of its open spaces, desert, mountains, and wild cactuses. But a surprisingly large number of films have been set in Arizona’s urban locales. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (l960), arguably the most famous film ever made, is set in Phoenix. The narrative features one of the most famous opening shots in film history–a panoramic sweep across the downtown Phoenix skyline. Hitchcock’s voyeuristic camera then penetrates through a hotel window, revealing Janet Leigh and John Gavin right after their lovemaking scene. For technical and logistic reasons, the scene was shot on the Universal back lot, with a set standing in for Luhrs Building on Jefferson.

Clint Eastwood’s Gauntlet

Last, but not least, is The Gauntlet (1977), a police drama, in which Clint Eastwood departed from his “Dirty Harry” character. The mega-star was apparently intrigued by the challenging, offbeat role of a tough and cynical cop, who is also drunk, incompetent, and a bit of a washout. Defying realism, The Gauntlet perpetuated Eastwood’s own fiction–once again playing a huge Force that sets things straight in a corrupt world. The story is about Eastwood’s rigors, when he attempts to return a hooker (Sondra Locke) from Las Vegas to Phoenix to testify at a mob trial. Of course, the mob tries to prevent them from completing their trip. William Prince plays Blakelock, the mob’s highly placed contact within the Phoenix Police Department. The movie contains escapes in ambulances, gunfights in speeding automobiles, a helicopter attack, and a ride on a stolen motorcycle.

In the climax, Eastwood and Locke hijack a bus and surround the driver’s seat with pig iron as protection against armed attacks. In an effort to prevent him, Blakelock orders the streets cleared, then places a thousand patrolmen in downtown Phoenix. As the bus rumbles into town, the police unleash an endless barrage of gunfire. Incredibly, the bus moves steadily onward, finally coming to a crashing halt on the steps of City Hall.

Eastwood’s last action role of the decade, it is of particular interest to his fans, because it gives him one of the rare monologues of his career. Seeing Eastwood deliver a long soliloquy about his life with nostalgia and sorrow is something to behold. Despite the absurd plot and implausible ending, The Gauntlet was a big commercial success, proving that, when it comes to Eastwood, audiences were willing to suspend disbelief.

As more and more movies are shot in Arizona, the lines between the real sights and their screen images tend to blur. Take Monument Valley, for example. John Ford rendered such a powerful moral universe out of this breathtaking place, that a visitor to Monument Valley is overwhelmed not only by the sight itself, but by recollection of Ford’s movies! Is there any better testament to the magical power of American movies

Arizona: Movies from A to Z

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (l974)
Broken Arrow (l950)
The Cannonball Run (1981)
The Gauntlet (l977)
Grand Canyon (l991)
Johnny Guitar (l954)
Lilies of the Field (1963)
Psycho (1960)
Stagecoach (1939)
A Star is Born (1976)
Thelma and Louise (1991)