Every now and then, some dude from back East will arrive as a tourist in Texas and express confusion that, as huge as the Lone Star state may be, there’s not a single spot that looks anything like Monument Valley. That has to do with the legacy of The Searchers (1956), arguably the greatest Western ever made. It was also the film that, for anyone not born and bred below the Red River and above the Rio Grande, came to represent Texas onscreen.
Actually, those towering stratified icons of shale and sandstone stretch toward the sky in Utah, adjacent to the Four Corners. According to scientists, these buttes are happy accidents, born of the earth’s evolutionary process eons ago. For the Navajo people who have long resided there, the monuments stand as meaningful totems, mysterious gifts from their ancient gods. Meanwhile, for the millions of people who have seen John Ford’s masterpiece, they are Texas. After all, seeing is believing.
In The Searchers, two Texans (John Wayne and Jeff Hunter) spend five long years visiting virtually every Western state while trying to locate a young girl abducted by Comanche. Yet all the film’s exteriors were shot in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. In Ford’s films, and most notably TheSearchers, those monuments become powerful characters in their own right; their rugged exteriors match and mirror the embittered face of Wayne as his greatest single character: Ethan Edwards. In fact, the decision to shoot the entire film in this sacred place serves as a key to John Ford’s intent then, and The Searchers’ greatness forever.
This film became—for America, and, in time, the world—the West’s greatest narrative legend, with Monument Valley as the symbolic representation of the West in general, and Texas specifically. Yet for Texans, the story behind that story remains grounded in the hard, cold facts of history. Alan Le May based his 1954 novel on the true tale of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted at 9 years old from her family’s Texas outpost. She married a warrior and bore three children, one of them the eventual chief Quanah Parker. Like everyone else, Texans know a cinematic classic when they see one and admire The Searchers on that level. Still, they can’t help but be bothered that, in international eyes, a mythic rather than realistic vision of their state allows Monument Valley, with its own unique beauty, to visually symbolize Texas for virtually everyone everywhere—except of course in Texas itself.
DOUGLAS BRODE’s latest book about the West and Westerns is John Wayne’s Way: Life Lessons From the Duke (two-dot).