John Ford was the motion picture director who, more than any other, recognized the importance of the land. “The real star of my Westerns is the land. A Western is all about the land.” So said Ford during the filming of his last major Western, Cheyenne Autumn, in Monument Valley.
Ford wasn’t the first director to film in Monument Valley, but seven of his greatest Westerns, starting with Stagecoach in 1939 and continuing through Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, established the red-rock mesas and spires as Ford’s personal celluloid domain.
The valley is approximately five hours northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz. Route 163 is the only way into the valley from either Arizona or Utah, and many of the sites of some of Ford’s greatest scenes from films like Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers are on both the Utah and Arizona sides of the state line. There is a small charge per person to drive into the valley that may be the best tourist deal in America.
Your first stop should be either the visitor’s center or Goulding’s Lodge. (www.gouldings.com). Western film historians agree that it was the late Indian trader Harry Goulding who singlehandedly brought Monument Valley to John Ford’s attention during the preproduction of the classic Stagecoach in 1939, though John Wayne had briefly filmed here on The Big Trail in 1930. Goulding’s is where Ford, Wayne, and the other major stars would stay during production in the valley, and the updated quarters are not only the best place for a Western fan to stay, but also where several key scenes in Ford’s Westerns were filmed. Goulding’s also features extensive photographs and a museum on the classic Ford films shot here.
The old trading post and motel buildings at Gouldings were featured as the buildings of Fort Starke in Ford’s classic cavalry film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949. Have a Panavision moment by venturing a few scenic miles to where the fort’s front walls, gate, and blockhouses were constructed several miles away, against a backdrop of Castle Butte to the left and West Mitten Butte to the right, atop a sharp rise. Careful use of camera angles allowed the crew to intercut these scenes with those back at Goulding’s to make it all seem like one location.
This same area where Fort Starke was built is also where the cemetery scene in perhaps the greatest Western ever made, The Searchers (1954), was set. Stand on the rising slope where Wayne and Texas Ranger Captain and minister Ward Bond buried Ethan Edward’s family after the Comanche raid and you just might hear the echo of Wayne’s voice warning, “That’ll be the day!” The Edwards ranch site back on the Utah side, in the distance. All you have to do is match up Sentinel Mesa to your right.
Southeast of Goulding’s is Rock Door Canyon, the site of Henry Fonda’s Custerlike cavalry charge in Fort Apache. There’s a decent road right down the middle of the canyon where Fonda’s cavalry charged to glory and a little further on near the rest center and parking area you’ll notice the long mesa that was the background for “Thursday’s last stand.”
Off to the northeast on the Utah side up Highway 163 is the San Juan River at Mexican Hat that was used for various river crossings in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn. The surprising thing about the valley is just how close so many of these red rock landmarks are to each other. No matter which way you turn you’ll recognize a mesa or a rock spire from Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and other Ford films.
Perhaps the most incredible spot in the whole valley is the appropriately named Ford Point. It’s easy to see why Ford used this long, wide pedestal that surveys nearly the entire valley to such great eff ect. It was from here that Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and the Texas Rangers fi nally discover Chief Scar’s Comanche Village at the climax of The Searchers. It was also the same spot where Richard Widmark’s troop of cavalry halts searching aimlessly for Dull Knife’s Cheyenne in Cheyenne Autumn.
Just 15 miles from Moab lies the Colorado River and, beside it, Arches National Park, along with a picturesque spread called Red Cliff s Ranch, where numerous great Westerns were fimed.
Colin Fryer, owner of the ranch and its resort, the Red Cliff s Lodge (www.redcliffslodge.com), says one of the first stops for film buff s should be the resort’s film museum. “It’s full of memorabilia from the Westerns made here, as well as thousands of photographs,” Fryer says.
Of course the resort itself, set amidst 2,000-foot red sandstone cliff s, is enough draw in its own right. Says Fryer: “Imagine a ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. That’s what we are like. Visitors are amazed at the wide open spaces. Especially if they are from Europe.”
Some of the most important scenes of Rio Grande were filmed here, with the Colorado serving as proxy for the namesake river. Ford and his casts and crew would work Monument Valley and then come to this site for the Colorado River and the scenes it would afford.
And no jaunt through movie-rich Utah would be complete without a visit to Kanab, in the southwestern corner of the state (www.visitkanab.com). Jackie Hamblin Rife, a former stunt double who now works at a visitor’s center in Kanab, says that film-related tourism to the area has been on the upswing. “People come from all over the world,” she says. “Especially for the Western Legends Roundup. We’re seeing more young people, too.” (www.westernlegendsroundup.com)
The Roundup is built around the fame of Kanab, known as “Little Hollywood.” Rife, herself a native of these parts, was appearing in films from age 6, when Drums Along the Mohawk was shot here.
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At the southern end of Arizona lies the state’s other big movie-location draw—the still-active Old Tucson movie set. Long known as “Hollywood in the Desert,” Old Tucson draws some 200,000 visitors per year, according to Maria Demarais, the site’s marketing manager. Among the attractions are staged gunfights, stunt shows, musical shows in the saloon, and even a few kiddie rides (during the summer months). But the biggest pull is the movie history. This is where scores of classics were filmed, including Winchester ’73, Gunfi ght at the OK Corral, Rio Bravo, Cimarron (the 1959 version), Hombre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Tombstone. (www.oldtucson.com)