Writer and Director: Alexandre O Philippe
Following on from his study of the making of The Exorcist, Alexandre O Philippe now turns his gaze to Arizona’s Monument Valley, the backdrop for seven of John Ford’s Westerns, and many other films since. Philippe suggests that the sandstone outcrops, which tower over the desert ground, have come to symbolise America itself.
It’s not just the Western that uses Monument Valley; other films include Forrest Gump and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Fascinatingly, an image of Monument Valley even featured on the poster for Thelma and Louise, though it was never actually seen in the film. A series of voiceovers attest that the empty and bleak landscape reflects the journeys of self-discovery that many movie characters over the years have embarked upon, especially that of John Wayne who became synonymous with the Western. So often in these films the characters are pushing West, finding new homes, claiming new territory.
But this representation of the encroachment westwards, fighting ‘Indians’ on the way, served as a justification of the expansion made by white settlers. As one voiceover claims, Ford’s films seek only to enforce a white narrative in a land that was once home to the Navajo people. Left virtually homeless and without jobs by the American Government which limited the numbers of livestock they could farm, many Navajo people accepted jobs from the film companies to play the ‘Indians’ in Ford’s films. In this further exploitation, the indigenous people were seen as the villains who attacked innocent white people searching for new dwellings.
After Ford’s cinematic colonisation of Monument Valley, advertisers moved in inserting Buicks and cigarettes into the landscape. They sold the American Dream; they peddled this American myth.
Of course, Philippe, by analysing the myth, only extends it further, especially in the numerous clips from Ford’s films showing cowboys and coaches speeding past the rocks, which have names like West Mitten and Totem Pole. Sometimes in Ford’s films, cowboys have travelled miles and crossed states, and yet there they are, circling the same rocks. Philippe’s argument, too, circles around the same tenets and the fleeting extracts from films such as The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge become dizzying. A smaller archive with longer clips might have proved more effective, allowing more in-depth examinations of the films Philippe thinks are most important in cementing Monument Valley’s place in cinema’s history.
‘If in doubt, make a Western’ said John Ford, and the interview footage with the reticent, rude director is hilarious. He must have been in awe of the sandstone cathedrals and one voiceover suggests that they reminded him of the green mountains of Connemara. But whatever the attraction of Monument Valley, Ford turned the landscape into an icon as American as apple pie.
The Taking is screening at the London Film Festival.