Monument Valley in the Movies

It not only embodies the most iconic desert imagery of American movies, but also represents the very idea of the American West. John Ford’s Westerns, from Tombstone, Arizona, in My Darling Clementine (1946) to the Trail of Tears of the five “civilized” tribes in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), are saturated with stunning landscapes of Monument Valley. Filmmakers around the world continue to equate these sandstone buttes and towers in Arizona and Utah with the American frontier and westward migration itself. The valley may be only 13 square miles of red-rock sand, but it is country of heroic imaginings.

Recently, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences staffer Susan Allen loaned me a book, Where God Put the West, an examination by Moab resident Bette L. Stanton of the history of Monument Valley in American cinema. That same day, by accident, I saw a photo essay in The Atlantic of the valley in its many lights and seasons. 

I have long wished to see this iconic landscape in person, and I will be able to do so for the first time in August, when Carol and I will drive to the Telluride Film Festival. What an amazing conjunction: new movies mixed with silent-film restorations just a few days after a deep dive into John Ford country.

Here is a very beautiful, short video that shows many of the stunning vistas along the 17-mile Valley Loop Drive. You can explore it yourself, stopping when you are gob-smacked, or you can take this same route, along with an off-road guided tour, to more remote sites.

Have a happy armchair drive. Maybe we’ll meet at an iconic overlook where a Fordian cinematic image overlaps the real-world one.


The Museum of Innocence: Orhan Pamuk


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