Thursday, April 26, 2012

FOUR CORNERS TOUR, Part 4: Moab & Monument Valley

There are quite a few conflicting accounts of Hollywood’s “discovery” of Monument Valley.   According to John Ford’s biographer Dan Ford: “John had first heard about Monument Valley from Harry Carey, who had stumbled into it while exploring the Navajo country in the 1920s.  No other film company had ever worked there, and John had been waiting for years for a chance to do so.”  Later, John Wayne took the credit, telling biographer Maurice Zolotow in 1974: “I was the guy who found Monument Valley.  And I told Ford about this place.”  In Where God Put the West, author Bette L. Stanton sets the record straight: George B. Seitz was the first filmmaker to shoot in Monument Valley (when he made THE VANISHING AMERICAN in 1925), and Harry Goulding was the man who introduced John Ford to Monument Valley in 1938.

For years, Goulding and his wife were the only private land owners on the vast Navajo reservation.  They built a small trading post at the bottom of Big Rock Door Mesa, won the trust of their native neighbors, and eventually convinced the Navajos that they could all make a better living by trading in scenery.   With the help of Arizona Highways photographer Josef Muench (whose work is featured prominently in K.C. DenDooven’s book Monument Valley: The Story Behind the Scenery), Goulding pitched the location to Ford and producer Walter Wanger, who were then mounting their production of the epic western STAGECOACH.   Despite the awe-inspiring scenery, Monument Valley wasn’t an easy sell.  Wanger didn’t want to his cast and crew to be so cut off from Hollywood (at the time, there weren’t even any paved roads into Monument Valley).  Ford, however, loved the idea and eventually got what he wanted -- his own mini-Hollywood in the desert.  STAGECOACH made Monument Valley (and of course John Wayne) a star, and the filmmaker happily returned many times.  With MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), FORT APACHE (1948) and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), he transformed the landscape into an iconic vision of the historic American West and put Monument Valley on the map for generations of international tourists.  In the process, he also provided work for generations of Navajo natives, who still graciously share their land and their culture with us.

John Wayne's cabin from SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON
View from Goulding's Lodge
Monument Valley

John Ford's Point in Monument Valley
Three Sisters
Desert Window
Rain Gods
Desert Eye

That wasn’t the end of Ford’s legacy in the desert.  In 1950, he asked cattle rancher George White to help him find a location for his next film WAGON MASTER.  White took the filmmaker on a tour of Moab.  When they reached the gravel bar at Nine Mile Bottom on the Colorado River, looking toward Professor Valley and Fisher Towers, Ford knew he had found what he was looking for.  WAGON MASTER is not one of Ford’s best known films -- it’s an intimate story of Mormon settlers rather than an epic story of soldiers or gunslingers, and it doesn’t feature John Wayne -- but it was one of the director’s personal favorites, and it proved to be a boon for the nascent Moab-Monument Valley Film Commission.

Moab's answer to Monument Valley
Professor Valley ranch land
Fisher Towers

Onion Creek area
Red Cliffs Lodge
John Ford's view in Moab
The following year, Ford came back to Moab to make RIO GRANDE with John Wayne.  The director and his star later returned to the Moab-Monument Valley area many times, to make THE SEARCHERS (1956), SGT. RUTLEDGE (1960), THE COMANCHEROS (1961) and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1963).  They certainly weren’t the only filmmakers who fell in love with the place, but their use of the region was so compelling that a lot of other filmmakers were intimidated by the prospect of trying to make it their own.  I’d argue that Sergio Leone had the most success with his 1968 masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which brought Henry Fonda back to the place where he’d once played Wyatt Earp. 

In the 1980s, a number of independent filmmakers transformed Moab into a science-fiction landscape.  When I happened upon the Movie History Museum at the Red Cliffs Lodge on Highway 128 (a B&B built on the site where Ford shot much of RIO GRANDE), I was surprised to find almost as much space devoted to these strange mini-epics as to the classic westerns of Ford and Wayne.  In addition to SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983), NIGHTMARE AT NOON (1987), and SUNDOWN: VAMPIRES IN RETREAT (1988), the two that really caught my eye were CHOKE CANYON (1984) and KNIGHTS (1992).   

The former is an “eco thriller” starring Stephen Collins as cowboy physicist who believes that he can turn sound waves into usable energy... with the help of Haley’s comet.  (Don't ask me - I can't explain it.)  He’s at odds with a bunch of slimy businessmen who’d rather use his favorite canyon as an atomic dump site.  One of those slimy businessmen is played by none other than Lance Henriksen... who has understandably blocked this film from his memory.  For anyone who might be nostalgic about lighthearted 80s sci-fi movies, CHOKE CANYON is diverting enough, but in my opinion the only real highlight is Janet Julian.  Also worthy of note is the fact that footage from the movie was used in the MTV video for “Silent Running” by Mike & the Mechanics - one of the more memorable music videos of the early 80s.

Janet Julian in CHOKE CANYON
Henriksen cuts a more imposing figure in KNIGHTS, which I like to think of as the poor man’s CYBORG.  Of course, I also think of CYBORG as the poor man’s CYBORG.... Both films were directed by Albert Pyun, who makes his movies fast and cheap but somehow nevertheless compelling.  Maybe a better way to characterize KNIGHTS would be as a rich man’s ROBOT MONSTER (1953).  Whatever the case, there’s a soft spot in my heart for this post-apocalyptic western fantasy about two humanoid robots fighting over the future of the human race.  The good robot is played by Kris Kristofferson, who pairs up with kickboxing champion Kathy Long to hunt the megalomaniacal vampire robot played by Lance Henriksen.  It’s a ridiculous story, but I don't mind because everyone seems to be having fun -- in spite of brutal shooting conditions.  Stanton’s book says that the temperature would often get well above 100 degrees, causing actors and extras to pass out from heat exhaustion.  Perhaps that explains Henriksen’s apparent delirium in his death scene, when he mumbles something incoherent about being taken away on the wings of a black bird.  (When I interviewed him for Not Bad for a Human, I asked Lance if he improvised this line... wondering if maybe it was an homage to Rutger Hauer’s death scene in BLADE RUNNER... He said he didn’t remember.)

Lance actually joined me for the next part of my trip.  After taking a tour of Monument Valley with an excellent guide from Sacred Monument Tours named JT (who told us some good stories about Johnny Depp’s recent visit to Navajo country for the making of THE LONE RANGER), we headed north...  Through Four Corners, where we met some amazing local artists, including potter Bob Lansing...  Past the turn for Shiprock, a mountain that was holy to the Navajos until the Sierra Club profaned it in 1939 (also Wyatt Earp's apparent destination in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE a few years later)...  Into the Colorado mountains, toward the quiet town of Telluride. We had more business there of the post-apocalyptic sort.  But that’s a story for another time...

Lance & JT
Lance at Four Corners
Looking back at Shiprock
Looking ahead, into the mountains...


  1. Are you researching a book? No matter. I've really enjoyed your pictures on this trip. Beautiful country. And LOL, I've stood on that Four Corners spot, too. But after 11 years of living in New Mexico, I've been to most "spots" there. :-)

  2. Stellar trip, alright. End it in style, too, with that 'Silent Running' music vid. Well done, Joe.

  3. Terri - Originally my plan was to drive from Telluride to Santa Fe. Unfortunately, weather and work conspired against me and I had to head home. I'll be back.

    Michael - Mark my words: That song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day!

  4. Lived in Santa Fe for a short bit. Always worth revisiting, if a bit overcrowded nowadays. The "Silverado" set is south of there, though I think it's been added to from several productions.

  5. There are quite a few worthwhile movie ranches in the immediate Santa Fe area... unfortunately most of them, including Cerro Pelon (the Silverado ranch), seem to be closed to the public. A friend of mine lived there for a few years, and gave me a "best of" list of other things to do and see... What are your suggestions?

  6. Enjoyed reading about your trek thru a truly magical land. I loved shooting Knights in Moab but, yeah, it was brutal in the heat. It was cool to be working in that landscape with icons like Lance and Kris. We even got a cool scene shot in Monument valley. I also shot a movie called RavenHawk in Santa Fe and Taos plus a few scenes in the Lake Powell area.

    I have a new film coming out soon called Road To Hell that is set in the Moab, Monument Valley, Zion, Lake Powell area. It was great to revisit those areas after so many years away.

    thanks for the kind mention of Knights!

    Albert Pyun
    facebook / albert pyun movies

  7. Albert,

    Thanks for taking the time to write. I'm looking forward to CYBORG: RISE OF THE SLINGERS!


  8. When I lived there, I think Cook Ranch/Silverado and the J.W. Eaves Ranch were the only permanent sets. And yeah, closed to the public since they were working sets on private property. Maybe you can find somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Coolest thing about that Silverado set is the saloon where the doors open onto the corner. Recognize it every time it's in a movie.

    In town, I definitely recommend the Loretto Chapel with the Miraculous Staircase. A little touristy, but just being able to see the old Spanish wood designs is beautiful. And there's a million museums and art galleries, but I loved the Chuck Jones Gallery. I'm so easily entertained!

    Outside of town, I liked the Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo. Just a small adobe church, but the sand in the desert around there is supposed to heal the sick, etc. There's a tiny room off the chapel that is full of crutches and braces and candles and pictures. Quite moving.

    Have you ever seen "Backtrack," directed by and starring Dennis Hopper? Also starring Jodie Foster. Hopper shot in lots of little obscure places around Santa Fe and Taos. Or come to Texas and we'll drag you around to Lonesome Dove locations. :-P

  9. Thanks, Terri. I'll have to watch BACKTRACK again. I knew that Hopper had moved to Taos after the making of THE LAST MOVIE, but I didn't realize he'd shot there. I'm sure I'll get to Texas eventually... I seem to be slowly making my way back east.

    Incidentally, our mutual friend may be at Comic Con in Dallas in late October. Are you sure you're done with conventions...?

  10. Nobody likes a smart@@@, Joe. ;-P Wish it was Frightmare in Dallas. That would be next week! October is a lifetime away.

    There's a great moment in Backtrack where Jodie Foster is looking at a Georgia O'Keefe painting in a book. Then she lowers the book and she's looking at the real building from the painting in front of her. I always thought that would be cool to try to find all those O'Keefe locations and photograph them.