This article is from our “Legends of Western Cinema” collector’s issue, which can be purchased at HorseBooksEtc.com.
When The Searchers premiered in 1956, one big-city reviewer begrudgingly admitted that, in terms of action, romance, and drama, the film was a superior “oater,” as critics of that time dismissively referred to Westerns. He complained, however, that in the end it was “only” a cowboy movie. Also, he groused, one obvious flaw diminished the film’s overall impact: Despite an epic storyline that covers a five-year pursuit by two Texans (John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter) of Comanches across the entire West, the lead characters appear to never leave Monument Valley.
This critique fails on two counts. First, much of the shooting occurred on the Colorado Plateau, which stretches beyond Monument Valley, across the Utah-Arizona border, not far from the Four Corners. Secondly, Monument Valley was more than a mere “location” to director John Ford. The area symbolized the entire West, encompassing an ideology of America itself. Starkly beautiful, often dangerous, solid yet strangely mystic, and ancient in origin, it dwarfs the comings and goings of waves of humanity. On film, it’s an actual character, not a backdrop.
Ford’s films were more realistic than most Westerns, while still being allegorical. They portrayed Ford’s vision of America against a massive scale and put our history into context. Had The Searchers (and Ford’s other Monument Valley-based films) been shot at widespread locations, this larger artistic point would have been lost.
The valley served his rich characterizations of believable, flesh-and-blood Americans, a great many of them immigrants hoping to survive in an unfamiliar culture and environment.
Monument Valley symbolized the American frontier, and the towering visual grandeur helped Ford represent an essential ideology: People need each other in the face of such a fiercely awesome geography—rugged individualism and the pioneer spirit have their place, though always in service to the larger community. This delicate balance exists at the heart of every Ford Western, making it difficult to separate the man from his movies and social commentary. Eschewing simplicities of right and left, Ford’s political philosophy was an all-encompassing Americanism.
Born in Maine, John Ford (1894–1973) was a flinty New England native and claimed to be descended from the recently arrived Irish Feeney clan. “Jack” followed his older brother Francis to Hollywood. A former Vaudevillian, Francis had established himself in the budding movie industry, and Jack served as Francis’ assistant. Within three years, however, Jack emerged as a top director, eventually making stars of Harry Carey Sr. and John Wayne. Like other arrivals from the East, including painter Frederic Remington and novelist Owen Wister, Ford had a typically sentimental attitude toward the frontier. Less than half of Ford’s many films (a number of which were silent) were Westerns, but he’s forever associated with the genre. It’s a great irony that Ford won six Oscars for Best Director, none of which were Westerns.
Legend has it that Ford discovered Monument Valley when location scouting for Stagecoach (1939), his first Western in more than a decade. (The genre had fallen out of popularity owing to Depression-era woes.) But the valley had already appeared in silent films, most notably George B. Seitz’s production of Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American (1925). In Seitz’s film, those remarkable rock monuments serve as a backdrop to a contemporary tale of reservation life. Yet Ford transformed the valley into a virtual character in his works. While most early movies were dismissed as mere recordings of live theatre, Ford would be recognized for helping shape a new art form. He employed the camera to tell the story, placing his characters inside the landscape rather than in front of it. Film historians, beginning with William K. Everson, insist that Ford did more to advance the cinematic art than any other single filmmaker. Orson Welles was once asked to pick the three major influences on his own style; without hesitation, he responded, “John Ford. John Ford. John Ford.”
Despite such accolades, “Pappy” (as his filmmaking family called their patriarch) despised pretension, refusing to speak seriously about his work other than to offer a single statement: “My name is John Ford. I make Westerns.” When pushed for interpretations, he rightly claimed that a Ford film speaks for itself. And so they do.
“The Searchers” (1956) starring
John Wayne &
(1939) starring Claire Trevor & John Wayne
“My Darling Clementine”
(1946) starring Henry Fonda & Linda Darnell
“The Man Who Shot Liberty
John Wayne &
“She Wore a
(1949) starring John Wayne & Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson &
George O’Brien & Madge Bellamy