How Monument Valley became a symbol of the West

Ah, the West. Mythical home of Road Runner. John Wayne. And families in wagons, heading for a fresh
start on the rugged frontier. Wide open sky and these big red rock formations
make up its stereotypical backdrop. The one in movies and cartoons. “Oh there’s gotta be a phone or a gas
station around here somewhere, honey.” But when you look at a bunch of those movies
back to back, you start to notice something. This “image of the West” kind of looks
the same whenever we see it. And that’s because this specific group of
formations is unique to one place: Monument Valley. So how did this one area become a symbol of
the American West? Monument Valley is on the Arizona-Utah border,
inside the Navajo Nation Reservation. Its towering red sandstone formations, called
buttes rise hundreds of feet above the desert floor. For centuries, only Native Americans – specifically
the Paiute and Navajo – occupied this remote landscape, fielding conflicts with
the US government. Non-indigenous people began to visit in the
early 20th century, and in the early 1920s Colorado sheep trader Harry Goulding and his
wife Leone set up a trading post on the Utah side of Monument Valley, which at the time
was just outside of the Navajo Reservation. In the 1930s this area was hit hard by drought;
the Great Depression; and a forced reduction of livestock by the US government, which slashed
a vital source of income. Goulding tried for years to draw attention
to Monument Valley’s stunning landscape, thinking tourism could help boost the local
economy. But according to Goulding, the area’s big
break didn’t come until 1938, when he brought photos of Monument Valley to Hollywood. Stagecoach, directed by John Ford and shot
primarily on location in Monument Valley, revolutionized the Western. Elevating the genre from the low budget “pulp”
reputation it had developed in the 1930s – what’s known as a “B” movie… SON: “What does it say, Dad?” DAD: “Ah, don’t mean a thing, son.” …into one of Hollywood’s most popular
genres for the next 20 years. It was also the breakout role for American
icon John Wayne. Who until this point had spent years starring
in “B” Westerns like 1933’s Riders of Destiny. WAYNE: “Make it fast, Slippery. This is
your last draw.” Stagecoach mainstreamed the Western, and it’s
here that audiences began to associate Monument Valley with the mythic American West. An epic, isolated landscape full of potential. The kind of place where outlaws and outcasts
could find a fresh start. Following Ford’s lead, other filmmakers
began using Monument Valley as their Western backdrops. Including Ford himself, seven more times. Most notably in The Searchers, often regarded
as the ultimate Western. The movie takes place in Texas. WAYNE: “What’s that got to do with us?” But that didn’t matter. By then, Monument
Valley was a cliché. And clichés are useful for storytelling. They signal to the audience what kind of story
this is. Or set a familiar tone in advertising.
Those buttes are so ingrained in pop culture that they can be used as shorthand for stories
of Western adventure. LEGO: “Wait, where are we?” Which might be why the Coen Brothers chose
it as the backdrop for the opening scene of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, their 2018 homage
and parody of the genre. SCRUGGS: “A song never fails to ease my
mind out here in the West. Where the distances are great, and the scenery monotonous.” When the film company that made Stagecoach
wrapped production and left Monument Valley in late 1938, it had paid Navajo locals somewhere
around $50,000. Hundreds had worked as crewmembers and extras,
though they played the roles of Apache “bad guys.” According to reports at the time, that money
was enough to get them through the winter. And as Monument Valley’s reputation grew,
Goulding’s plan to bring to bring in tourism started working. The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park now
sees around 350,000 visitors each year. Tourists can visit the trading post and go
on Navajo-led tours of the famous buttes. And they get there by taking this road, US
Highway 163. You’ve probably seen it before. It’s where Forrest Gump ended his famous
run across America. GUMP: “My running days was over. So I went
home to Alabama.” Alabama’s in the other direction, but that
doesn’t matter. This backdrop could be anywhere in the West.

100 thoughts on “How Monument Valley became a symbol of the West

  1. pro tip: monument valley is cool, BUT valley of the gods is only an hour away, not crowded at all, FREE, and also mind boggling! its BLM land so you can camp there for free. enjoy!

  2. The silhouettes of those Buttes in Monument Valley are also reminiscent of 3 prominent landmarks on the Oregon Trail, in Nebraska.

    (Courthouse Rock & Jail Rock, Scott’s Bluff, and Chimney Rock)

    Monument Valley in Arizona was much closer to Hollywood, and so made for a better filming location than Nebraska.

  3. Not clear to me how a pretty parched looking landscape is emblematic of a fresh start. I could understand, for example, a wagon train in the hills looking down into a lush valley with trees (for construction), meadows teeming with wild-life and clean rivers full of fish. But an inhospitable place like Monument Valley? I mean, there was a reason why tourists wouldn't go there until Hollywood told them to go.

  4. So the place had hardly even been noticed by Americans till well into the 20th century… Well that certainly ruins the charm and romance lol.

  5. You need the new recent photos and videos of the tour vehicles and the area of monument valley. Did you just google the area?

  6. A Recent research in keeladi(India) proved that the tamil civilization was there before 2600 years before.. will u do a video on it?

  7. My family lives in monument valley. The tourism helps a lot financially but its slowing degrading the land and the community that lives there. Tons of businesses come in and tour and don't listen to the locals, the navajo nation government gets a cut so they tend to wish we weren't there. Our families were relocated there when the government took other lands. They built that new hotel there regardless of the community not wanting it there. If you do go, please ask the tour businesses what they contribute to the locals.

  8. John Wayne did the Searchers movie in 1956 with Natalie Wood and there was radiation poisoning there supposedly after nuclear bomb testing!

  9. Can you guys make a video on why hurricanes form in the Atlantic and start by Africa and how global warming are making them more dangerous and frequent?

  10. So… these rocks became a staple because they were seen in a hit movie, so studios begun aping what was popular to the point of them becoming a norm?

  11. To a foreigner they can be anywhere in the west but to a local like myself, they are a symbol of the Navajo Nation and Arizona not Texas. Smh ??‍♂️?

  12. VOX — You say: "Non-indigenous people began to visit in the early 20th century … " VISIT? How about arrive with force, murder men, women and children, then steal their land?


  14. The fact that Forrest Gump walks in the opposite direction to Alabama just makes it even funnier, I’m sure they realised that when they considered it as well as the great backdrop

  15. How did monument valley become a backdrops for the west? It was used in the first westerns and everyone copied it. Like if I could have saved you 5 minutes of nothing..

  16. Watching western movies you would believe that the entire old west was a desert waist land.. This is because of John Fords love of filming with Monument Valley for a back drop he set the standard for westerns. Even my favorite TV western" Gunsmoke" has Doge city Kansas and its surroundings looking like a desert instead of a prairie. So many western movies and shows have been filmed in the studio back lot out their in the Mojave desert that I can recognize the same rocks used in a hundred western chase scenes with only the occasional stand of California Eucalyptus trees to give away where they really are.

  17. Honestly I wish I was alive in 1830 rather than now it just seems like an odd experience living around the central area of United States

  18. Confession…I saw the title and thought this was about the iOS game. In my defence, I don't live in the US so I'd never heard of Monument Valley the place.

  19. This is only a symbol for the west for easterners. I’m from Colorado and buttes are definitely not the first thing you think of, usually it’s the Rocky Mountains since it’s Colorado.

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