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Quiet on the set

Ever since John Ford brought his camera to Monument Valley, this lonely tract of earth and sky has defined the American West. Does the reality measure up?

March 04, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Monument Valley, Utah — I thought I knew Monument Valley. I'd seen the westerns John Ford shot here, as well as the Isuzu car commercials. I'd read the books and devoured the documentaries. I knew that John Wayne had referred to this remote region of Navajo country as the place "where God put the West."

So what would be the purpose of actually coming here?

More than that, I worried that the experience might be anticlimactic. What if, like many major stars, it was less impressive in person than on the big screen, a landscape that looked empty and bereft without Hollywood's effortlessly mythologized cavalry riding purposefully across it?

What if I felt like the men in Rita Hayworth's life, who, as the actress famously said in reference to her most celebrated role, "fall in love with Gilda and wake up with me"?

What if, God forbid, I wished I'd stayed home?

The man behind my dilemma was, of course, Ford. He shot only seven movies here, but the shadow they cast is long and persuasive.

In fact, the argument could be made that, from 1939's "Stagecoach" through "Cheyenne Autumn" in 1964, those magnificent seven (which include "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers" and "Sergeant Rutledge") created the 20th century's image of the heroic, romantic West, showing us what it ought to look like, though it so rarely does.

To see Ford's Monument Valley westerns is to see scenery -- what one guide vividly describes as "great mesas, buttes, sandstone pinnacles, spires, fins and arches, all monuments to 500 million years of giant earth uplifts and the perpetual forces of erosion" -- not merely photographed but raised to the level of religious iconography.

Not only are these cinematic landscapes magical in and of themselves, but they also simultaneously dwarf and exalt the men who occupy them. They raise the actors who inhabit this space -- John Wayne being the most notable -- to heroic status simply for being as casually at home in this matchless terrain as the Greek gods were on Mt. Olympus.

Go to Monument Valley? Hadn't I already been here?

No, as it turned out, I had not.

Monument Valley in person surprised me not once but two times over. Like the canals of Venice or the Zen garden at Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, it is a place that insists on being seen in the round to truly be appreciated, the one Hollywood star that is unmistakably bigger than life.

Influenced by a big-screen look at the UCLA Film and Television Archive's gorgeously restored color print of "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," my wife, Patty, and I decided that the time had come to visit this celebrated locale in person. I soon remembered one reason I had stayed away so long. Whether you fly into Phoenix or Albuquerque, Monument Valley remains a six-hour drive. With distances like that, I muttered to myself as we rented a car in Phoenix, this valley had better be monumental.

Those distances define one of the paradoxes of Monument Valley. Despite its pedigree and its knockout beauty, it gets relatively few tourists: 500,000 a year compared with the estimated 5 million for nearby Grand Canyon. And most of those who do come are from overseas. Top honors go to German tourists, followed in numerical order by the French, Japanese and Italians before Americans appear on the visitor list.

In a way, though, that long drive from Phoenix was a blessing in disguise. The way the city peeled away and the landscape slowly changed from saguaro cactuses to pines to sparsely inhabited desert was an opportunity for gradual immersion in the deep, trackless West and a preparation for what was to come.

Once we passed through Kayenta, Ariz., and the only-in-America Burger King that doubles as a museum dedicated to the celebrated Navajo code talkers of World War II, we turned off on U.S. 163. Almost immediately, there was a glimpse of El Capitan, a tall, otherworldly volcanic formation. I had the unshakable feeling that our six-hour drive had somehow deposited us on another planet.

If you want to get a hotel room in Monument Valley itself, there is only one place to stay: Goulding's Lodge, a low-slung, 62-room establishment nestled comfortably at the foot of the massive Big Rock Door Mesa, just across the state line in Utah. Even if there were other places to choose from, Goulding's would be the destination of choice. It is the Vatican City of western films, the place where memory resides, an establishment whose story is inextricably linked with the valley's relationship with the movie business.

Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, arrived in the valley in 1923. The land then belonged to the Paiutes, not the Navajo, and when it became available for homesteading in 1928, the Gouldings, who initially lived in a tent, bought 640 acres for $320 and built a small trading post with living quarters on the second floor.

What happened next, like many Hollywood tales, has several versions.

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