September 13, 2008

Monument Valley lore

Some tidbits from a long article on Monument Valley:

John Ford's Monument

A secluded stretch of Utah cast a spell on the acclaimed director. His masterpiece 'The Searchers' cast a similar spell on the author, so he followed the trail into the remote West.Don says Navajos believe the spirits of the Anasazi linger and that Navajos who enter their territory may fall ill. To ward off these spirits, he and his fellow guides go through a four-day cleansing ceremony with a local medicine man before the tourist season begins.And:Julie Viramontes, one of the senior managers at Goulding's, recalls the time a French travel agent asked her to arrange for a group of Navajos to don war paint and stage a mock bow-and-arrow attack on his tour group's airplane when it landed at the lodge's small air strip. "There was no way I would humiliate people by asking them to do that," she says. "We got those tourists a powwow dance instead."And:At the height of the Depression in 1938, when Harry heard that a film company was exploring the region for a new western, he and Mike took their last $80 and caught a train to Hollywood. Harry forced his way into Ford's office at United Artists and showed him a set of stunning photographs taken by German photographer Joseph Muench, who was a frequent visitor to the area. Ford was entranced. To Harry's amazement, Ford had United Artists cut Harry a check for $5,000 and ordered him home to line up food, water and tents for a large film crew.And:Most westerns back then were filmed on stage sets or in the open spaces just north of Hollywood, and they looked artificial. "Stagecoach," the first movie Ford shot in the valley, brought a fresh sense of drama and authenticity to a fading genre. It also established 32-year-old John Wayne as a star. Ford stayed up in the guest room in Harry and Mike's quarters on the second floor of the trading post, while most of the cast and crew bunked in tents along the valley floor. The crew named the dirt crossroads "Hollywood and Vine."And:When the director said he needed billowing clouds to frame the monuments, Harry turned to Hosteen Tso, a medicine man known among the Navajos as "Big Fats" because of his heroic girth. The next day, clouds appeared along the skyline just after lunch. After that, Harry took Hosteen Tso to Ford's room late every afternoon. Ford would pour the old man a drink and ask him to predict the weather for the next day's shoot.

"We'd ask him, 'Grandfather, how'd you know the weather for tomorrow?' " recalls Don Holiday, one of Hosteen Tso's grandchildren. "He'd say, 'I go to my hogan and listen to the radio.' "
And:After heading up the Navy's combat film unit in World War II, Ford came back to the valley to shoot "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." Navajo extras played Apaches, Comanches and Cheyenne--whatever Ford needed. He paid them cash--$5 a day at first. And he didn't forget them when times were hard. During bad storms in the winter of 1948, Ford pulled strings with the military and had supplies of food and hay airlifted to the area.And:On July 4, the Navajos honored Ford by installing him as a member of the tribe. Ford was delighted. The Indians presented him with a ceremonial deerskin that dubbed him Natani Nez--"Tall Leader." Ford would later describe this honor as more meaningful to him than his Oscars.Comment:  The author says The Searchers is his favorite film. I say it's the worst of the five films John Ford made at Monument Valley.

I like the travel-agent anecdote for what it says about our perceptions of Indians. The agent didn't learn about the Navajo in advance or use the opportunity to educate the tour group about Indians. Instead the agent asked the Indians to conform to the standard movie stereotypes. You know, the stereotypes on display in Ford's movies, in which Apaches, Comanches, and Cheyenne--but not the native Navajos--roam the area.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies. For pictures of Monument Valley, see my Colorado Trip Pix (Day 9).


Anonymous said...

Writerfella here --
You are incorrect, in that John Ford's THE SEARCHERS is his most classic film. One only has to see the film to its very ending to see the design and designation. The 'Searcher' is an outsider but was hired to 'search.' When he has completed his assignment, HE IS NOT WELCOMED IN THE HOUSE. Instead, he stands outside the house and they close the door against him. Filmic symbolism was given a whole new level by that scene...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Your name is "Jason" now, Russ?

Opinions about which movies are best or worst aren't "incorrect," bright boy. That's because they're opinions, not facts. One can't prove them to be true or false.