Monument Valley: The Backdrop of John Wayne's American West

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Of the many roles he played in his five decades on screen, John Wayne is perhaps best remembered as a courageous cowboy—a role he played dozens of times on film in one form or another. Each time Duke donned a 10-gallon hat and saddled up in a film, he embodied the spirit of the American West, from the hardships to the heroism. In Volume 37 of The Official John Wayne Collector’s Edition, we’re exploring Duke’s path from humble stagehand to de facto face of the West. Take a peek into the issue with an excerpt below and order your copy here.



In a Western Film, the location in which the story takes place is often paramount. Many of John Wayne’s most memorable characters throughout his career are men who live off the land, struggle to survive the harsh conditions of their surroundings or fight tooth-and-nail to defend their territory. ANd frequently, the setting serving as the catalyst for the action is one of America’s most picturesque locales, the red sand desert region of Monument Valley.


Instantly recognizable today for its sky-scraping rock towers and vast landscapes found throughout 91,696 acres that sprawl across Arizona and Utah, Monument Valley served as a rich resource long before making its big-screen debut. The region has always been ripe for farming and herding cattle, and many generations of Navajo people have continued the tradition of making their living off the land. Thanks to its breathtaking beauty, Monument Valley was eventually recognized for the value it could provide to not only the agricultural and livestock industries, but also the world of cinema.

In the early 1920s, entrepreneur Harry Goulding and his wife settled in Monument Valley with the intention of establishing a trading outpost with the Navajo tribe. After a devastating drought, however, the homesteader had to rethink his strategy in order to save his business and remain in the region. At the time, the picturesque desert was still somewhat of a hidden gem, and Goulding had full faith that the aesthetics of the area he called home would undoubtedly appeal to Hollywood. With a collection of professionally shot photographs of the valley in hand, the homesteader made the journey to Los Angles in hopes of selling filmmakers on the idea of working in the region. As it happened, John Ford was on the hunt for a shooting location worthy of his epic in the works, Stagecoach (1939), when actor George O’Brien insisted he have a look at the stunning stills of the region. “I was entranced,” the director later recalled in a biography. With the region secured for filming, John Ford was set to change Western cinema forever with two breakout stars: John Wayne and Monument Valley.



Ford knew that by shooting Stagecoach in Monument Valley he was not only helping his own career, he was benefitting the lives of those who inhabited the area before it served a filmic purpose. Just as Goulding had hoped, the arrival of a film crew meant booming business for the valley. His trading outpost thrived and eventually evolved into Goulding’s Lodge, offering comfortable hospitality to visitors to the land he knew so well. The Navajo Tribe also enjoyed prosperous new opportunities as Ford would hire some of the locals to work as extras while shooting. In exchange for cooperative weather, the filmmaker would also pay a medicine man $15 for the week.

With production potential as seemingly endless as the region itself, Monument Valley continued to serve as a frequent home for John Ford and John Wayne’s films for decades to come. Nearly a decade after Stagecoach, the director and Duke would return for 1948’s Fort Apache, only to come right back for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949 and Rio Grande in 1950. The pair would conclude their collaboration with Monument Valley in 1956, ending on the highest note possible by capturing the locale’s splendor like never before in what many consider the finest film they made together, The Searchers.


Don't miss Volume 37 of The Official John Wayne Collector's Edition!


John Wayne Official Collector's Edition Volume 37