John Ford. John Wayne. Cowboys and six-shooters, Native Americans and horses and epic battles to survive not only squabbles with other humans, but the unforgiving landscape they’ve settled in, one made of both towering beauty and abject terror. These elements, and dilemmas physical, moral, and spiritual, have come to define the western film genre. Just as integral a player in shaping this view of the American West, the one character that is real and not fictional, is Monument Valley, a stretch of land situated on the Utah-Arizona state line consisting of uniquely-shaped sandstone buttes that tower above the valley floor (two of these, and arguably the most recognizable, are called the Mitten Buttes for their resemblance to a hand with a smaller, “thumb” formation sticking out to one side). Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach was far from the first film in the western genre (Ford had even made a name for himself directing westerns in the silent era before the genre temporarily fell out of favor); and it was far from star Wayne’s first western, even though it was responsible for catapulting him to A-level stardom (Wayne had starred in nearly 40 B-westerns over the course of the 1930s leading up to Stagecoach). But it was the first of seven films that Ford shot on location in Monument Valley, surrounding his compelling cast and rousing action set-pieces with sweeping vistas whose grandeur could never be precisely replicated on a studio soundstage. Stagecoach was a massive success on its release and has become a classic entry in the genre it’s responsible for revitalizing, and its inclusion of Monument Valley goes hand-in-hand along with that. In the decades since, Monument Valley has become the setting not only for acclaimed subsequent Ford westerns like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers but also westerns by Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West); revisionist westerns like Easy Rider and Thelma & Louise; non-westerns such as Forrest Gump, comedies like the Road Runner cartoons and parodies, such as Ornament Valley in the 2006 animated Pixar film Cars.
All this to say, Monument Valley has become just about as iconic a sight as John Wayne in a cowboy hat; as critic Keith Phipps proclaimed in a 2009 piece documenting “The Easy Rider Road Trip” for Slate, “its five square miles have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.” But the history of the land, the way it has been repurposed for entertainment that largely plays into the concept of manifest destiny, and how tourism ties into that, real history usurped by the ideas about a place that media had planted in our hearts and minds, is likely less familiar to said moviegoers. With his latest visual essay, The Taking, writer and director Alexandre O. Philippe (whose previous cinema-related documentaries include 2010’s The People vs. George Lucas and 2022’s Lynch/Oz) seeks to provide some insight into all of these topics and others, employing experts ranging from Professor of American Studies and member of the Diné/Navajo Nation Jennifer Nez Denetdale and mythologist John Bucher to speak on the role Monument Valley has played in shaping the myth of the West, and by extension, America as a whole.
And provide insight it does, although The Taking is so packed with various viewpoints that it occasionally feels more scattered than as if it is joining everything together into a cohesive whole. There’s certainly a lot to chew on, especially for film and history buffs. The Taking consists solely of archival footage (the talking heads remain offscreen, their voiceovers imposed over the images), allowing the clips from commercials, films (the doc primarily concentrates on Ford, although some of those previously films and others are also touched on; feels like a missed opportunity to include the Totem Pole climbing scene from Clint Eastwood’s 1975 thriller The Eiger Sanction that resulted in climbing the monuments being outlawed from then on, however), and otherwise to speak for themselves. This approach clearly and concisely conveys how various media has employed the majesty of Monument Valley for different effects, and editor Dave Krahling assembles the footage to best illustrate this; for instance; he cuts in shots of a typically cantankerous John Ford’s interview with Peter Bogdanovich filmed in Monument Valley for the 1971 documentary Directed By John Ford to break up the otherwise solemn material at opportune moments. At the same time, this method has some frustrating drawbacks, such as the fact that the identities of those being interviewed aren’t revealed until the end credits, calling into question their credentials while watching the movie.
One of the film’s more fascinating discussions—one that bookends the film—involves tourism and how we become so familiar with places we’ve never physically visited and how they become intrinsically linked with the photos and videos we’ve seen them featured in before (Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas and the assassination of John F. Kennedy is offered as another example). The Taking also argues that Monument Valley has been used as a representation of the West so often (it’s even often been subbed in for locations that aren’t Arizona or Utah) that it’s had a lot of its original meaning stripped from it. When filmmakers use Monument Valley in their movies now, it is in reference to those other films that turned it into such an iconic sight, a demonstration of cinephilic knowledge. But precisely what is that meaning? That’s something that The Taking has a much harder time articulating. It’s sacred land for the Navajo and the monuments carry a special significance for them, and a member of the Diné Nation interviewed articulates the pain that comes with seeing their land used to tell stories that more often than not perpetuate racist stereotypes. But The Taking doesn’t spend nearly as much time on this subject as it could have or ought to have, despite its title implying the seizure of Native American land by white Americans. The film makes some questionable leaps in logic as well, such as in its final minutes when it connects the January 6th insurrection and the desecration of the U.S. Capitol Building (a man-made monument) with the metaphorical desecration of Monument Valley. It’s thorny subject matter, but The Taking does at least make a valiant attempt to wade through it.
The Taking opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, May 5. Runtime: 76 minutes. Not rated.