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Cavalrymen never fought Apaches there. Rarely did a stagecoach pass through. No railroad was ever built there. Almost nobody tried to home-stead it. And certainly the Earps never fought the Clantons within 300 miles of the place. Still, the majestically scenic Monument Valley, which straddles the border of northern Arizona and southern Utah, is arguably the most distinctive and enduring natural image of the untamed frontier. In this issue we take a closer look (and who wouldn’t want a closer look?) at a place both harsh (desolate, empty desert) and gorgeous (red-rock mesas, buttes and spires putting exclamation marks on the clear blue horizon)—also familiar, thanks mostly to seven John Ford­–directed Western films shot there between 1939 and 1964, four starring John Wayne.

During the real Wild West days, Navajos cherished the enchanted valley (some even lived there), but it was largely unknown to outsiders, aside from a few silver-hungry prospectors. When the United States commemorated its centennial in the summer of 1876 in Philadelphia, the landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran represented the grandeur of the West. But no painter or photographer had yet framed a single Monument Valley moment. Nobody paid much attention in 1884 when President Chester A. Arthur extended the Navajo Indian Reservation to include Monument Valley. Although since overshadowed by Harry and “Mike” Goulding (who in 1924 established a valley trading post that remains in operation), Four Corners frontiersman John Wetherill settled there first. He built a trading post with wife Louisa at Oljato (Utah) in 1906, moving their operation to Kayenta (Arizona Territory) in 1910. Three years later, Wetherill escorted author Zane Grey through Monument Valley on the way to Rainbow Bridge, Grey’s main geographic interest in the Southwest. “My first sight of Monument Valley came with a dazzling flash of lightning,” Grey wrote in his 1922 book Tales of Lonely Trails. “It revealed a vast valley, a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptored [sic], standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

When Grey’s novel The Vanishing American (which focused on the plight of the Navajos) was turned into a silent feature in 1925, part of it was filmed in Monument Valley, though few people of the time could have identified the place. The 1930 version of Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger was also shot at Monument Valley. It was another eight years before Harry Goulding, armed with stunning images by German photographer Josef Muench, convinced John Ford that Monument Valley was the best location for Stagecoach. Ford returned there for his O.K. Corral film, My Darling Clementine (1946), and the first two films in his renowned cavalry trilogy—Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). For the third one, Rio Grande (1950), Ford went north to another striking location—Moab, Utah—which had the advantage of a “river on location.” Ford was back in the valley for The Searchers (1956), even though the setting was supposed to be Texas, and then for Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). With no apologies to Wayne, Ford once said, “I think you can say that the real star of my Westerns has always been the land.” And Ford had no bigger star than Monument Valley. The Duke seemed to understand, even suggesting it was sacrilege for other filmmakers to use Ford’s valley, though quite a few have done just that. Monument Valley pops up several times as the backdrop in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In place of stagecoaches careening across the valley, trains come chugging through. But that’s OK. After all, we know the frontier is going to come to an end, but not so its enduring romantic symbol—Monument Valley.