On The Trail of a Classic Western

Published September 2008

          A woman in a blue country dress and a white apron stares from the porch of a simple ranch house. She spies a lone rider framed by two distant, towering buttes, moving slowly across sage brush, sand and scrub. Martha Edwards realizes it's her long-lost brother-in-law, Ethan, coming home three years after the end of the Civil War. Ethan's war has never really ended: Following the defeat of the Confederacy, he has been living south of the border as an outlaw and a hired gun.



          The opening panel of "The Searchers," John Ford's classic western, sets the scene as Texas 1868, but the real setting was Monument Valley, Utah; the year was 1955; and Ethan Edwards was played by the legendary John Wayne. It was the fifth western that Ford filmed primarily in this desert dreamscape, 650 miles east of Hollywood. He filmed cowboys and Indians and cavalrymen against brooding mesas and cloud-feathered skies. A complicated man who ruled his movie sets like a cranky despot, Ford loved the splendid isolation of working far from the moguls and money men in a place where he could reign over his loyal troop of actors, cameramen, wranglers and stuntmen. He stayed just up the road at Goulding's Lodge, whose amiable owners set up a special cabin for him, fed his crew and even provided a medicine man to predict the weather. He admired the Navajos who lived here, and they in turn appreciated the cash his film company paid them for working as extras and support crew.



          But what he most liked was the setting: the stark, arid landscape, the sandstorms and the scarred, defiant mesas rising 2,000 feet from the earth, overshadowing man and beast. It was John Ford's mythic vision of the Old West.



          It's mine as well. "The Searchers" has long been my favorite movie. It's a thrilling and emotionally complex film about race, anger, vengeance and love set against a breathtaking background -- I've seen it a dozen times, and it never fails to move me. After Martha and most of her family are brutally murdered by Comanches, Ethan and his adopted nephew embark on a five-year quest to find Debbie, Martha's kidnapped daughter. They roam far and wide through Monument Valley, its awesome silent beauty in marked contrast to the ugly deeds of men.



          Sooner or later, I knew, I had to come here to see the places where Ford filmed his greatest scenes. But it's not easy to search for "The Searchers." Ford died in 1973, and the sets he built are long gone, as is just about everyone who worked on them. Still, the extraordinary landscape survives, as does Goulding's, which offers a variety of tours.



          So on our first full day here, my wife and I and 18 other tourists are packed into narrow benches in the back of an open-air trailer, and Larry Rock, our Navajo guide, is at the helm of a four-wheel-drive pulling the trailer down the winding dirt track into the heart of the valley. On our way out of Goulding's, Larry points out the small stone cabin, once a storage shed, that Ford turned into an officer's quarters for "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," one of his earlier Monument Valley westerns. But Larry has never seen "The Searchers" and doesn't have much to say about John Ford -- he's got other stories to tell.



          It's clear to me that it's going to take an act of imagination and a certain amount of faith to find "The Searchers." But that's okay, because Monument Valley is big enough for anyone's imagination, and it turns out that John Ford is only one legend in a place that holds many.



          There's no interstate on Monument Valley's doorstep and no place to stay within 20 miles except for Goulding's, which has already put out the No Vacancy sign this morning. The 30,000-acre Monument Valley National Tribal Park straddles the Utah-Arizona line. Its road are unpaved, and the 17-mile dirt circuit through the valley is steep and unfriendly; if you venture out in an ordinary car, there's a good chance you can kiss your rear axle goodbye.



          Larry is ticking off the names of the various buttes and mesas as we slowly weave past them. These are the "monuments" that are the valley's signature feature, and they look like sandstone cathedrals. There are Mitchell and Merrick buttes, named after two former soldiers who entered the valley in the early 1880s looking for silver and lost their scalps. There are Castle and Gray Whiskers and Sentinel and Elephant, and East and West Mitten, each with a rocky thumb. At the northern end of the park, there are Bear and Rabbit, King on His Throne and Brigham's Tomb, named after Mormon pioneer patriarch Brigham Young. One of the favorite pastimes here is to re-imagine the buttes as celebrities: Larry points out the profiles of George Washington, Alfred Hitchcock, Al Gore and Snoopy.



          Each mesa, carved millions of years ago from stone plateaus by water and wind, is basically a rock sandwich -- two slices of crusty shale with a soft sandstone filling. From ground level they loom tall and majestic, and their deep red color glows especially brightly near sunset. It's easy to see why the early Navajos believed the formations held up the sky.



          The buttes seem welded to the ground. But Larry recalls the precise time and date -- 12:45 p.m. on May 18, 2006 -- when an awesome chunk of the thumb of East Mitten came crashing down. "All we saw was a huge red cloud of dust that rose, and then we heard some rumble," he says.

Larry's truck bumps and grinds its way past a half-dozen shacks and hogans -- the traditional circular Navajo huts. Maybe 200 people live in the valley; there's no electricity or running water, and it's hard to grow crops amid the rock and sand. With harsh, wind-blown winters and an annual rainfall below 10 inches, it's even hard to keep alive a handful of skinny sheep or goats.



          Larry stops the truck at a natural arch known as Big Hogan. The sky shimmers like turquoise through the oval opening at the top. Along the wall below are petroglyphs -- images of goats and big-horn sheep etched into stone by the region's original prehistoric settlers, known as the Anasazi, Navajo for "the ancient ones." The Anasazi carved dwellings out of the rocks, grew corn in water pockets in the unforgiving soil and lived for at least 1,000 years in a corner of the park known as Mystery Valley. Sometime around the 1300s, they abandoned the area.



          "We don't know what happened to them," says Don Holiday, another Navajo guide. "Maybe they moved south, maybe they died. That's why they call it Mystery Valley."



           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.



          The Navajo reservation surrounding the valley comprises 27,000 square miles -- an area bigger than 10 of the 50 states. There's been much progress, but many homesteads still lack running water and electricity, and unemployment is rife. A uranium mining boom in the 1950s and 1960s brought money into the area while poisoning its fields and streams with radioactive waste. Children were hauled off to government schools where Navajo culture was derided, and students who tried to speak in their native tongue were punished.



          Monument Valley is one of the reservation's crown jewels, but a cloud of benign neglect hangs over the place. The Navajo governing council approved the building of a three-story hotel on the rim of the valley, though water and sewage problems have delayed its opening. The park's visitor center is closed for renovations.



          The Navajos are proud but wary, and you can sense the deep ambivalence that governs their relations with outsiders. They call themselves the Dine -- the People. Don Holiday says many Navajos believe that marrying outside the tribe can bring sickness to your family.



          We are slowly making our way to a rocky ledge that offers a spectacular view of the northern half of the valley. It's called John Ford's Point, and it's said to have been the old man's favorite spot. Larry doesn't mention it, but it's also the spot where Ford filmed a key moment of "The Searchers," in which Texas Rangers prepare a climactic attack on a Comanche camp.



           We shuffle past a handful of Navajo women presiding over trays of necklaces, earrings and artifacts for sale. "A Navajo gentleman is going to pose on horseback," Larry briefs us. Sure enough, soon after we arrive, an old man decked out in black hat and leather vest rides slowly out to the edge, perched atop a magnificent black stallion. For several minutes they stand there, rider and horse perfectly still. A hand-lettered sign reads "$2.00 photo on the horse." All of this naked commerce is a long way from my romantic preconceptions.



          It turns out I'm not the only one who brings preconceptions to Monument Valley. 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."



          Goulding's is located halfway up a hill against Rock Door mesa, facing the rising sun. The original trading post is now a museum. The folks at Goulding's try to accommodate the needs of John Ford addicts such as myself. They show a Ford western at 8 every evening, and the old storeroom in the back of the museum is outfitted in movie stills and paraphernalia. But the real legend honored here isn't Ford's, but that of the late Harry and Mike Goulding, the lodge's founders and guiding pioneers.



           Born and raised a sheep rancher's son in Colorado, Harry first laid eyes on Monument Valley in 1921. According to "Tall Sheep," an account of Harry's life written by Samuel Moon, Harry loved the valley at first sight. He came back two years later with his new bride, Leone, a pretty young woman he met in New Mexico. Harry said he could never spell her first name, so he took to calling her Mike, and it stuck.



          For three years, they lived in a tent, trading staples such as coffee, flour, salt, sugar and canned goods for rugs, skins and a few coins. The Navajos loved canned tomatoes -- they would pour sugar on the top, pass around the can and eat the cold contents with a spoon, Harry recalled. The Navajos were suspicious of Harry and Mike at first. But the couple stayed on, built a two-story stone house on land they eventually purchased from the state of Utah and won the grudging respect of many of their Navajo neighbors. 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. Monument Valley in those days was at least 90 miles from the nearest paved road. The crew had to cart in their own generators, gasoline and water tanks. But Ford was not to be denied.



           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."



          Harry did everything possible to accommodate Ford. 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.' "



          The museum preserves the original counter over which Harry and Mike traded with their Navajo customers, as well as a gallery of Muench's iconic photos. And on the wall downstairs is the lodge's old register, framed behind glass. "Thanks, Harry & Mike, for everything," wrote Ford on one page. "Also, my thanks to 'Fatso' for the weather."



          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.


          Ford didn't like to talk about his work, but he expressed his enthusiasm for Monument Valley in a 1948 letter to author James Warner Bellah, whose short story Ford used as the basis for "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."



          "At Monument Valley," Ford wrote, "I have my own personal tribe of Navajo Indians who are great riders, swell actors . . . have long hair and best of all they believe in me."



          Ford was a firm believer in routine. Each morning his personal accordion player, Danny Borzage, would launch into "Bringing in the Sheaves" to announce the old man's arrival on the set. Lunch was always served at noon, and tea was promptly at 4. No one was allowed to discuss work at dinner at the risk of banishment from the table.



          Ford was one of the few silent film directors who had successfully made the leap to sound, and over the years he won a record four Academy Awards for best director, plus two more for his World War II documentaries. But by the mid-1950s, his career was beginning to unravel. Heading into his 60s and struggling with alcoholism, he had a disastrous experience filming the Broadway hit "Mister Roberts" in 1954, even getting into a fistfight with Henry Fonda, the movie's star and an old friend. Ford abandoned the film midway for gall bladder surgery. Many in Hollywood thought he was washed up. But Ford took his loyal film crew, including John Wayne, by now Hollywood's biggest box office attraction, and returned to the valley in the summer of 1955 to make another western.



          Based on a novel by a western author and screenplay writer named Alan LeMay, "The Searchers" is a dark, bloodstained quest. Like Ford himself, Ethan Edwards is a troubled and alienated man, alone even among family and friends. His search for his kidnapped niece, accompanied by his nephew Martin Pauley, becomes a mad obsession, motivated not by love but by hate. It becomes clear to Martin that Ethan is planning not to rescue Debbie but to kill her. It's a matter of blood and honor -- she has grown into a young woman and become a Comanche warrior's squaw.

          Once again, the film company brought money and patronage to the area. Harry Goulding organized a tent city for 300 film crew members, and Ford hired an additional 300 Navajos. It was a hot, punishing summer, but the sandstorms and brilliant sun only compound the feeling of hardship and living on the edge that saturates the film. 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.



          John Holiday, another local tour guide, is 42 -- much too young to have been around for "The Searchers." But he knows someone who was. Susie Yazzie is a weaver and a jewelry maker and probably one of the most photographed people in North America -- for a generation she was in virtually every documentary, photo book and story about the Navajos.



          After a bumpy ride across pockmarked dunes in John's four-wheel drive, we pull up outside Susie's small shack. Susie and her daughter Effie come to the door. Susie is a small, thin woman wearing her standard outfit familiar from many of her photos -- blue-tinted sunglasses and a blue skirt, a big turquoise pendant and a wide crooked smile. She's never seen her birth certificate, but John says he's heard she's 96.



          Susie's memories of "The Searchers" are like a swirling sandstorm -- hazy but emphatic. She says most of the Navajos hired for the film came from areas outside of Monument Valley, but that Harry Goulding made sure she and a handful of locals got to participate. She recalls working for about a month as an extra. There was $10 a day in cash ($15 for men) and a free meal.



          Susie says she never saw "The Searchers." But she and Effie both appeared in Ford's final Monument Valley epic, the elegiac "Cheyenne Autumn," released in 1964. She hasn't seen that one, either. There's a legend still going around that the Navajos who spoke dialect in the film were making fun of Ford and his film crew in their native tongue.



          Susie won't say. When I ask about it, her eyes glow, and she laughs.



          "The Searchers" may be receding from Susie's memory, but outside her place there's a clear reminder. The cave where Ethan and Martin hold off a band of Comanches in the second half of the film is still intact, although the ground is littered with old tires, abandoned tools and rusty spare parts.

          I describe to John another scene, where the two searchers finally locate Debbie for the first time. She plunges down a sand dune to warn Ethan and Martin that they are about to be ambushed. We tool around for half an hour as the sun sinks behind Thunderbird mesa when, suddenly, we come upon the dune and a desert spring. I'm a little embarrassed at my elation; it looks just like in the film -- no garbage or other eyesores -- and I can't help myself. "This is it!" I cry out to John, who also seems excited. He promises to go home that night and watch the film.



          Eloise Begay has lived all her life below Douglas Mesa, just north of the valley. Eloise is 45 -- like John Holiday, too young to have been around for Ford's films -- but she knows the area well. With Eloise steering one of the lodge's four-wheel drives, we quickly locate a number of film sites by using stills from a book of Ford's westerns. By triangulating between two mesas, Eloise finds the Jorgensen homestead -- now a barren patch of raised flat land -- where Martin's girlfriend, Laurie, lives with her parents and waits with growing impatience for the searchers to return. There's the San Juan River, 20 miles north of the park, where Ethan, Martin and a small band of Texas Rangers hold off Comanche attackers. And there's the back of Elephant butte, where Ethan discovers the body of his other niece, Lucy, who has been raped and murdered by the Comanches.



          But, for me, the most evocative site comes next. Eloise swings the four-wheel drive toward a small rise off the main road west of the towering Sentinel mesa. Below us is the site of the Edwards homestead, now occupied by a horse stable. Just beyond is a small hill where, in the film, the victims of the massacre are buried in a solemn ritual that Ethan disrupts because he's impatient to pursue the Comanche raiders who have taken Debbie.



          LeRoy Teeasyatah, 46, a horse wrangler with a sun-lined face and a long black braid, makes his way up the rise to greet us. He confirms that this is indeed where the Edwards homestead was built and burned for "The Searchers" -- a few bits of plywood and concrete remain from the film shoot.



          In the film, the Edwardses, the Jorgensens and the other pioneer families are hanging on, trying to survive in a world where drought, hard times and Comanches seem always at their doorstep. The same is true for folks living in Monument Valley, says LeRoy.

"It's harsh land, it's a no man's land," he says. "But it's also a good land. People ask me, 'How do you survive here?' But I don't just survive. This is home, sweet home. It's a way of life.



          "I come from a rancher family. Three generations. I've got six kids and I know my kids have to move on. We're trying to live in two different worlds, and it's a struggle. But there's a life in it."



          On our last night in Monument Valley, Goulding's is showing "The Searchers" in its small projector room. I've seen it many times before, but after wandering the valley for three days, the buttes and mesas seem more than just the background against which the story unfolds. They have become, somehow, the main characters.



          I also understand that the "Comanches" in the film are actually Navajos, and that they have a very different narrative than the one told in the movie I've cherished all these years. But the climax, when Ethan finally catches up to his niece and must decide whether to carry out the act of vengeance he has long planned, seems even more powerful and thrilling.



          It's not just me. As the movie ends, the small audience bursts into applause.

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© 2013 by Glenn Frankel