By Elizabeth Latenser
This is part of an ongoing series featuring iconic projects filmed in Utah. Projects and artists mentioned in the series filmed here for inspiration, a strong sense of place or to recreate otherworldly experiences.
“Harry, you and I both owe these monuments a lot.”
– Director John Ford to rancher Harry Goulding
Seeing a cowboy ride to the edge of a red rock butte overlooking a vast desert lowland can evoke a sense of nostalgia in every film lover. That rustic scene is one filmed over and over in Monument Valley for many iconic Westerns. Film critic Keith Phipps, described the area as “a stunning pocket of sandstone formations” and “five square miles [that] have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.”
An unconventional rancher named Harry Goulding who settled in Monument Valley in 1921 is credited with bringing Hollywood to the area. Goulding was not someone familiar with the glitz and glamour of show business. He ran a trading post and sheep farm in the remote area. He and his wife originally lived in a tent on the land and slowly added more permanent structures. But according to Vanity Fair, Goulding “knew beauty and he knew opportunity and he knew there was a way to combine the two in Monument Valley.”
After a rough drought and economic uncertainty, Harry Goulding ventured to Los Angeles to share breathtaking images of the area to Hollywood executives at United Artists. With a little grit and a steadfast belief in the vision he was selling, Goulding was able to meet the location manager scouting for Stagecoach as well as the director John Ford. By making that connection, Goulding became “one of the most unlikely contributors to American cinema there ever was.” After that initial meeting, Ford agreed to film Stagecoach in Monument Valley. Over the next 25 years Ford filmed seven other films there and brought with him a wide variety of rising stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart.
According to crew members and other observers, Ford could be tough on set. Mood swings and outbursts were par for the course when someone questioned his judgement or gave unwanted opinions. So many believed that part of the reason he loved filming in Monument Valley so much was that “it was hard for film executives to get to.”
Goulding helped Ford navigate the complicated landscape and also helped forge a beneficial relationship with the Navajo living nearby. Often, the local Navajo acted in the films or were paid as extras on set. One special Navajo medicine man was paid to “give Ford whatever weather he desired for shooting Stagecoach.” Ford and the medicine man would share one drink then Ford would tell him what type of weather he wanted for the following day’s shoot. For the most part it seemed to work because the medicine man stayed on Ford’s payroll for several projects.
Over the years as more business came through Monument Valley, the Gouldings we able to add to their minimal infrastructure. Ford filmed My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon The Searchers and How the West Was Won on their land. The growth happened slowly but eventually, small cabins and a motel were added to accommodate artists, crew members and the increasing number of visitors flocking to the area.
In 1963, after 45 years of living on their ranch, the Gouldings sold their slice of paradise and moved to Arizona. It is now owned by the LaFont brothers who run a variety of tourist operations in the area that celebrate its rich cinematic, Native American and environmental history. The Goulding’s Lodge is open for visitors, as is the trading post which has been converted into a museum.
Today artists and creators across all sectors were come to capture footage for their television show, video game, music video or advertisements. And thousands of visitors trek to Monument Valley annually to catch a glimpse of the rugged wild West. Trip Advisor named mile marker 163 Forrest Gump Point right at the spot where the loveable runner ended his epic three year jaunt. Adventurers come to mimic the famous Thelma and Louise movie poster with their best friends. People marvel at the landscape that hosted Back to the Future III, Mission Impossible II, Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Legend of the Lone Ranger.
Monument Valley will forever be the face of the great American West. And we owe it all to a brave rancher with a vision.
Contributing writer Elizabeth Latenser is a film fan, mountain momma, dog lover and tree hugger.