Landscape in Paradigms: Ford’s Monument Valley

Creator's Statement


This video reorganizes images from John Ford's films made in Monument Valley based on the particular geological landmarks there. A journey through the area using Google Earth conveys its cinematic possibilities, Ford's visual approach to employing them, and the abundant thematic connections among the films.


John Ford's Westerns are responsible for turning Monument Valley, an area on the Utah-Arizona border little-known outside of the Navajo community, into a major tourist destination. For decades filmmakers have included it as a sly postmodern quip or lazy shorthand for the Western genre (actually few studio-era westerns were shot there, most of them Ford's). Today, images of its distinct mesas saturate our media environment. It is perhaps no surprise that they appear in the title sequence of of HBO’s recent hit Westworld, but TV viewers can also spot them in a recent commercial for a blood thinner. This sublime landscape has been reduced to a cliché that must be defamiliarized to be appreciated.

Monument Valley’s cinematic possibilities also raise a fundamental question about how the medium conveys an environment. What is the "atmosphere" that directors seek when they take a film out of the studio, sometimes at great expense? What visual payoff do they get for the time and energy expended? And if the purpose of natural settings is to create visual novelty, why would Ford return to the same place again and again? This project began when I started to use Google Earth to explore these films as part of traditional film analysis to consider these issues. I found it helpful to map out the placement of the camera for certain scenes based on careful observation of film sequences, maps, and production documents. This technique is essentially a form of paradigmatic analysis, but unlike common narrative or thematic paradigms ('wilderness,' 'civilization'), these rock formations are literal and tangible objects in the frame, not abstractions by the critic.

The landscape is not an uncommon topic in film criticism, but most often critics treat it as a semiotic bearer of meanings—especially ones related to national identity—rather than as a specifically visual element. Theories of the cinematic landscape emphasize its role as spectacle at odds with a film’s narrative design. Martin Lefebvre, in the most thorough theorization to date, argues that the cinematic landscape emerges only in those cases when the spectator attends to aspects of the environment without, or at the expense of, narrative action. Filmmakers encourage this response through techniques such as protracted temps morts or disjunctive editing.[1] Yet neither of these techniques are common in Ford’s films, and critics have more often characterized his use of the environment as subtle or understated. So did Winton Hoch, the director of photography for She Word a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, who once remarked, “In Monument Valley [Ford] avoided the temptation to shoot nothing but breathtakers. He had only an occasional beauty shot. It's like diamonds. They are very valuable because they are rare. If the street was paved with them, then they would be worthless."[2]

My analysis reveals a different kind of landscape in Ford’s Monument Valley films than Lefebvre’s theory would suggest. Ford includes salient features of the environment as incidental details in the background and repeats them throughout a film to create a dense texture of thematic and graphic connections. The area’s visual impact derives as much from its careful integration in the ongoing action as from its own inherent splendor. As I worked, it occurred to me that a journey through this cinematic landscape in videographic form would enable insights far exceeding what I alone could mobilize for a scholarly argument. I was attracted to videographic criticism's ability to foster a different mode of spectatorship but remain open-ended—to show, not describe, something new in films. I initially conceived of the video as a kind of database of shots or a visual concordance. However, I wanted it to be watchable (not an hours-long conceptual art piece) and accessible to viewers with different degrees of familiarity with these films. I used the geography of the region to reorganize shots from the films, including both “breathtakers” and routine dialogue sequences.

The vast majority of identifiable shooting spots cluster around the four areas that the video surveys. I noticed that the common settings used for the white and Indian settlements had literal geographical correspondents. The Anglo settlements, including Tombstone in My Darling Clementine, tend to be filmed near Goulding's Lodge (2:10), while all Indian reservations are filmed in the sandy areas near the Yei Bi Chei rocks (section IV). Meanwhile, areas in the central part of the valley (10:10) tend to be on the furthest margins of Western expansion, including the fort in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and the Edwards' ill-fated homestead in The Searchers.

Other repetitions are more mysterious. In The Searchers, why would Ford film Marty's camp with his unwittingly-acquired Indian wife, Look, at the exact same spot where he reconnected with Laurie Jorgenson earlier (section I)? Why does a particular pyramid-shaped rock inevitably appear during chase sequences (section III)? Ford admirers are likely to find some of their observations about these westerns confirmed but might also make some new insights. For those less familiar with these films, my video renders the cinematic universe discernable across them in a tangible—and I hope exciting—way.

[1] “Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema,” in Lefebvre, Martin. ed.  Landscape and Film. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 49.

[2] Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, 1st U.S. ed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 281.


The author

Booth Wilson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work appears in Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Animation Journal, and the forthcoming bilingual anthology (No) More Cinema! Animated Images and Special Effects (2017). He dissertation examines the career of director Yakov Protazanov in the silent era in a transnational context to explore Russian popular cinema’s response to the 1917 Revolution and its form of vernacular political expression.

In Booth Wilson’s video essay, ‘Landscape in Paradigms’, new and old imaging technologies meet at the iconic location of Monument Valley. The essay explores the potential of Google Earth as an analytic tool for the study of landscape and place in cinema, taking Ford’s westerns and their setting on the Utah-Arizona border as a case study. Although John Ford wasn’t the first Hollywood director to use Monument Valley as a location, the seven films he made there inscribed it in popular memory, where, thanks to cinema, television, advertising and tourism, it has become “a free-floating image in a world of hyper-consumption” (Harvey, 2011: 180). Stripping away these referential layers, Wilson takes us back to the site itself, using Google Earth to fulfill the old promise of cinema, to enable us to travel, calmly and adventurously in Walter Benjamin’s famous words, without leaving our seats.

In chapters that pick up the well-known themes of the western, ‘Civilization’, ‘Conflict’, ‘Contested Territory’ and ‘Reservations’, the insertion of segments from the films into the virtual landscape reveals both consistent patterns and contradictions in the ways Ford used the geographic features of the area. In scenes set in Indian territory, as Wilson points out, Ford makes repeated use of the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei rocks (named for their resemblance to dancers in a spiritual ceremony of that name). As well as providing a visual reference to a popular cliché, the choice of a setting characterized by jagged upright forms also subtly reinforces the idea of a proud warrior culture in a hostile situation. Other sites seems to have been chosen purely for compositional interest, as when a line of men on horseback – no matter whether native or settler - snakes over the hilly terrain in front of a butte or disappears behind it. The abstract visual pleasure in such scenes is no small part of the beauty of the films. Sometimes it’s hard to decide on the significance of setting: do the huge rock formations that fill portions of the screen signify anything? Do they stand in for the buildings that the settlers have left behind? Or are they there just for visual variety, to break up the monotony of earth and sky?

As an interpretive approach, mapping the films onto the terrain may raise more questions than it answers, but it does give some insight into Ford’s way of working. One of the most striking things the video shows is the relative proximity of key locations, hinting at practical considerations behind creative decisions. Ford and his crew, including the Navajos they used like stock players, returned again and again to familiar locations within a fairly small area, as if they were working on a studio backlot. Along with this intuition of Ford’s working methods, we gain a sense of the gap between the fictional diegesis and the real world in which the films were made: Monument Valley was used to represent great swathes of the American West, from Wyoming to Texas; its Navajo inhabitants played Apache, Sioux, Cheyenne and other tribes, but never themselves. We know these things from scholarship on Ford and the West, but videographic exploration of the production of cinematic place creates new ways of understanding them. Viewing movies through the filter of a newer imaging technology puts them into a new perspective, foregrounding both the pragmatism and the skilled artifice with which they are made.

The comparison cuts the other way as well. Google Earth is a geographical information system developed by a CIA-funded company that was bought up by Google. Its visualizations, made by compositing multiple images, are synthetic and virtual. In important ways it not only fulfills the promise of cinematic sightseeing, it also betrays it: the digital images do not convey the vivid reds of Monument Valley’s distinctive geology, or the subtle and spectacular effects of light and shade on the rock formations as they change throughout the day. Setting films made between 1939 and 1964 side by side with the digital images of Google Earth constitutes a historical spectrum, the most notable feature of which is the emergence of colour cinematography and its expressive use in the portrayal of Western landscape. Placed next to this, the pixelated ground of Google Earth looks more or less like the backdrop of any video game. As a viewing system, Google Earth transmits information about the site to the viewer but does not convey an impression of what it might be like to be there.

The emergence of the view from above as a new optical paradigm has been widely understood as an effect of the instrumentalisation of the image for surveillance and military purposes. Hito Steyerl suggests – following Eyal Weizman – that it embodies a new verticalisation of geopolitical power (Steyerl 2011). But the view from above also misses much of what matters, as we see in the sensory shortfall of Google Earth’s imagery. While Ford’s films may fairly be said to misrepresent the landscape of Monument Valley, failing, even in Cheyenne Autumn, to respond to the material specificity of the place and its people, they do at least show an inhabited – and contested – territory. It is possible to discern buildings in Google Earth’s Monument Valley, but there is no sign of the Navajo who continue to live there, now running it as a park, or the tourists who visit in huge numbers from all over the world. ‘Landscape in Paradigms: Ford’s Monument Valley’ is a fascinating experiment in videographic film analysis, turning one viewing technology on another in order to show how a fictional space has been constructed from an actual location, but it may also be equally productive to reverse the gaze and use the movies to show how the sensory richness of the experience of being in a given place escapes the mastery of this potent technology.


Harvey, Thomas J., (2011) Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley: Making the Modern Old West, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Steyerl, Hito (2011) ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective’, e-flux journal #24, online at: [Accessed 23/11/16].

This is a really wonderful video essay, absolutely groundbreaking in its implications.  That this was even possible is itself a revelation. I will try to do more here than pile on the superlatives, but this would be one of the few examples I’d use to demonstrate what’s possible in the digital realm that simply couldn’t have been done in any other way. In Booth Wilson's original abstract, he offered the possibility that doing this project “in videographic form would enable insights far exceeding what I alone could mobilize for a scholarly argument.” He has more than lived up to that promise.

The first astonishing thing about this video essay is that it was possible at all to use Google Earth to show precise rock formations and the space they occupy with such accuracy. If Wilson had simply matched up a few shots with their positions in Google-Earth-space, that would already have been a formidable accomplishment. Of course he doesn’t stop there. He brings a film scholar’s knowledge of the films into this digital realm, and one of the great things about this essay is that, as he says, it couldn’t have been accomplished any other way.

A few of the revelations this video essay provides. This starts, of course, with how well the superimpositions are accomplished of film clips over the digital maps. What this allows is then the ability to visualize the entire space of Monument Valley, and the pans in digital space are just as interesting as the pans in the film clips (and that it’s possible to match moving camera shots in both is also quite amazing - see especially the third section “Contested Territory” for stunning examples of this). Another really revealing technique in the essay is seeing how different shots line up the horizon differently, so the overlaid shots change in screen position and framing. I found viewing a succession of these to be absolutely hypnotic.  What this demonstrates most clearly is that Ford didn’t just return to Monument Valley, he returned to a number of precise spots and repeated camera positions. These are so well presented that I don’t think they even require narrative justification.  They demonstrate a major facet of Ford’s visual sensibility, very beautiful in its own right, and if I had to pick one result of this approach, it would be that - providing a sense of Ford’s artistry in the use of this space.

And a favorite revealing moment of two, both digital insights and Ford discoveries. Who knew that John Wayne riding off in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon matches perfectly with the famous out-the-door shot in The Searchers? (9:00) This is itself quite eye-opening.  And also that the exact same position was used repeatedly by Ford.  Another favorite moment, right at the end: that Stagecoach matches up so closely to the great final shot of My Darling Clementine is also truly exciting to see (12:25). Also superbly done in this video essay are the overhead shots and movements in digital space.  You really under the space of Monument Valley, the relationship of locations to each other, in a manner that allows you to visualize Ford’s choices in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

It isn’t a criticism, but Wilson mentioned that he had first considered doing this as a database of shots, but feared that this would result in an “hours-long conceptual art piece”. He’s surely thinking of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, and all I would say is that we should all aim so high. There are also other ways that a visual database could be constructed which, by allowing a viewer to choose, it would be possible to go through this space with a little more freedom to study the examples closely than the video essay form provides.  As it is, though, I found myself repeatedly freezing the video and going back just a bit to review, which is itself a kind of praise.

In Wilson’s original abstract, he ended by saying ““For those less familiar with these films, my video renders the cinematic universe discernible across them in a tangible--and I hope exciting--way.”  He couldn’t be more right!