The Iconic Film History of Monument Valley

This corner of Utah has always been ready for its close-up. Director John Ford wasn’t the first filmmaker to shoot in Monument Valley, but he made the striking Navajo Indian Reservation landscape in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona one of the most recognized, iconic places in the world. Make no mistake, the only thing better than seeing it through Ford’s lens is seeing it in person. The red rock cliffs and heaven-reaching sandstone buttes rewarded Ford with some of the most beloved and critically hailed movies ever, including 1939’s haunting black-and-white Stagecoach and The Searchers in 1956, the first movie to capture Monument Valley in full-color “VistaVision.”

Stagecoach identified Monument Valley as the quintessential Western landscape,” says University of Utah film professor William Siska, noting that even though academics and film buffs all associate Stagecoach with Monument Valley, the movie was largely shot on a film studio lot in California. The scenes actually shot in Monument Valley, Siska says, “came to about two-and-a-half minutes, maybe three minutes, of actual screen time in the film, and still, that’s what you carry away from that movie.”

James D’Arc, retired curator of the Brigham Young University Motion Picture Archive, puts the Monument Valley screen time in Stagecoach at about “90 seconds of a 90-minute movie,” but he agrees with Siska on the film’s profound effect. “Once John Ford made Stagecoach there, it’s as if he had the deed on Monument Valley.” 

Very few others would touch it, up until the late ’60s when Sergio Leone went there to film part of Once Upon a Time in the West. Since Sergio broke the ice, many have followed. Here are 13 familiar films that stopped for a shot of Monument Valley since Ford’s era.

Easy Rider (1969)

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Starman (1984)

Over the Top (1987)

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Forrest Gump (1994)

Waiting to Exhale (1995)

Con Air (1996)

Chill Factor (1999)

Wild Wild West (1999)

Vertical Limit (2000)

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Cast and crew of 'Westworld' Season One filming in Utah (photo courtesy Utah Film Commission)
Cast and crew of ‘Westworld’ Season One filming in Utah (photo courtesy Utah Film Commission)

Utah’s Film Industry Gets a Second Act

For the past two years, the Utah Film Commission reports it has been working with city and county officials to enable more rural areas to support productions filming in their regions. The Commission created “The Film Ready Utah” designation as a way to signal to would-be Utah film productions that the designated community can provide a “local support network, access to resources, and…that these communities are ready to support their work.”

The list of “Film Ready” communities already included Kanab, Moab to Monument Valley, Ogden, Park City, Utah Valley and Salt Lake City. This month, 12 other communities joined their ranks, including Box Elder, Cache, Carbon, Davis, Emery, Garfield, Heber Valley, Juab, San Juan, Tooele, Uintah, Washington and Wayne.

“Utah’s film industry is expanding to every corner of our state,” said Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, in a statement. “The Film Ready Utah program gives rural communities resources to match local businesses and unique locations with production-related needs.” Read more!

In the May/June 2022 issue of Salt Lake, we celebrated the legacy of Utah’s movies. Check out our 10 favorite Beehive State films. Read more about the current state of the film industry in the Beehive State. Revisit Utah’s dances with the devil with beloved (and less beloved) horror movies.

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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