The Western may not be a thoroughly American genre, but it remains one of its most definitive. John Ford and John Wayne defined decades of masculinity in these stories. Motion pictures like The Searchers, Stagecoach, and Once Upon a Time in the West utilized the landscapes of Utah, Arizona, and Colorado to define the West. No image is more indelible than Monument Valley, the land of the Navajo people resting between Arizona and Utah. In The Taking, documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe examines the relationship between Hollywood and the gorgeous Monument Valley. Utilizing his signature style, Philippe reckons with the legacy of Hollywood on indigenous land and cultivating the myths of manifest destiny.
Philippe opens The Taking by showcasing the breadth of films utilizing the symbol of Monument Valley. While Westerns, like the work of John Ford, are the most obvious, the landscape became shorthand for other filmmakers. The Coen Brothers utilize the visuals in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Pixar borrowed the idea of Monument Valley to craft the Route 66 landscape of Cars. Forrest Gump grew tired of the silhouette of “The Mittens” in the background. Creating a sense of Americana, tourists, and visitors travel from around the world to see these gorgeous landscapes.
However, tourists rarely reckon with the dangerous legacy Ford and his contemporaries created. Anti-indigenous rhetoric can be traced to these visuals, and the people of the Navajo nation cannot easily shift public perceptions of their homeland. The idea of taming the West and reinforcement of the white culture courses through these films. Sadly, indigenous representation was scarce in Hollywood, forcing many to accept the roles that popularized these negative portrayals. Today, the indigenous people of the region still affect how those traveling see the landscape.
Philippe’s collection of academics and film footage spreads across genres. Tying in the Looney Tunes, Pixar, and LEGO showcases the visual shorthand at work. Children may not know what Monument Valley means to cinema, but imparting the ideas of Westward expansion and wilderness on these landscapes early sets the stage. The insights become more pointed as we drive on, but at times The Taking seems content stating facts about Monument Valley. This does cause it to feel slightly bloated, despite a slim runtime below 80 minutes.
Philippe cooks when he’s setting up unique footage of Ford and Wayne. Having historians break down Ford’s reliance on the landscape makes for interesting connections to each butte. The parallels and unique methods of shooting an iconic location shine through. However, Philippe also notes how a single space can take on meaning in dozens of ways simply by shifting distance and camera angles. In Ford’s hands, Monument Valley becomes a “Mainstreet, USA,” representing Texas, California, Arizona, and more. He paints our cultural imaginations of place, even when they drastically differ from the truth.
In October 2020 (during the Pandemic), I drove through Monument Valley on vacation. The lands were closed to protect the Navajo people, and with good reason. While the route was slightly altered from the one seen in most popular culture, the landscapes remain beautiful and world-altering. Yet this land serves a purpose for a people and a culture. Watching The Taking made me reckon with my desire to visit the landscape. Philippe’s essay worked for me. The Taking is a must-watch experience to help any cinephile or filmmaker reflect on how they utilize location in the future.
The Taking serves as a reminder that Philippe’s insights into the semiotics of film remain unparalleled. He tells compelling stories through these essays and dives into the most profound meanings of beloved tales. It’s Yeoman’s work, but it adds to film culture and criticism. We eagerly await his next entry and the critical insights about American culture he will bring to the table.