Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The geography of the Western

On location


From the earliest times landscape has been a key element of the Western movie. There are successful, even great ‘town Westerns’, yes, tense claustrophobic works like High Noon or The Gunfighter whose action takes place indoors or in town and are shot accordingly on a studio sound stage, almost like a filmed theater play, and many less great low-budget Westerns also concentrated on interiors because they were cheaper to shoot. But many Westerns, good Westerns anyway, depend on the great outdoors.


I say “from the earliest times”. There are those who argue that Edison’s The Great Train Robbery of 1903, often regarded as the first narrative Western movie, was not a Western at all. It was shot in New Jersey. The true Western didn’t appear until 1907, these purists say, when Selig moved to Colorado and started filming there, followed by Essanay in 1908. But we don’t want to be too literal about this. For the lifetime of the Western movie many pictures have not been filmed in locales where their stories purported to be set, and the great variety of movie locations, not just in different parts of the US but indeed in other countries, doesn’t signify that the films aren’t Westerns.





Parallel to the development of Westerns as motion pictures, and interacting with them, was the growing significance of landscape in ‘Western’ literature. Zane Grey was an important example. Fox made the first motion picture from a Grey novel, The Last Trail, in 1918, and very many others would follow. As a young man Grey rode round the Flagstaff area and to the Grand Canyon, and the effect on him was life-changing. His first bestseller, Heritage of the Desert (later filmed as a silent movie and twice more as a talkie) was written under the spell. Many of his tales had a southwestern setting, with nature looming large, and Utah, Arizona and New Mexico locations started to creep into the public’s consciousness as ‘Western’.



Zane a great influence



Early ‘epic’ Westerns like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), and later the Raoul Walsh- directed The Big Trail (shot 1929, released 1930) made much of the scenery and the studios (Paramount and Fox in these cases) allocated serious budget to doing it. In the case of The Big Trail, which came out just as the Great Depression hit, it nearly sank Fox financially.


What is the truly emblematic Western location? Many would say Monument Valley, and indeed, John Ford’s use of that place first for Stagecoach, which he filmed in 1938, and then for seven other of his Western films has stamped the region indelibly on our minds as ‘the Wild West’. Huge numbers of other oaters were set there, sometimes, as with Sergio Leone, for example, in direct homage to Ford. In 1949 Columbia’s Durango Kid Western Laramie was even set there. Bizarre. And oranges and ochers, towering buttes and dusty, treeless trails became almost synonymous with the genre.



Quintessentially Western



So much so, in fact, that some movie critics have mistakenly placed settings in Monument Valley when in fact the pictures were shot elsewhere. The British Film Institute’s Companion to the Western refers to “the towering rocks of Monument Valley” in Warners’ Pursued (1947), which was in fact shot round Gallup and in the Red Rock State Park in New Mexico. Edward Buscombe said that RKO’s Wagonmaster (1950) was filmed in the valley, whereas it was done around Moab, Utah. Even Thelma and Louise was, according to one critic, filmed among “the spaces and spires of John Ford’s Monument Valley”, but in reality it was shot in Arches and Canyonlands national parks. It’s a natural mistake: canyons and buttes and so on “equal” Monument Valley. And even today very many commercials use Monument Valley to symbolize ‘the West’, and by extension ‘America’. Even Burger King has a couple of Indiana Jones-type flyers touching down in their old plane to get fast food there.



Ford in ‘his’ valley



Filming The Searchers



Actually, in the early days it was mountains that attracted more than deserts, and seemed the most ‘Western’. Painters, and then photographers, were among the first of the Westward-moving pioneers, and they loved the Rockies. Some of the more influential ones were European-born, and were brought up and trained as artists there, and they brought European sensibilities to their work. Albert Bierstadt, for example, who has been called “the preeminent painter of the western American landscape”, wrote, “As seen from the plains, [the Rockies] resemble very much the Bernese Alps.” Bierstadt’s large canvases were enormously influential and admired.






Bierstadt’s Mount Corcoran


Photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and Timothy H O’Sullivan used principles of composition and framing drawn from the paintings of the time. Their work, from the 1870s on, was shown in exhibitions but unlike that of the painterly artists it could be purchased and carried away, and it was, in huge numbers. In 1902 alone the Detroit Photographic Company sold over seven million photographs, a great number of them landscapes. Many of the photos, of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon especially, were converted into stereoscopic images and stereoscopes were very popular (you sometimes see them used in Western movies).



Photographers like O’Sullivan followed…



…using ‘painterly’ techniques



By the time the Western motion picture came along, Western scenes were all the rage. Tourism was in full swing, Baedecker included maps and indications how to get to the most dramatic ‘Wild West’ locations, Fred Harvey started building hotels along railroad routes, the AT&SF railroad named cars after famous Indian chiefs, and that great promoter Teddy Roosevelt was waxing lyrical on the wonders and beauties of the West. Postcards and lantern slides added to the fascination. Really, early Western movies were ‘pushing on an open door’; or to use another metaphor the ground had been very well prepared for their popularity.  


A popular way to see the West


And so these images and ideas passed quite easily into motion pictures. Some ‘composers’ of Western movies (I mean directors and cinematographers, largely) kept going with this notion of mountainous scenery being quintessentially Western. Anthony Mann immediately comes to mind. Think how in his Westerns – especially The Furies, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur and The Far Country – harsh, even cruel mountainous terrain comes to symbolize what his heroes have to overcome. Mann said, “I have never understood why people make almost all Westerns in desert country. John Ford, for example, adores Monument Valley, but Monument Valley, which I know well, is not the whole of the West. In fact the desert represents only a part of the American West.”



The Naked Spur was shot in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado



As an extension of this, I find that there are ‘cold’ Westerns and ‘hot’ ones. There is whole strand of Western movie in which snow features largely, often in mountainous country, while many do the opposite and set them in baking, waterless deserts. Thus, the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, for example, vie with, say, Death Valley as ‘ideal’ locations for Westerns.



Cold Westerns, like Day of the Outlaw and McCabe & Mrs. Miller



Hot ones, like Yellow Sky and Escape from Fort Bravo



But the hot ones have more or less won. Anthony Mann notwithstanding, as Edward Buscombe says (the same Edward Buscombe who admitted to his error about the locations for Wagonmaster) in an interesting 1995 essay, Inventing Monument Valley, from which I have mined quite a lot of info for this post (thanks, Ed) the ‘center of gravity’ of the Western moved gradually south-west – Zane Grey country. It’s Utah, Arizona and New Mexico which are now thought of as ‘properly Western’ locations. Even John Ford acknowledged this when he had saguaros ‘installed’ in Monument Valley for Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp to gaze at from the street of the Tombstone that Ford had built there when filming My Darling Clementine.



Saguaros in Utah



The real Saguaro National Park and the nearby Western town of Old Tucson (both of which make great places to visit today, though I thought I was a nearly goner from heatstroke in the former) have played host to countless Western movies, to the point where we only have to see a rider threading his way through giant cactus to think, ‘Great, southern Arizona!’


Not all real places are suitable for filming Westerns there anymore. All those pictures with Dodge, Abilene or Laramie in the title could hardly be shot there these days. Some towns, like Deadwood and Tombstone, have become tourist fly traps (I speak as one of the flies). Others, though, do still have atmosphere and seem to remain largely unchanged. Visit Lincoln, New Mexico. It’s really quite magic. I also thought there was a real sense of history at the Little Bighorn battle site in Montana. But I advise against the Alamo. As Paul Simpson, says, “With 2.5 million people a year visiting the 4.2 acres officially known as the Alamo you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to work out that you might be pressed for space.” Anyway, it wasn’t the location of The Alamo. For that, John Wayne had a whole Alamo (with its own airstrip) built to his specifications a hundred miles to the southwest on the Shahan ranch in Bracketville.



Lincoln then and now



The wonderful red rocks around Sedona farther north in Arizona (equally great visiting) have also been the setting for very many oaters. They were even ‘Canada’ once, a rather unlikely Canada, in Fox’s Pony Soldier in 1952, and in fact many supposedly Canadian stories were set in the US. When Cecil B DeMille could be persuaded outside at all (he usually preferred to build enormous and dreadfully clunky interior sets) for North West Mounted Police with Gary Cooper, he used the San Bernadino National Forest as Canada. Sometimes the movie-makers did it properly: Universal’s Saskatchewan in 1954 had some truly spectacular Banff scenery for Mountie Alan Ladd to ride through.



Canada, AZ
in Pony Soldier




Canada, Canada
in Saskatchewan



Fine Western scenery like this was more than just a backdrop, in a theatrical sense, though it was that too. Nature was something to be overcome. It was a test of the Westerners’ grit and ability. In Monument Valley puny ant-like men were dwarfed by the towering buttes, but that made their achievements in overcoming the obstacles all the worthier. The wilderness was there to be ‘tamed’ and the white man had a mission to bring ‘civilization’ to the wild frontier.



Men are dwarfed



Of course location shooting was expensive and a logistical challenge in the early days. When Ford first went to Monument Valley, his filming site was 180 miles from the nearest railroad depot, there was no electricity and no running water. Huge convoys of 1930s trucks had to grind up the unmade roads carrying generators, and the gas to power them, and great tanks of water, along with all the other paraphernalia of movie production.


But it came to be expected, even in the early days. Western scenic locations went rapidly from being a novelty to a necessity. By 1911 DW Griffith and Biograph were regularly filming ‘out West’, and promoting their motion pictures’ “magnificent scenic effects”. Griffith had a title card for his 1910 film version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s romance Ramona read “This production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs Jackson placed her characters in the story”. And indeed Griffith highlighted the dramatic scenery in the action.



Ramona, 1910



California was, of course, the new center of the movie industry, and so Californian ‘Western’ locations were much in demand. The early Westerns of Francis Ford and his brother John, for example, for Universal in the 1910s, could be shot in the empty hills right by the studios. Karl Iverson’s ranch in the Simi Hills was used as a locale as early as 1912, with Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1914 being particularly noted as filmed there. The Iverson Ranch became a standard venue for filming Westerns, and later on Republic, especially, favored it. It had rocky terrain and narrow, winding dirt roads, it was conveniently near downtown LA so that casts and crews could be easily bussed up, and above all, it was cheap to rent. As Westerns grew in popularity other movie ranches were established, such as that of Ray Corrigan, Corriganville, in the late 1930s, and indeed studios such as Warner and Paramount started to invest in their own ranches.



Iverson Ranch, 1922


Studios also built Western towns, some of them really good and some of them very familiar to Western-watchers, especially because so many Western TV shows were shot there. I always liked Universal’s.



Universal’s Western town



Slightly farther afield, Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills, a couple of hundred miles north of Hollywood, became a truly Western location. Never more so than for Budd Boetticher, who relished those crags to highlight the solitariness of his Western heroes (Randolph Scott, mostly). I always thought that Lone Pine must be a huge, wild space and was surprised when I saw it how relatively limited in scope it was. Boetticher and other users of the place managed with very skillfully placed cameras, giving viewers the impression of isolation, space and harsh terrain. IMDB lists an astonishing 372 movies shot there.



 Randy rides alone in Comanche Station



And he gets the drop on Claude up at Lone Pine



To show how used we have become to Westerns in all these ‘Western’ locations, watch Paramount’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961). A poor film in many ways, in my view, largely because of the bad acting and direction, what jars about it most is the setting. All those lush palms and that crashing Freudian surf on the Big Sur. As a Western it’s bizarre. It’s just wrong.


Westerns loved movies centered on forts. The fort was a place of refuge to be defended from hostile elements on the wild frontier, and it ideally suited the genre. On this blog alone we have reviewed Fort Apache, Fort Bowie, Fort Courageous, Fort Defiance, Fort Dobbs, Fort Massacre, Fort Osage, Fort Ti, Fort Utah, Fort Vengeance, Fort Worth and Fort Yuma. Usually, Hollywood forts were wooden palisades, and indeed early forts in the West, Fort Bridger, for example, were sometimes that, but many later forts were army posts for infantry and cavalry and tended to be open, unpalisaded military bases, as you can see if you visit the likes of Fort Apache or Fort Laramie today (and both are fascinating).


Because of the popularity of this sub-genre of Western, the movie fort at Kanab, Utah became a desirable location. It was first built for The Yellow Tomahawk, a Bel-Air production released by United Artists and starring Rory Calhoun, in 1954. But again and again it came to symbolize the Western fort, in pictures such as Fort Bowie, Quincannon, Frontier Scout, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Gragood Wells Massacre, Revolt at Fort Laramie, Fort Yuma, and many more. Sadly, during filming of another movie in 1979 much of the fort was destroyed by fire in a special effects sequence that got out of control.



Kanab movie fort



In more modern times it became harder to film in the classic Western locations of yore, as they became built up and more densely populated, airplane contrails scarred the sky and urban and industrial noise levels rose. Movie producers started looking elsewhere. Parts of Canada still looked more ‘Western’ and Alberta in particular became a favorite. Sometimes whole ‘old’ towns were constructed from scratch there, as for McCabe & Mrs Miller – the set was built largely by young American Vietnam draft dodgers taking refuge in Canada. Other movie crews moved down to Mexico, and the state of Durango (which has Mexico’s second-lowest population density) was especially prized. John Wayne, always enamored of Mexico anyway, very much liked Durango as a location for his Westerns, and many of his big commercially  successful Westerns, such as The Sons of Katie Elder, were shot there.



Durango as location



More recently, some ‘proper’ locations have started making a comeback. New Mexico, for example, has been doing much to encourage movie-making there. Given that so many early silent-movie oaters were shot round Las Vegas, NM, Tom Mix pictures, for instance, it’s good to see the casts and crews return.


Costs came into it, naturally, and we know that many Westerns, not only European ones, were shot in Spain from the mid-1960s on. I suppose that if a picture was set in Mexico, or had some Tex-Mex setting, movie-makers could just about get away with southern-Spanish villages, and Sergio Leone’s set designer Carlo Simi built a Western town in Almeria to stage For a Few Dollars More (where you can still drink in the saloon which was the site of Lee Van Cleef’s contretemps with Klaus Kinski). But you know, you can always tell, somehow. It just looks wrong. I think it’s something to do with the coloration. Those gray rocks just don’t convince as Arizona or New Mexico, where the stories often purported to be set. There are exceptions. I think the Almeria locations shot by Gábor Pogány in the Edwin Sherin-directed Valdez iss Coming are stunning, and seem entirely ‘Western’.


A special word for rivers. Rivers were important in Westerns. Even titles show us this. Red River, of course, but also Bend of the River, Blood River, Border River, Canyon River,Drums along the River, Many Rivers to Cross, Massacre River, Powder River, River of No Return and many others.


Rivers were on one obvious level barriers, more of the West’s natural obstacles to overcome, and difficult river crossings were a staple of the genre. Think of the dangers and tragedy of such a crossing in Lonesome Dove, or the way progress was brought to a dead halt by the Barquero. They were also battlegrounds, places to make a stand: Battle of Rogue River, Last Stand at Saber River, and so on. Yet they were even more than that. Western director Delmer Daves, in particular, used rivers as symbols. Rivers are the settings for key scenes in almost all Daves Westerns, from Broken Arrow, when Geronimo attacks the stage there and Sonseeahray dies there, to the attack on the stagecoach in Drum Bea , where the very same location was used, and in the same film the climactic hand-to-hand fight between the protagonists is at the river. In The Last Wagon the youngsters go swimming in the river and thus escape their parents’ gory death (and suffer pangs of guilt ever after). In Western after Western the river was the symbol of a crossing-over in life, a traumatic moment of change.



The Rio Grande



And what could be more symbolic than the daddy river of them all, the Rio Grande? This was the border, a stretch of water not to be crossed, or which exceptionally may be crossed, or which must be crossed to get to safety and avoid pursuit. In the Western of the same name, John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) it even came almost to symbolize the war in Korea, with the Army keen to cross over to carry the fight to the enemy but being constrained by politicians in Washington.


One of the best features of an IMDb entry on a particular Western is the Filming & Production page, which tells you where the movie was filmed. It’s actually quite important to know. Similarly, I hate it when credits at the end of a film tell you that the picture was made at so-and-so studios “and on location”, without saying where. What the hell does that mean? It’s like saying the movie was made “in a place.”


Anyway, ask any Western lover and you’ll find that she or he cares about the setting. It matters. John Ford said, “The real star of the Western has always been the land.” Sergio Leone commented that the epic quality of the scenery turned Westerns from “little, edifying tales” to “grand parables”, and although his own Westerns were far from grand parables, he was right. Paul Simpson, in The Rough Guide to Westerns, wrote, “It’s no coincidence that the Western is the only major movie genre named after a geographical entity. The American West is many things to many people: a home, a metaphor, a dream, a utopia, a place where America is distilled to its essence. This iconic setting is more than just a spectacular backdrop for the Western: its meaning lies at the heart of the genre.


That puts it rather well, I reckon.



5 Responses

  1. Thank you Jeff for this essential essay ! Having recently rewatch Pursued, I was astonished the way James Wong Howe was using the buttes and cliffs around Gallup in a mostly psychological film where the landscape is not that important but any tragedy needs probably a special setting to become universal. About the river films, Man in the Wilderness mostly shot in Spain I think, The revenant with its striking opening scene, and Big Sky with its Snake river and Grand Teton backdrops are worth of a mention, or the San Juan close to Mexican Hat used by Ford. Also shot in the Jackson Hole region, of course Shane, whose set ruins are still visible on the road leading to the Goosewing Ranch, or Jubal are some of the most important. Moab, and the close Professor and Castle Valleys, as you noticed often taken for Monument Valley, have seen hundreds of films. The local CVB has some interesting links on the subject. I have already spoken of the Red Cliffs Lodge, by the Colorado river, formerly the White's ranch which hosted the films crews and stars, and occasionally was acting as the fort for Ford, has in its basement a nice Moab Museum Film and Western Heritage Museum showcasing a lot of props, posters and memorabilia. Beside of Ford and Mann, I would add Delmer Daves among the directors who have been able to take advantage of the great american desert and include it in their work-oeuvre as an essential actor to become an integral part of the myth. JM

  2. The miniseries Texas Rising has the Alamo sitting on top of a desert plateau with no sign of San Antonio. Having visited it twice, that was enough to turn me off the whole series.


  3. Love this! The landscape is indeed huge in Westerns, and this was great to read about them. I'm particularly partial to Westerns set in the Eastern Sierra because my parents used to live there, so got to see and hike through them all, from Alabama Hills, to the Buttermilks, to Hot Creek, and Mammoth. But, of course, all the places shown here are wonderful. And I love the various Western Towns that crop up in tv westerns. Would love to have walked around those.

  4. The western towns, the movies ones and the real ones, would deserve a full essay Jeff!… And I fuly agree with DKoren, the Sierra Nevada eastern side is a pure delight. JM

  5. Jeremiah Johnson is also a nice example of a western using the beautiful Utah Rocky mountains and winter scenery, at the time, one of the first "ecologist" western… JM

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