Stephen McGinty: Old West magic in Monument Valley

Monument Valley is an iconic image of mythic America, and for one movie fan it was the scene of a pilgrimage – marred by a pesky red bucket. Stephen McGinty relates this and other tales of the West

A late fall moon as it rises over sandstone formations in Monument Valley. Picture: AP
A late fall moon as it rises over sandstone formations in Monument Valley. Picture: AP
A late fall moon as it rises over sandstone formations in Monument Valley. Picture: AP

THE mittens of Monument Valley, which straddles the American states of Utah and Arizona, are huge sandstone sculptures, blasted over millenniums by wind and water into the shape of giants’ fists that have punched up through the surface of the Earth. The dry, barren landscape of red sand, tumbleweed and vast stone sculptures hundreds of feet high will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a western.

For it is here in this forbidden territory that John Wayne protected the passengers of Stagecoach and where Claudia Cardinale rode in a horse-drawn buggy accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s heart-breaking score in Once Upon A Time in The West. (The majority of the film was shot in Spain, but Italian director Sergio Leone came here for one week to shoot a cinematic tip of his stetson.)

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It is an iconic image of mythic America and won its place in cinema history on account of the tenacity of Harry Goulding, who had a ranch in the territory and took a series of black-and-white photographs, which he then took to Los Angeles and the office of the director John Ford, who would go on to shot more than a dozen westerns in the terrain, including She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers.

Over 20 years ago I made a pilgrimage to Monument Valley, travelling by Greyhound coach overnight from Los Angeles to Flagstaff, Arizona, where my friend and I booked a day trip in an old, worn but air-conditioned van out to this vast desolate sandy plain in the “Four Corners” territory. I hadn’t brought a camera, but a little tourist shop was selling a disposable, cardboard panoramic camera for $20 and it seemed the perfect way to capture this vast vista.

As a movie fan, it’s a strange sensation to walk in a landscape that you know so well from the comfort of your living-room. At first, it doesn’t seem quite real. You feel a sense of disappointment, is this really it? On an earlier trip to New York, we’d spent hours tracking down streets seen in Once Upon A Time in America, Leone’s gangster classic and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Yet Monument Valley was different. The heat, the stillness, the view of these huge stone rocks seemed to settle quickly into your soul.

There was a viewing platform that offered the perfect spot for a photograph. There was a low stone wall at waist height – and behind in the distance were three vast mittens with the distinctive stone finger raised up to Heaven.

I remember leaning against the wall to have my picture taken, thinking that this was certainly one for the photo album, perhaps even framed on the wall.

It wasn’t till the photographs were developed that I discovered I wasn’t alone on the wall. The panoramic image was so wide that while it comfortably captured myself and the three mittens in the distance, it also revealed a bright red bucket that had been left on the wall and which I had failed to notice.

To this day, anyone to whom I have shown the picture does not comment on how I have kept my rugged good looks, or gasp at the beauty of the landscape, but asks: “What’s the red bucket doing there?” It is a question to which the only answer is “because I was too blind to see and move it”.

Had I been accompanied on my trip by director Michael Cimino, I can guarantee that the bucket would, indeed, have been noticed, my photographs would have possessed an even more stunning and luminous beauty, and that our holiday trip would have come in approximately five times over budget and lasted many months more. For next weekend western fans will have the chance to see his epic film, Heaven’s Gate, where it belongs on the big screen, first at the Glasgow Film Theatre and then, at the end of the month, at the Edinburgh Filmhouse.

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Park Circus, a Glasgow film distribution company, which celebrated its tenth anniversary back in March, and recently opened offices in Paris and Los Angeles, is now the world’s leading company for returning classic and relatively new films to the big screen. Set up by Nick Varley in 2003 with a single print of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the Park Circus Films now represent more than 17,000 films and work with all the major Hollywood studios, including Warner Brothers and Miramax.

I last saw Heaven’s Gate at the National Film Theatre in London where I was working and where my wife became so bored and agitated by its extravagant length that she insisted on heading home during the film’s 15-minute interval. However, unable to find a taxi and reluctant to take the Tube on her own, she had to return reluctantly to her seat for the second half. Needless to say, I shall be sitting on my own next weekend at the GFT, but for anyone interested in westerns, then Heaven’s Gate is worth devoting four hours.

Loosely based on the Johnson County War, which took place in Wyoming in the 1890s, Heaven’s Gate tells the story of how “Big Beef”, the cattle barons of the day, drew up a death list of more than 100 immigrants whose small farms were in the way of their expansion and growing profits, and follows the story of Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who is an enforcer for the barons, and Jim Averill, (Kris Kristofferson), a marshal on the side of the immigrants.

Yet Heaven’s Gate became famous – or infamous to be more exact – not for the finished film, but what it took to get it made. Cimino, who had been garlanded after the Oscar success of The Deer Hunter, took a budget of $7.5 million and expanded it to almost $36 million in pursuit of artistic perfection and historical authenticity.

He built an entire town, but when he lined it up through his viewfinder decided that the main street needed to be six feet wider. When the production designer said the easiest way was to knock down one side and rebuild it 6ft back, Cimino said No, knock down both sides and rebuild each one 3ft back. United Artists should have been aware that not all was going according to plan when, after shooting for six days, Cimino was already five days behind schedule.

The making of the film did result in one of the best books about Hollywood, Final Cut: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach, the executive in charge, or not, of the runaway film-maker.

In the early weeks, the executives at United Artists were awe-struck by the rushes and the stunning images Cimino had created. As Bach told a colleague: “It’s as if David Lean directed a western”. Almost a year later, Bach would hold secret talks with Lean to sound him out about replacing Cimino, should it become necessary to fire him. Instead, the studio founded by Charlie Chaplin stuck with the director even when he showed them a first cut of over five hours and insisted he could trim only 15 minutes.

When the film was premiered in New York, at the shorter, but still bum-numbing length of
3 hours and 19 minutes, no-one drank the champagne at the reception after the movie. When Cimino asked why, a publicist told him: “They hate your movie, Michael.”

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One critic said Cimino had clearly sold his soul for the talent to direct The Deer Hunter and, unfortunately, the Devil had already come to collect. The European critics at Cannes were much kinder. Philip French, who retires this month after 50 years as film critic of the Observer, thought it was a masterpiece.

The film’s return to the cinema is interesting, coming as it does one week after the release of The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, which is being viewed as the Heaven’s Gate of today, a western that ran wildly over budget and is set to cause Disney a loss of almost $200m. Although I haven’t seen it yet, I’d be surprised if in 35 years’ time it will receive a standing ovation, as Heaven’s Gate did at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Although Heaven’s Gate was filmed in lush grasslands of Montana and not the barren landscape of Monument Valley, every western I watch makes me think it’s about time to head back for a fresh pilgrimage to the land of the rusty sand and the stone mittens.

This time, without the surprise appearance of a red bucket.