Monument Valley is a wide expanse straddling the border of the U.S. states of Arizona and Utah. It is marked by enormous rock features, including mesas, cliffs, and buttes. The most famous landscape of Monument Valley probably includes the Mittens, a pair of buttes with thin "thumb" outcrops.

In dozens of films stretching back almost a century, Monument Valley has stood as a symbol of the American West. What "the West" means has changed over time.

The first movie to bring Monument Valley to the attention of the American public was Stagecoach (1939). Stagecoach is the story of a group of white settlers, violently attacked by Apaches while traveling across the Arizona and New Mexico territories. The settlers, including the outlaw the Ringo Kid, are looking to start new lives for themselves in the West of the 1800s. The Ringo Kid is played by John Wayne, an American actor who soon became associated with Western movies and, often, America itself. The film was directed by John Ford, one of the most iconic and influential directors of all time. Ford went on to make nine moves in Monument Valley.

John Ford was also the director of My Darling Clementine (1946), a retelling of the famous "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." The gunfight, which really took place in 1881 between Sheriff Wyatt Earp and a group of lawless cowboys, represents the arrival of law-and-order to the Old West. Thanks in part of My Darling Clementine, Wyatt Earp and his friend, the gunfighter Doc Holliday, became romantic symbols of the settling of the West.

Another John Ford film, The Searchers (1956), is widely considered the greatest Western ever made. In it, an older cowboy, once again played by John Wayne, embarks on a ruthless search for his niece, who has been kidnapped by Comanches. Although the Comanches (played by white actors) are the derided villains, Native Americas are somewhat more sympathetic in The Searchers than in earlier depictions (such as Stagecoach). Wayne walks off alone at the end of the film, symbolizing an end to the "cowboy" way of life in the Old West.

The characters in Easy Rider (1969) have familiar names: Wyatt and Billy. They're named after Wyatt Earp and the famous Old West outlaw Billy the Kid. They couldn't be more different than their cinematic ancestors, however. They ride east, not west. Instead of riding horses, they ride motorcycles. Billy and Wyatt, nicknamed "Captain America," represent the American West of the 1960s: young, cynical, and distrusting of authority figures like John Wayne. To make it even more clear, Easy Rider's Wyatt, Peter Fonda, is the son of My Darling Clementine's Wyatt, Henry Fonda. Easy Rider is the next generation of Westerns.

Just as Wyatt, Billy, and their Western ancestors rode through Monument Valley looking for new lives and new ways to define themselves, so did Forrest Gump (1994). Rejected by his girlfriend, Forrest runs away, all the way across the U.S. to Monument Valley. Just as in Stagecoach and Easy Rider, the West represents freedom and escape.

Cinematic travelers have crossed Monument Valley by stagecoach, horse, motorcycle, and on foot. Perhaps the most unusual method of transport is also the most natural: wings. Birds are the leading characters in the documentary Winged Migration (2001). Unlike the monuments of Monument Valley or the fictional characters who passed through them, the filmmakers of Winged Migration are not even tethered to Earth, much less ideas about identity or freedom. A flock of Canada geese soar over the Mittens as easily as they do the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower.

By the turn of the 20th century, "the West" is nearly meaningless to a globalized world.

Some of the movies filmed in Monument Valley:

  • Stagecoach (1939)
  • Billy the Kid (1941)
  • My Darling Clementine (1946)
  • The Harvey Girls (1946)
  • Fort Apache (1948)
  • She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
  • Rio Grande (1950)
  • The Searchers (1956)
  • How the West Was Won (1962)
  • Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
  • Makenna's Gold (1969)
  • Easy Rider (1969)
  • Wild Rovers (1971)
  • The Trial of Billy Jack (1974)
  • Wanda Nevada (1979)
  • National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
  • Starman (1984)
  • Back to the Future Part III (1990)
  • Thelma & Louise (1991)
  • Forrest Gump (1994)
  • Lightning Jack (1994)
  • Pontiac Moon (1994)
  • To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)
  • Waiting to Exhale (1995)
  • Wild America (1997)
  • Wild Wild West (1999)
  • Mission: Impossible II (2000)
  • Winged Migration (2001)
  • Windtalkers (2002)