Producer: Kerry Deignan Roy    Director: Alexandre O. Philippe   Writer: Alexandre O. Philippe   Distributor: Exhibit A Pictures

Grade: B+

Monument Valley, the series of majestic sandstone buttes on the Arizona-Utah state line, has taken on a mythic quality in the American psyche, largely because of its use in films.  That’s the argument of the latest documentary by Alexandre O. Philippe, who expands his horizons, as it were, beyond the more limited focus of his previous cinema-based efforts, which concentrated on individual films like “Alien” and “The Exorcist,” genres (“Doc of the Dead”) or even a specific sequence (the shower scene in “Psycho”).

More cinematic essay than straightforward documentary, “The Taking” juxtaposes magnificent shots of the region (Robert Muratore was cinematographer, though he’s not responsible for all the images) and clips from the many films in which the valley has been employed as a location with off-screen commentary from film scholars (Christopher Frayling, Graham Hill, Michele Salimbene), academics (Glenn Slater, Robert Bednar), mythologists (John Bucher, William Linn) and Diné spokespeople (Liza Black, Jennifer Nez Denetdale) and archival footage, all skillfully edited together by Dave Krahling and accompanied by a haunting score from Jon Hegel.

Special attention is given over to the films of John Ford, who shot in Monument Valley repeatedly and carefully composed the images he filmed there to represent vastly disparate geographical areas (often having to dress up the valley with homesteads, teepees and even cacti) and emotional states.  One of the few obviously humorous elements in the documentary is Philippe’s periodic insertion of clips from an interview with the notoriously taciturn director in which he answers probing, elaborate questions with short, dismissive responses before abruptly shouting “Cut!”  Ford obviously chose to let the films he created speak for themselves, or at least did not want to try to explain them.

But what message did Ford, in particular, along with the other filmmakers {like Sergio Leone) who followed his lead by shooting in the valley, intend to convey?  The answer posited here is that Monument Valley came to represent the American spirit of progress, tenacity, conquest, and heroism against both the forces of nature and hostile “others.”  It was a myth that became an integral part of the American identity.  But it was built on an act of deprivation, since the area was taken from the Navajo, whose suffering as a people is sketched in the film as counterpoint.  It’s noted that ironically some Diné took small roles in Ford films, portraying ancestors who were the targets of the expansionism the director celebrated. 

“The Taking” also touches on another kind of appropriation, that of tourists who travel to Monument Valley to takes photos of themselves against the landscape, not only embracing the myth that Ford and other filmmakers fostered but making themselves a part of it through the images they create. 

There’s much food for thought in the points raised by Philippe here—perhaps too much for a documentary of only seventy-six minutes.  It doesn’t help a viewer that the commentators heard in voiceover aren’t identified as their observations flow through the film; they’re listed only in the closing credits.  Perhaps the intent was to let the voices wash over the audience in waves of provocative, often contrasting viewpoints, avoiding the impression that we’re listening to clips from a panoply of lectures and allowing the arguments to register without being stamped with an imprint of authority.  But while the conversation thus takes on an impressionistic feel matching that of the visuals, the tactic doesn’t entirely work.

Nonetheless “The Taking” represents a cunning examination of the way in which artists can appropriate geography in their myth-building, a process aligned in some ways with the takeover of land by governments from its rightful inhabitants.  Its dissection of John Ford’s role in the transformation of Monument Valley into an enduring symbol of America’s mythic self-understanding—a kind of cinematic expression of the notion of Manifest Destiny—is a significant contribution to cinematic archeology, but also has broader social-political implications. 

The film inevitably reminds you of one of the most famous lines in a Ford western (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”), which it of course quotes: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Ford was instrumental in creating a legend about the American West, embodied visually in his beloved Monument Valley, which represented a distortion of fact but came to be taken as true—at least until recent revisionism provided a salutary corrective.  But despite the critics, the legend Ford created persists, and even if one discards it as propaganda, it’s impossible not to continue admiring his mastery of the medium through which he fashioned it.