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Challenging Our Perception of the American Frontier: From John Ford to the Navajo Nation

The Taking


Genre: Documentary
Year Released: 2023
Runtime: 1h 16m
Director(s): Alexandre O. Philippe
Where To Watch: in select theaters May 5, 2023

RAVING REVIEW: There will be people who just flat out won’t be able to accept this documentary or its content. They will feel attacked and assume that this is a revisionist take on history. I believe this will affect those who hold Westerns as some of their favorite films the most. Ironically, this is probably one of the reasons why I appreciated the truth behind this documentary as much as I did. While I’ve grown to appreciate Westerns, they are probably my least favorite genre. Just remember, history isn’t always what it seems!

“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” - Carleton Young (Maxwell Scott), THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

Alexandre O. Philippe's fascinating documentary, THE TAKING, takes us on a journey to unravel the complex connection between Monument Valley's appropriation and its representation in cinema. The film sheds light on the iconic landscape's impact on American Westerns, advertising, and tourism, examining how this Navajo territory became symbolic of a romanticized "Old West." My only knock on the film is that I wish it had been several hours longer. So many intriguing thoughts were brought up, and I could’ve listened to this conversation far longer than the 76-minute runtime.

THE TAKING dissects the portrayal of Monument Valley in films and advertising, starting with John Ford's groundbreaking movie, Stagecoach (1939). It dives into the medium's use of this landscape and its role in molding what “we” think of as the American mythos. Simultaneously, the documentary raises questions about cultural appropriation, mythmaking, and the relationship between art and reality. That, to me, was one of the most eye-opening aspects of the entire documentary. At the same time, I knew that the valley wasn’t some all-encompassing super location as it portrayed; I didn’t realize the extent to which this land and its inhabitants were taken advantage of.

The film addresses the consequences of Hollywood's myth-making on our collective identity and underlines the importance of reexamining and recontextualizing our past. This exploration is especially pertinent as the nation grapples with cultural, racial, and social progress.

The documentary examines John Ford's role in perpetuating the iconic images and symbols associated with Monument Valley. Ford's artistic vision enabled him to see the landscape's potential to evoke quintessential American ideals, such as liberty, freedom, and independence. THE TAKING encourages viewers to ponder their relationship with iconic locations like Monument Valley and the selective memory surrounding the images we encounter. While also acknowledging the lack of indigenous voices and calls for justice in the Navajo Nation. The film references historical injustices faced by the Navajo people. It invites viewers to participate in honest discussions about the past and the role of myth in pursuit of answers.

THE TAKING conveys the importance of reevaluating Monument Valley's depiction in film and television. The film's academic approach and extensive use of footage from various movies and television featuring Monument Valley provide a fresh perspective on the subject matter. This could have easily been a boring documentary about the valley, and it still would have been impressive. Instead, there was a purpose and meaning behind the message.

As a compelling study of the visuals of Monument Valley and the cultural significance of iconic Hollywood films, THE TAKING serves as a crucial step in our ongoing journey toward self-knowledge and enlightenment.

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[photo courtesy of DEKANALOG]