Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Many Faces of Sedona’s Red West

Pristine desert skies frame natural sculptures of orange sandstone. Breathtaking panoramas of canyon buttes, gorges and color-shifting cliff walls are simply the background of your many favorite western movies. It is also an experience one can only fully appreciate by paying a friendly visit to the red rock region of Sedona, Arizona.

This unique and captivating place was once populated by several native peoples notably the Sinaguas, whose rich legacy and culture is prominent enough to be enjoyed today. Apache and Yavapai also inhabited the land before being moved to reservations. Not surprisingly, this coincided with the first European settlers’ arrival in Oak Creek Canyon in the 1870’s. In the years following the closing of the true ‘Old West’ era, the dawn of cinema had already arrived.

1923’s Call of the Canyon was the first Hollywood film to be produced in Sedona. All the major film studios soon built ‘Old West towns’ to produce westerns on a regular basis. Eventually, real towns replaced the artificial back lots, of which only a telegraph office still stands. Navajos doubled as various Indian characters and locals who knew the land and the life were employed in different capacities.

Lee Doyle, a rancher and guide from Flagstaff, became extremely instrumental to this burgeoning film industry as a location manager and scout, even accompanying famed writer Zane Gray to Oak Creek Canyon for narrative inspiration.

Bob Bradshaw, a photographer, scout and stuntman, came to the town in 1949, creating a movie set on his 140-acre ranch. Later, he even published a book detailing all the films he worked on. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the Bradshaw Ranch became an alleged hotspot for orbs, vortices and inter-dimensional portals(!)

Despite its signature red motif, the region always seemed to have been used to the greatest effect in monochrome. Against the background of some of the grainiest black and white horse operas lies a landscape unobstructed by buildings or power lines for miles in all directions that stole the show from Tinseltown’s brightest stars.

The Technicolor “post-golden age” saw less film activity with the rise of television and a general decline in popularity of western and rural-themed stories. Bigger- budgeted “revisionist” westerns and non-genre movies with peripheral detours to the Red Rock region still bring film crews today. Some latter-day examples include The Kingdom of the Spiders, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Karate Kid and Dead Man.

But when that red sun sets on a majestic butte, it’s those classic cowboys who put that land on the proverbial map. Let’s round up some of the best and most interesting of the herd:


Director John Ford is inextricably connected to Monument Valley, the land in the Colorado Plateau bordering Arizona and Utah. The region was used to marvelous effect in 1939’s Stagecoach, the acclaimed western adventure of stage passengers travelling from Arizona to New Mexico. Following a lean decade of B-western obscurity, John Wayne, clutching a Winchester carbine, was given his big break at last. Though the majority was shot in Northeastern Arizona, utilizing his backdrop of choice, Sedona’s red rocks also creep up in the classic that spawned two remakes and earned Ford two Oscar nominations.

Billy the Kid

In the Forties and Fifties, Hollywood not only took gratuitous liberties with true life events and figures but also toyed with the public perceptions and reputations of those figures. Lawmen and the most cautious and restrained of gunfighters could be condemned as morally bankrupt while vengeful outlaws were lionized as misunderstood underdogs. With a story based on Walter Noble Burns’ book, The Saga of Billy the Kid, M-G-M cast Robert Taylor as titular character William Bonney. This rather poorly received 1941 version of the Kid’s life and exploits nonetheless used Technicolor to rewarding effect, at least in the outdoor scenes they chose to shoot in the outdoors.

Tall in the Saddle

This 1944 action-packed western from RKO Pictures had the Duke butting heads with locals in Arizona while trying to solve the murder of his employer. Tall in the Saddle was co-scripted by the great character actor, Paul Fix, who memorably portrayed Marshal Micah on The Rifleman, in addition to countless other roles. It also surprisingly teamed Wayne with sidekick extraordinaire Gabby Hayes for the last time.

Angel and the Badman

It may be a frequent item in your neighborhood dollar store or discount outlet but don’t let that put you off. Angel and the Badman is, without a doubt, one of John Wayne’s finest movies as well as the first in his own production company. There are fisticuffs and gunfights but the emphasis is mainly on the story with themes of redemption and a clash of cultures. An Old West movie town set was especially erected for the production near Coffee Pot Rock in West Sedona.

This is the first of a few movies Wayne made alongside Gail Russell and their off-screen love affair influenced their on-screen chemistry in the film. During production, they would often break away from the cast and spend the night at the Cottonwood Hotel. Today, a suite at the historic inn features complimentary in-room screenings of the movie, presumably acquired from the local dollar store.

Broken Arrow

“What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding.” In many tribes, a broken arrow symbolizes peace at a war’s end. It is almost prophetic considering Broken Arrow signaled a new era in Hollywood where Indians were henceforth portrayed sympathetically, if not multi-dimensionally. This fact raised the film’s profile and, in turn, gave it a controversial reputation to a certain degree.

Ex-soldier Tom Jeffords, played by James Stewart, enters into peace negotiations with Apache chief Cochise(Jeff Chandler) on behalf of the stage lines, army wagons and mail carriers. During his visits to the camp, he falls in love with and eventually marries a young Apache girl(Debra Paget). Today, most criticism concerns the eyebrow-raising age difference between those stars. The rest is, inevitably, aimed at the typical “Caucasians playing Indians” problem. Nevertheless, you can watch for Jay Silverheels as Geronimo.

Broken Arrow was later adapted for a short-lived television series in 1956.

Christopher Robinson

The Many Faces of Sedona’s Red West - part 2

Editor's Note: Be sure to tune in on the 2nd of June for part 2 of The Many Faces of Sedona's Red West!

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