Tribe hopes movie release will attract more filmmakers

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 4, 2013

Text size: A A A

N avajo tribal officials are anxiously waiting for the opening of "The Lone Ranger," which will movie theaters on July 3, with hopes that this will attract more movie productions to the reservation.

Kee Long, director of the tribe's Broadcast Services, the tribal agency that gives out permits for films and media to shoot on the reservation, said the trailers he has seen for the movie really show off the Shiprock, Monument Valley and Canyon De Chelly areas of the reservation.

The Lone Ranger production spent about a week in each of those locations last summer filming parts of the movie with all of the stars, including Johnny Depp, featured in those scenes.

Long pointed out that for those who don't want to wait until July to go to a movie shot on the reservation, they can go to a movie theater this week and watch "The Host" which also did some of its scenes in the Flat Top Rock and Shining Rock areas north of Shiprock.

Film crews for "The Host" were here for two weeks last year filming scenes for the movie.

The Navajo Nation is seeing a rebirth of interest by Hollywood producers to film here.

Back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the reservation was a popular site for filming during the heyday of the westerns.

Famed director John Ford and actor John Wayne filmed several of their most famous movies, such as "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "The Searchers" in the Monument Valley area of the reservation.

In fact, said Long, Monument Valley was the most popular area for filming for decades until the past few years when that honor went to the Shiprock area.

The reason for this is simple, Long said, giving credit to officials in New Mexico for promoting the state and attracting a number of Hollywood productions to the area.

When Bill Richardson was governor, he pushed the state legislature to give tax credits and benefits to Hollywood producers to attract not only movies but television series, such as "Breaking Bad" and "In Plain Sight" to film in the state.

The Hollywood-New Mexico relationship has cooled a little since Susana Martinez has taken over as governor and pushed the legislation to take back some of the tax credits. But Long said he sees Martinez changing her position as she sees the benefits the state gets from the film production.

An aside to all of this is the fact that a new book came out last month about one of the movies that was filmed back in 1956 in the Monument Valley area.

The book, "The Searchers: the Making of an American Legend" by Glenn Frankel, tells of the making of the movie directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne as well as the true story of Cynthia Parker, who was captured by the Commanches almost a century before and spent more than two decades with the tribe before she was rescued.

In making his movie version of that story, Ford decided to do the filming on the Navajo Reservation because he had made several movies there in the last two decades and enjoyed working with the Navajos.

In that movie, the Navajos hired as extras did not mind playing Comanches or even being the bad guys in the film. The men earned $15 a day, women $10 and children $5, plus a free lunch and time and a half after eight hours.

In fact, said Frankel, they grew angry when Ford brought in actual Apaches to play some of the Indian roles in "Stagecoach."

"It was a job and we just didn't concern ourselves about that," said Navajo medicine man Billy Yellow. "Ford was a very generous man. He fed all the Navajos there. The pay was good."

Frankel also said the Navajos who lived in the Monument Valley area and signed on for all of his movies also liked "his sense of humor, his patience and the way he talked and consulted with them at the end of the day's shooting."

"And they liked the fact that he didn't do too many takes and wear out their horses," Frankel writes.

Ford was also a favorite of the Navajo children who would hang around the set watching their parents or friends act in the movie. He noted in his book how Ford would chase 10-year-old Dolly Stanley, the daughter of one of he Navajo extras, around the wooden dining tables, growling and grimacing.

"The Indian children looked on him with awe," Frankel wrote.

The Navajos liked John Wayne as well.

"Although few of them ever got to see a western movie, they knew Wayne was a big star and they felt flattered that he spoke to them regularly and treated them with respect," Frankel wrote.

He tells the story of a time early in the filming of the movie when Wayne agreed to allow his private plane to fly a two-year-old Navajo girl with measles and double pneumonia to the hospial in Tuba City.

Wayne, said Frankel, personally carried the little girl to his plane and placed her inside.

Frankel also noted that Ford believed in Navajo medicine or at least in the power of ritual.

He was told about Hosteen Tso, an old Navajo medicine man who had the power to control the weather.

He was told that if he needed a certain type of weather the next day, Tso could provide it so on the first day of shooting, Ford said he needed "a few theatrical clouds."

No one knew what that meant so Ford explained that what he wanted was "just pretty, fluffy clouds." Which is exactly what he got the next afternoon when he began filming.

Ford was so impressed that he had Tso meet him every afternoon at 4 p.m. so he could give him a glass of whiskey and hand in a request for the next day's weather. Ford paid him $15 a day and said Tso never let him down.

In his later life, Ford would give interviews and would admit that in some of his movies, the depiction of the Indians was not very sympathetic. But he said this was just a matter of filmmaking and that he personally tried to do as much as he could to better the plight of the Navajos he came into contact with.

"When we first went into the Indian reservations, they were poor and starving," he said. "The pay from the shooting of 'Stagecoach' helped put them on their feet."

When the film took a break during the Fourth of July holiday, a rodeo was held and the Navajos in the area presented him with a sacred deerskin.

They dedicated it to "Tall Soldier" as a token of their appreciation. Ford would later say he cherished this honor more than he did the four Oscars he would win for his various movies.

Back to top ^