Westerns that take place entirely or largely on studio sound-stage interiors are often doomed. Not always: sometimes the small intensity of the interior suits the theme. The Ox-Bow Incident and The Gunfighter are good examples of this. The black & white and the closed-in intensity add power. High Noon too.
But more usually, sweeping vistas are needed and dramatic scenery, be it desert or mountain.
John Ford knew this, which is why he filmed so often in Monument Valley, in the Utah end. Even in the days when location shooting in distant places was logistically so difficult (and correspondingly expensive), Ford knew the value and power Monument Valley would bring to his films. There was no electricity there and precious little water. It didn’t matter. Everything would be shipped in by truck: tents, food, water, generators, camera equipment, everything. The almost lunar landscape with its arid beauty served as a stupendous backdrop to the action. It didn’t matter where the story was nominally set, Monument Valley was the archetypal Western location. Tombstone (in southern Arizona near the Mexican border) was there in My Darling Clementine.
Many other film directors followed. Monument Valley became an emblem. It still is. If you see photographs of the Mittens, the Three Sisters or other buttes, you immediately think ‘Western’.
One of the great ambitions of Sergio Leone, who so adored 1940s and 50s Westerns, was to film in Monument Valley. He finally did so, when spaghetti came to Hollywood in Once Upon A Time In The West. Much of that movie was filmed in Spain but the key parts are in Monument Valley. To the point where at a grave scene filmed in the olive-gray Almeria, orange Monument Valley dust is thrown onto the coffin.
The very early Westerns were filmed in the East. New Jersey was the movie capital of the world. (Really). But it didn’t take long for California to take over. It was cheaper, the weather suited open air filming and there were more power-line-free spaces. ‘Colonel’ William Selig was the first to establish his studios there and early Tom Mix oaters were filmed there. Soon they were all doing it.
And to this day many Westerns set in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico or wherever are in reality California, on the Warners Ranch maybe, or somewhere up behind the back lot. Once Hollywood started to be built up, wild locations were harder to find and national parks were an obvious location, if permission could be got. Very many Westerns were shot in the Inyo National Forest, up at Lone Pine and the Joshua Tree on the edges of the Sierra Nevada, and very beautiful some of them are.
The best of all Westerns, visually speaking, were shot on location. There are ‘hot’ Westerns and ‘cold’ Westerns. Hot ones are shot in New Mexico or Arizona, especially around the convenient Wild West town of Old Tucson and in the adjacent Saguaro National Park. There you get lots of that tall cactus with arms, saguaro, as emblematic of the Western in its way as the buttes of Monument Valley. As even this area became built up, Mexico was a favored location, especially around Durango. Sometimes there were political problems: the Mexican government, not always on the best of terms with Washington, sometimes didn’t care for the representation of Mexicans in Yanqui films. Vera Cruz almost caused a diplomatic incident in 1954. Mexican audiences threw theater seat cushions at the screens. Sometimes there were problems of water and food for the cast and crew. But the settings did very well for the Wild West.
‘Cold’ Westerns were at first set in Oregon and Washington State or up in the Rockies. Pale Rider, visually superb, was filmed in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho. It’s magnificent. As time passed and it became harder and harder to find a location free from jetstream contrails and power lines, crews moved into Canada. Alberta, around Calgary, was and still is a favorite. It is ironic perhaps that films about the American West had to be set in other countries, but that was the reality.
Sometimes whole ‘old’ towns were built from scratch in Alberta, as for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. (It was built largely by young American Vietnam draft dodgers taking refuge in Canada).
Many early silent Westerns were shot down around Cañon City, Colorado, Prescott, AZ, and also Las Vegas, NM. Lately there has been something of a renaissance in New Mexico locations for Westerns. A good thing too.
Production directors and set designers are an often overlooked but in fact vital part of a film-making team. William S Hart’s obsession with authenticity, which was abandoned in the 20s and 30s, and also through much of the 40s and 50s as well, has come back to haunt us. Now enormous pains are taken with sets, costumes and props to make the Western look right. Vast sums are spent on this and the crew responsible are beginning to be interviewed on DVD ‘making of’ special features and get the credit they deserve.
But wherever they are filmed, Westerns depend again and again on their locations, and how much the cinematographers make of those locations. That is why an artist like Bruce Surtees is right at the top of the list of photographers. He excelled at landscapes.