The Taking Westerns Monument Valley alexandre o. philippe
Monument Valley pictured in The Taking

Alexandre O. Philippe didn’t make his documentary The Taking in hopes of canceling old Western movies. Instead, he wants to put them in context.

In The Taking, Philippe transports audiences to the red-sand desert of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Stretching across the Arizona-Utah border, the valley’s iconic sandstone buttes have been the backdrop of countless Westerns, Marlboro commercials, and tourist selfies. But perhaps they are best remembered for quintessential “Cowboys vs. Indians” films directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, like She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Stagecoach (1939), and The Searchers (1956).

Rather than shunning Western cinema for the way it has traditionally centered white narratives and portrayed Indigenous people in a negative light, the Swiss director wants to unpack the dirty laundry and air it out.

“Even though I have a little fun with John Ford, this intent is also not to trash John Ford. The intent is not to trash the function of myth. Myth is important, and the idea, as false as it may be, of this false narrative about the American west, still carries a lot of values that I can relate to,” Philippe said during a Q&A after The Taking screened on the last day of The Pioneertown Film Festival in Pioneertown, California.  “The crux of it is that we talk a lot about cancel culture these days, and that bugs me a lot. I would like us to be in more of a context culture.”

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Instead of doing away with problematic art, Philippe wants to acknowledge its duality as both a fascinated and troubled creation.

“John Ford is a great filmmaker,” he said. “When you create a certain myth that carries a certain set of values, but the myth and the values are hurtful and damaging to other people, then I think the very least we can do is process that, think about it, and have a conversation about it.”

“There are all these conversations about ‘Let’s cancel Gone with the Wind,’ or ‘Let’s cancel Hitchcock.’ Come on, no,” he continued. “What, just sweep all this stuff under the rug and pretend it never happened? No. Are those not great movies? They’re always going to be great movies. And we have to recognize and accept that they are great movies, and they can also be problematic in their own way. I think that’s where I’m hoping we’re going to go as a culture, and start listening to each other more and have a dialogue so that we can all move forward.”

In The Taking, Alexandre O. Philippe interviews Jennifer Denetdale, the first Navajo to get a Ph.D. in the tribe’s history.

He quoted her line in the film, “We still don’t have access to our own stories.”

“That line really carries a lot of weight for me… I feel like those stories have not been told,” he said.

Main Image: The sandstone buttes of Monument Valley pictured in The Taking