A Western Film Heritage in Ridgway, Colorado
Welcome to Our Movie Page!
The captivating beauty of Ridgway, Ouray and surrounding areas has attracted a number of production companies making movies, documentaries and commercials. More than 100 films have been made in Southwestern Colorado.
The rugged mountains, steep canyons, rustic mines buildings and ghost towns of the San Juan Mountains make you feel as though you are still in the Old West of the American frontier. Hollywood filmmakers thought so too, and Ridgway and the surrounding area have served as settings for several classic western movies.
Tribute to a Bad Man (1957) – filmed just south of Ridgway on Miller Mesa on the old Walther ranch, near Top of the Pines and the Elk Meadows mailboxes on County Road 5. Written by Jack Schaefer, who also wrote the classic westerns Shane and Monte Walsh. Directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Andromeda Strain, The Day the Earth Stood Still). Originally to star Spencer Tracy, Tracy hated southwestern Colorado and Wise fired him and replaced him with James Cagney. This was Cagney’s last western.
How the West Was Won (1962) – Ridgway’s Hartwell Park, Cow Creek, and the Katie’s Meadow (Debbie’s meadow) areas used by director Henry Hathaway, who later used the same areas for True Grit. The meadow was used for the scene where wagon master Robert Preston proposes to Debbie Reynolds.
True Grit (filmed summer and fall, 1968) – When Charles Portis’ novel was published early in 1968, John Wayne received a pre-publication copy and directed his son to buy the movie rights for their Batjac production company. The Waynes lost out to Paramount, who immediately hired Wayne to play the part of Rooster Cogburn.
Many people were considered for the part of Mattie Ross. Wayne initially wanted his daughter Aissa to play the part, but director Henry Hathaway said no. Other actresses considered included Mia Farrow, Tuesday Weld, Sally Field, and Sandra Locke. Wayne wanted singer Karen Carpenter, but Kim Darby was finally selected. (various Wayne biographies) The part of Texas Ranger LeBoef went to Glenn Campbell, although Elvis Presley was also considered. Hathaway didn’t care for Campbell’s acting, but the studio wanted a hit song tie-in for the movie. (various Wayne biographies)
All was not sweetness and light on the set, as Wayne didn’t get along with his co-stars, mostly Robert Duvall and particularly Darby, who he considered “disrespectful”. (various Wayne biographies)
Interviewed during filming in Ouray, author Charles Portis stated “An art director for Paramount came out and looked around eastern Oklahoma and Fort Smith several months ago, and that’s the last I heard. I think this location was Henry Hathaway’s choice. He’s been here before and wanted to come back.” (Ouray Herald, 10/3/1968)
Set construction began in July, 1968 and the studio began hiring local people as extras, drivers, carpenters, painters, etc in mid-August. The studio remodeled several Ridgway buildings, including the old fire house that was once the town hall and school, adding a cupola. When the Rio Grande Southern depot was sold to a local family for a residence in 1965, it was moved about a hundred yards southeast and rotated 90 degrees, but the freight storage portion of the building remained in its original location, now the parking lot by the town hall. The studio added a bay window to the freight building and used this as the Fort Smith depot, tearing it down after the necessary scenes had been filmed. They also added wooden boardwalks, a cover over the sidewalk by the Sherbino Theater, and remodeled a building across from the current Kate’s Place as Chen Lee’s and Rooster’s home. The interior scenes were filmed on a set. The Ridgway Bank building, now antique shops, was used as the mortuary.
New construction included a set of gallows in Hartwell Park, Col. Stonehill’s livery stable at the location of the current post office, a blacksmith’s shop, several log cabins and a grand shell of a courthouse at the location of the current Decker Building. Interior courthouse scenes were filmed at the Ouray County Courthouse. Although the studio brought many props from California, they rented hundreds of antique props from a museum that was in Ouray’s Western Hotel, operated at the time by Johnny Johnson. Some items included poker tables, a faro layout, slot machines, bottles, chairs, deer heads, pot-bellied stove, brass cauldrons, blacksmithing equipment and ox yokes (Ouray Herald, 9/16/1968). Most of the set painting was done by Montrose western artist Bob DeJulio, including the Chambers’ Grocery sign inside the current True Grit restaurant, with most design by studio artist Walter Tyler. DeJulio also painted the backdrop for the Pleasant Valley Trestle diorama in the Ridgway Railroad museum.
Filming began in Ridgway September 7th, and Wayne began filming in Ridgway on September 12th. The studio brought 275 people from California, and employed 300 locals (Ouray Herald, 9/12/1968). In the same issue, the Herald reports, “Manure shovelers work full time at Ridgway with the influx of horses and mules and reportedly receive $4.50 per hour, with time and a half after 8 pm.” Thousands of visitors came to watch the filming, which was open to the public for the outdoor scenes. The cast and crew were courteous to the onlookers, especially Wayne: “…his patient understanding and kind response to his public admirers is phenomenal. Crowds of all ages waited to see their favorite actor.” (Ouray Herald, 10/10/1968).
The film’s opening and closing scenes were shot at the old Maserotti ranch on Last Dollar Road, west of Ridgway. The film crew was concerned about the lack of snow for the final scene, and had made arrangements for a snowmaking machine, but an early snowfall the night before the scene was scheduled to be shot solved the problem. There is controversy about whether Wayne jumped the horse over the fence at the end – officially, stuntman Jim Burke made the jump, but Campbell claims Wayne did it, and so does stuntman Chuck Hayward. The ranch’s current owners have made it clear that they will not permit people on their land, so the house must be viewed from the road.
Interesting Ridgway and Ouray Side Notes:
- One of the men hanged in the park was played by Jay Silverheels, best known as Tonto in the Lone Ranger TV series. He is uncredited because he didn’t have a speaking part.
- The jail wagon used by Rooster to bring in his prisoners is located in Ridgway’s Heritage Park, at the corner of routes 550 and 62, by the flagpole.
- Planting of the cottonwoods in Hartwell Park was done in 1896 under the supervision of town marshal Charley Marlow. Charley and his brother George were the real-life models for The Sons of Katie Elder, another famous John Wayne film.
- When Mattie Ross arrives at the depot in the film, a train is simulated by a caboose with steam blowing past it on the far side of the depot building. That was a Rio Grande Southern caboose owned by the 1968 equivalent of the chamber of commerce. It is now at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, fully restored. The caboose on display at the Ridgway Railroad Museum is not the same caboose. To enhance the effect of a train, a smoke machine hidden behind the building provided the “steam”, and the caboose moved by being towed by a Jeep.
- From the September 16, 1968 issue of the Ouray Herald: “While examining Indian jewelry at the Ouray trading Post last week, actor John Wayne inadvertently stepped into the owner’s office area which is zealously guarded by the owner’s dog. The 12-oz. Chihuahua immediately launched a ferocious attack upon the intruder. Mr. Wayne made no comment, but survived the villainous assault as he always does in his movie roles.”
- The final shootout was filmed at the top of Owl Creek Pass, about 14.5 miles east of Ridgway, at Katie’s Meadow (also known as Debbie’s meadow). Although unpaved, in good weather this is a passenger car road. The “snake pit” scenes were filmed at an abandoned mine southwest of Ouray on private property, and is not open to the public.
- The Sons of Katie Elder (1965, also directed by Henry Hathaway) – while this film was not filmed in the immediate Ridgway area (although a bit was shot on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad near Durango), it is based on the lives of George and Charley Marlow, Who lived in Ridgway and the Colona area from 1890 – about 1920 and maintained strong ties to the area until their deaths in the early 1940s. While in this area they were respected ranchers and served as lawmen for about 10 years. The portion of their life story that became The Sons of Katie Elder took place in West Texas in 1888 – 1889, and their real-life story is much more dramatic than the movie – see attached sheets. They have many descendants in the area.
True Grit, filmed in 1968 in Ridgway and Ouray, was our most famous movie-making adventure. John Wayne’s only Oscar was earned for his performance as True Grit’s U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn.
True Grit Movie Site & Walking Tour Plaques
Nine plaques have been installed in Ridgway and Ouray at points relevant to the movie. Each plaque contains facts about filming or particulars related to that site and a map of the plaque locations, making it easy for visitors and locals to embark on an unguided tour at their convenience.
True Grit Stories
TRUE GRIT WALKING TOUR
A guided tour, $10 per person age 12 and older, is another option. From May to October, the one-hour tour departs from the Ridgway Visitors Center promptly at 11 am every Friday. Reservations are recommended and attendees are asked to arrive at 10:45. Throughout the year, tours can be scheduled for parties of six or more at a time of their choosing.
Contact the Ridgway Visitors Center at 150 Racecourse Rd., just west of the southwest corner of highways 550 and 62, to schedule a tour or make reservations. Phone (970.626.5181) and email messages (firstname.lastname@example.org) are checked regularly from November to April when the visitors center is closed.
Jeepster Gal’s “True Grit: Then and Now” YouTube Video
Gart Williams’ “Searching for True Grit 1968 Filming Locations” funny video on YouTube
OTHER MOVIES FILMED NEAR HERE
Other classics filmed in the San Juans include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Night Passage (1957), and Ticket to Tomahawk (1950). In addition, another John Wayne classic, The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) was based on the lives of George and Charley Marlow, who lived in who lived in the Ridgway area for many years and served as deputy sheriffs and town marshals.
This project is supported by funding from the Colorado Tourism Office, a state agency