Southwestern Colorado on the Silver Screen
This is John Wayne country, where the Duke slugged it out, shot it out, and sometimes yelled it out as he tamed the American West on movie screens from the late 1920s through the 1970s. This bigger-than-life symbol of American manhood made numerous films in and around Gunnison, Ridgway, Delta, Durango, and Pagosa Springs, where you can still find the exact spots certain scenes were filmed.
The classic, if bleak, 1956 John Ford film The Searchers, with Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Ward Bond, used a ranch near Gunnison as a military outpost. To reach the ranch, go north from Gunnison for 3 miles on Colo. 135, then turn left onto Ohio Creek Road and drive for about 8 miles, where you'll see a barn and several other buildings off to the left. Ford's later Western How the West Was Won (which, to the great disappointment of Wayne fans, didn't include the Duke) shows a wagon train crossing the Gunnison River west of Delta along 1800 Road, as well as scenes of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
As real John Wayne aficionados know, in 1969 he teamed with Glen Campbell and Kim Darby to make one of his most famous films, True Grit. The town of Ridgway becomes Fort Smith in the movie, and nearby is the ranch where Wayne jumps his horse over a river. The Cowboys, filmed in 1972 outside Pagosa Springs, finds Wayne as a cattleman who hires a group of schoolboys to drive his herd of 1,500 cattle after the gold rush lures away his crew. There are several location shoots from this film in the area; ask for directions at the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce.
But Wayne wasn't the only one shooting up Colorado's southwest corner. It also hosted City Slickers, the 1991 comedy starring Billy Crystal as a hapless city dweller on an Old West-style cattle drive. And several movie companies have made use of the classic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The best train scene on film has to be the one in the multi-Oscar-winning 1969 hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch (Paul Newman), Sundance (Robert Redford), and their gang attempt to blow open the train's safe and instead blow up the entire mail car, sending money flying in all directions. Reportedly, the extent of this explosion was a surprise to everyone, even the special-effects technicians who apparently were a bit too liberal with their use of black powder. You can see the train at the depot at 479 Main Ave. in Durango, or in summer hop aboard for a ride to Silverton and back. There's a plaque commemorating the filming about 10 miles east of Durango; ask at the chamber of commerce for directions.
The Colorado Film Commission, 1625 Broadway, Ste. 950, Denver, CO 80202 (tel. 800/726-8887 or 303/592-4065; www.coloradofilm.org), works to bring filmmakers to the state and also has information for those who want to work in the film industry, possibly as extras, and others interested in movie production. The book Hollywood in the Rockies, by Frederic Wildfang, proprietor of Durango's Rochester Hotel, is widely available in town and is an excellent source for those who want to delve deeper into the area's film history.
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