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Monday August 3rd 2020

True Grit | 1969

True Grit film location: Last Dollar Road, Placerville, Colorado
True Grit film location: the Ross farmstead: Last Dollar Road, Placerville, Colorado | Photograph: Shutterstock / Gray Photo Online

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Given his political stance, it’s surprising that John Wayne himself championed the adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel by leftist Marguerite Roberts, who had actually been blacklisted throughout the Fifties. He clearly recognised a good script and went on to win the only Oscar of his career.

Although set on the border of Arkansas and what is now Oklahoma, the film was shot largely in Colorado.

The book’s wintry setting is changed to golden autumn, gorgeously captured by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, a Sam Peckinpah regular who photographed The Wild Bunch the same year.

‘Fort Smith, Arkansas’ is the main square of Ridgway, an old railroad town on the Uncompahgre River in the San Juan Mountains, about 15 miles north of Telluride, now a famous ski resort and home of the annual Telluride Film Festival.

Ridgway was once the northern terminus of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, and was built to serve the nearby mining communities of Telluride and Ouray. In fact, the railroad was one of the factors in choosing the town as a location for the film, but that’s all changed.

In the Eighties, the Uncompahgre River was dammed to form the Ridgway Reservoir. The rail line had to be abandoned and the town itself came close to being submerged.

The railway station, at which Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) first arrives, has since become redundant and now houses the Ouray County Ranch History Museum, 321 Sherman Street at North Railroad Street.

Ten rooms display equipment, journals, photographs, clothes, furniture and more, telling the story of ranch and farm life from the 1880s and, alongside, you can also see the prison wagon, in which cranky US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) delivers into town his prisoners from ‘Indian Territory’ at the beginning of the film.

Mattie Ross is in town following the murder of her father, determined to pursue the killer herself if necessary. As you can see, the station faced a pleasant grassy park, less pleasant once Mattie witnesses the hanging of three men. The green square, where the gallows were erected for the film is Hartwell Park, still recognisable as the centre of the town.

True Grit film location: North Lena Street, Ridgway, Colorado
True Grit film location: the main street of 'Fort Smith, Arkansas', with the 'saloon' on the left: North Lena Street, Ridgway, Colorado | Photograph: Google Maps

On the opposite side of the park to the station, the buildings along North Lena Street stood in for the main street of ‘Fort Smith’.

If you look above the frontage of Ridgway Adventure Sports, 109 North Lena Street on the corner of Sherman Street, you’ll see it still bears the ‘Fort Smith Saloon’ sign. It was in front of the saloon that Mattie’s father was gunned down by drunken Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey).

A couple of doors along stands the True Grit Café, 123 North Lena Street, on what, at the time of filming was an empty lot. The café was built in 1985 to commemorate the film and contains all kinds of memorabilia. If you go inside, you see there’s a huge painted sign for ‘Chamber’s Groceries’ occupying one wall. Before the café was built, this was the exterior wall you can see in the film alongside ‘Fort Smith Courthouse’.

The courthouse itself was nothing more than a wooden façade, erected roughly where the Decker Building, 133 North Lena Street, now stands.

True Grit film location: Ouray County Courthouse, 4th Street, Ouray, Colorado
True Grit film location: Mattie meets Cogburn on the courthouse staircase: Ouray County Courthouse, 4th Street, Ouray, Colorado | Photograph: Wikimedia / Bede735

The courthouse design was supposedly based on Ouray County Courthouse, 541 4th Street, Ouray, about ten miles southeast (though there’s not really much resemblance).

It’s claimed that the interior of the real court was used for filming, but it’s clear the film uses a smaller and simplified studio reconstruction. The wooden staircase, though, where Mattie first approaches Cogburn, really is Ouray.

Continuing north along Lena Street, at the corner of Clinton Street you’ll see the red Fire Department Building with its distinctive tower, which stands out as quite a landmark in the film.

True Grit film location: Clinton Street, Ridgway, Colorado
True Grit film location: the undertaker where Mattie views her father's body: Clinton Street, Ridgway, Colorado | Photograph: Google Maps

If you turn left into Clinton Street, you’ll immediately recognise the old Bank Building, 523 Clinton Street, as the exterior of ‘R Ryan – Embalmer’, the undertaker where Mattie views her father’s body. In the film, you can see that alongside stands the Ridgway Merc. Co. grocery store – a bit of a giveaway for eagle-eyed location spotters.

True Grit film location: Clinton Street, Ridgway, Colorado
True Grit film location: Rooster Cogburn's digs, behind 'Chen Lee's store': Clinton Street, Ridgway, Colorado | Photograph: Google Maps

When Cogburn takes Mattie back to his place for a meal, you’ll see they pass the Bank Building and continue up Clinton Street, across Cora Street and past the Sherbino Theater (which you can just glimpse in the background of the scene).

Next door but one to the theatre, the Barber Shop, 616 Clinton Street is just about recognisable as the exterior of ‘Chen Lee’s’ store, behind which Cogburn has his make-do digs.

A few miles outside of Ridgway, you can still see the deteriorating remains of the Ross farmstead, seen in both the opening and closing scenes.

To find them, take Hwy-62, southwest from Ridgway toward Placerville for about ten miles, before turning left onto Last Dollar Road. After a couple of miles, you’ll see the abandoned ranch buildings on your right at the crossing of Willow Creek, directly opposite San Juan Vista Road. It’s on private property but it’s easy enough to see.

Cogburn is hired, reluctantly, by Mattie to track down Chaney, the man who shot her father, and they’re joined by Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who’s also looking for the killer.

The ferry crossing, where the resourceful Mattie demonstrates her determination to join the hunt by riding her horse Blackie across the river, was filmed at Blue Mesa on the Gunnison River, about 30 miles north of Ridgway.

Disappointingly, the actual filming site has been lost by the damming of the river to provide another reservoir, the Blue Mesa Reservoir.

True Grit film location: Hot Creek, Mono County, California
True Grit film location: the dug-out cabin: Hot Creek, Mono County, California | Photograph: Shutterstock / Johnny Adolphson

Resigned to Mattie accompanying them, Cogburn plans on spending the night in a hidden dugout cabin he knows of. This turns out to be already occupied by a couple of ne’er-do-wells, Quince and Moon (Jeremy Slate and Dennis Hopper – in the same year as his breakout movie, Easy Rider), but they’re easily smoked out.

This isn’t Colorado at all. The site on a winding river where there’s a botched shoot-out with Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and his gang, is Hot Creek, Mammoth Lakes, overlooked by the snow-capped peaks of Mount Morrison and Laurel Mountain in Central California. Director Hathaway had visited this spot  before, filming part of Nevada Smith, with Steve McQueen, here in 1966.

It’s back to Colorado for the site of ‘McAlester’s Store’, where the bodies of Quince, Moon and the outlaws killed in the shoot-out are dropped off. This isn’t too far from the Ross ranch. It’s a couple of miles west on Hwy-62 from the junction with Last Dollar Road. There’s a turnoff on the right, immediately past a couple of isolated houses on the left. It’s not signposted, but it’s 60X Road. About a mile north there’s a clearing on the left where the outpost was built.

As they press on, it’s Mattie who stumbles by accident across Chaney, only to find herself abducted to Ned Pepper’s cave hideout, alongside the pit of rattlers. Unfortunately, this is on private property, Camp Bird Mine – once a fabulously lucrative gold mine – off Camp Bird Road, about five miles southwest of Ouray.

True Grit film location: Katie's Meadow, Owl Creek Pass, Colorado
True Grit film location: the final confrontation with the Pepper gang: Katie's Meadow, Owl Creek Pass, Colorado | Photograph: Shutterstock / Preecha Buathong

It’s finally time for that great face off between Cogburn and Pepper’s gang, with the aging gunslinger holding the reins between his teeth while firing with both hands.

The meadow, surrounded by trembling golden aspen trees, is on Country Road 8, at the top of Owl Creek Pass, ten miles east of Ridgway. It’s about a mile north of Chimney Rock, the amazing vertical peak you can see in the background of the scene, and Courthouse Mountain.

This field seems to go by various names – Katie’s Meadow, but also Debbie's Meadow – as it seems scenes for The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Debbie Reynolds were filmed here too.

For a phenomenally detailed video record of the film’s Colorado locations, be sure to check out JeepsterGal’s True Grit, Then and Now.