A History of True Grit
True Grit was certainly one of the most famous Westerns ever made. The film was directed by Henry Hathaway, famed for his work on a long string of Westerns most notably in the 1950s and '60s, with the top stars of his day: Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and John Wayne. True Grit's celebrity-studded cast featured Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper.
Spectacular scenery around our charming Colorado town caught the attention of the director of the film that was released in 1969. Ouray County was the main film location with key sets in the movie located right in Ridgway. In six weeks in 1968, the film crew turned the center of this old railroad town into the 1880s-style Fort Smith, Arkansas, complete with Hanging Judge Parker’s three-man gallows. The firehouse now survives as an artist studio, and the livery stable became the post office. The paddy wagon from the movie, True Grit, sits in Heritage Park on the southwest corner of Highways 550 and 62. A short walk up Clinton Street, past the Sherbino Theater, leads you to the living quarters of Rooster Cogburn. Be sure to visit the John Wayne-themed True Grit Cafe and check out the actor and movie memorabilia.
True Grit Walking Tours & Guides
To explore more film locations on your own (or by hiring a guide), you can head on out on a day trip to find some of the famous movie sites as well as the state’s most photographed mountain scenery. Ten miles west of Ridgway on Last Dollar Road are the remains of the ranch of matriarch Mattie Ross (performed by Kim Darby in the movie), where John Wayne jumped his horse over the fence at the end of the film. And to the East, towards Owl Creek Pass, sits the aspen-lined valley of Katie’s Meadow – one of the most memorable scenes from True Grit. Fifteen minutes up Highway 550 in Ouray, you can visit Ouray County Courthouse where the film's interior court scenes were filmed. Pick up your free Movie Locations Guide at the Visitors Center.
The Story Of True Grit In Ridgway
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.
Interviewed by the Ouray Herald (10/3/1968) 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.”
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 who were considered included Mia Farrow, Tuesday Weld, Sally Field, and Sandra Locke. Wayne wanted singer Karen Carpenter, but Kim Darby was finally selected. 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.
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”.
Set construction began in July 1968, and the studio began hiring local people as extras, drivers, carpenters, painters,and other roles 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. 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 Hollywood 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, a pot-bellied stove, brass cauldrons, blacksmithing equipment, and ox yokes, according to the 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 on September 7, 1968, and Wayne began filming in Ridgway on September 12. The studio brought 275 people from California, and employed 300 locals, reported the Ouray Herald (9/12/1968). “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," according to one article.
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,” reported the 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.
Note: In addition to the Ouray Herald articles, information for this page was found in various Wayne biographies.
True Grit Trivia
- One of the men hanged in the park was played by Jay Silverheels, best known as Tonto in the Lone Ranger television 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, on the southwest corner of Highways 550 and 62, by the flagpole.
- The cottonwoods were planted in Hartwell Park 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. That caboose was fully restored and is now at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. The caboose on display at the Ridgway Railroad Museum is a different one. 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, this is a passenger car road in good weather. The “snake pit” scenes were filmed at an abandoned mine southwest of Ouray on private property, and is not open to the public.