A Big Production

John Wayne on the set of  True Grit  in Ridgway, Colorado

John Wayne on the set of True Grit in Ridgway, Colorado

To Honor the 50-Year Anniversary of True Grit, Old West Fest brings another classic to town.

Written by Constance Dunn

In 1968, a movie crew working on a new John Wayne film transformed the town of Ridgway—a former railroad town in the western part of Colorado—into Fort Smith, Arkansas, circa the 1880s. The film, True Grit, was released the following year, becoming a critical and commercial hit, and earning Wayne his only Oscar. This year the film turns 50, and to mark the occasion, the Ridgway Western Society will hold its first annual Ridgway Old West Fest the weekend of October 11-13. 

True Grit Cafe (or “The Grit” to locals) in Ridgway, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Alissa Crandall.

True Grit Cafe (or “The Grit” to locals) in Ridgway, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Alissa Crandall.

“The festival is intended to highlight Ridgway’s film, ranching and railroad heritage, and to celebrate Western arts and culture,” says Eve Becker-Doyle, president of the Ridgway Western Heritage Society. Among the festivities are cowboy music and poetry, Western arts and crafts, plus a ranching demo and mounted cowboy shooting. A walking tour will highlight True Grit’s downtown filming locations, like the town park (where the gallows for the hanging scene were constructed) and Chen Lee’s store. Coach tours will take visitors to country locations throughout Ouray County.

Highlights of the weekend include the True Grit Anniversary 10K Run (with proceeds benefiting the John Wayne Cancer Foundation), and a concert featuring Debby Campbell, daughter of musician and actor Glen Campbell, who sang the film’s title song and also starred as Texas Ranger La Boeuf. Not to miss is a screening of True Grit (the original and the 2010 remake) at the 4H Events Center, or a visit to the True Grit Cafe, called “The Grit” by locals, and housed in a two-story Old West building filled with John Wayne memorabilia.

On Sunday, the Ridgway Western Heritage Society will host an insider session where townspeople will discuss their personal stories and anecdotes related to the filming of True Grit. “John Wayne had such a lovely reputation when he was in our town,” says Becker-Doyle, recounting an incident when Wayne kindly got up from his lunch to take a photo with a couple, despite efforts of a production staffer to keep fans from disturbing the star. “He was very gracious to fans.” 

“We have a small community, less than 1,000 people,” she points out. “We are a very special town.” Henry Hathaway thought so, too. The film’s director, who had, some years earlier, co-directed How the West was Won (1962) in the area, lobbied hard for the location. In the end, the abundance of open-sky scenery and a strong sense of community made it the ideal setting for one of the most iconic Westerns ever made—starring an American icon whose name is nearly synonymous with its title—and well-worth celebrating a half-century later.