Films Made in Colorado

Legendary films in one of the world’s most beautiful places

By Kathryn R. Burke

Ticket to Tomahawk, James Burke

Filming Ticket to Tomahawk with Marilyn Monroe. © James Burke.

DID you see Cat Ballou? Thelma and Louise? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? National Lampoon’s VacationCity SlickersCliffhanger? Mr and Mrs Smith? Bet you didn’t know parts of all those movies were filmed in Southwest Colorado. I didn’t either, until, researching for this article, I looked them up on, the definitive resource for movie and celebrity content.

Hundreds of movies have been made here, thousands when you count those also filmed in Utah. The majority are Westerns, which is no surprise, since the undisputed star of the show is our mind-boggling scenery: dry, dusty red-rock canyons juxtaposed with lush, forested, snow-capped mountains. And, for movies like Hateful Eight, mostly filmed on Wilson Mesa (near Telluride), we definitely know how to do winter. Most of our classic Westerns, though, were filmed when our distinctive, deep blue skies and star-filled nights were integral to the story. Hard to stage a gunfight or cattle drive in a blizzard when you can’t tell the good guys from the bad, or the cows from the steers.

“Hollywood loves Ouray County,” gushes the Ouray Tourism Office. And well it might, due to the aforementioned scenery plus a plethora of ghost towns and historic mining sites and relics throughout the area. Numerous classic Westerns have been filmed here, including the original (and in my opinion, the “only”) True Grit, made in 1969 and starring John Wayne.

During the filming of True Grit, the city of Ouray and town of Ridgway were turned into movie sets. Old-timers here remember food tables set up on 4th Street in Ouray for the cast and crews. The courthouse guard was one of the extras during the filming up at Last Dollar Ranch. The “Chambers Grocery” sign painted on the side of a brick wall in Ridgway is still there today, now an inside wall of the True Grit Café, which also displays pictures of “the Duke” and his cohorts during the filming. The jail wagon used in the film now rests at the Ouray County Ranch History Museum in Ridgway, as does some of the movie memorabilia. For the movie, the entire town was turned into an 1880 railroad town, but the actual train scenes were filmed between Silverton and Durango on the D&S Narrow Gauge Railroad.

That railroad (prior to 1960, the Denver and Rio Grande, now the Durango and Silverton tourist railroad) was featured in almost every Western movie made in Southwestern Colorado. And many that weren’t except for the train scenes, like one of my other favorites, Cat Ballou. A drunken gunslinger on a drunken horse—Kid Shelleen helps an impossibly young (and very pretty) Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou avenge the death of her father, killed by a gunfighter hired by the railroad. Lee Marvin, as the Kid, won an Oscar for this one.

Filmed in 1965 (four years before True Grit), the film embodies just about all of the aspects of an iconic Western film: cowboys and Indians, horses and cattle, gunfighters and preachers, schoolmarms and dancehall girls, and our favorite whistle-tooting, steam billowing locomotive chugging through the San Juans. Although most of this movie was filmed at Buckskin Joe’s Frontier Town near Canyon City, you can’t mistake the Silverton Scenery or Durango Depot in the title shot.

Cat Ballou is Rated #4 in Westford’s “Ten Best Westerns filmed in Colorado.” True Grit is rated #3.

Not on the Top Ten list, but a movie worth noting is Ticket to Tomahawk, one of Marilyn Monroe’s earlier movies. Shot in 1950, it is one of two Westerns she appeared in (both uncredited at the time). A lot of the movie, which starred Dan Dailey, Anne Baxter, and Rory Calhoun, was filmed in Silverton and Durango. There are still a few folks around who served as extras on this and other films made there in the 1950s and ‘60s, including Across the Wide Missouri (1951), Denver and Rio Grande (1952), The Naked Spur and The Lone Hand (both 1953), Run For Cover (1955), Night Passage (1957), and True Grit (1969), which was also filmed in Ouray, San Miguel, and Montrose counties.

My late husband, James Burke, was one of those filming the filming as well as the casts and crews, along with his friend, former Silverton mayor Gerald Swanson, who had an impressive library of old movies made here. We published both mens’ books, which include some great train photos as well as memorable shots of Anne Baxter, James Cagney, Rory Calhoun, Dan Dailey, John Derek, Clark Gable, Sterling Hayden, Janet Leigh, Joel McCrea, Dorothy Malone, Virginia Mayo, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. Burke got some scene shots from True Grit, but none of the Duke, himself. Which was sad, since John Wayne was his favorite actor.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was made the same year as True Grit, and yep, some of it was filmed here. Robert Redford and Paul Newman jumped into the (Animas) river at Baker’s Bridge just north of Durango. The train they robbed was—you guessed it!—our own D&SNG in a familiar spot near Silverton. They shot a couple scenes near Telluride, too. In all of their scenes, it was obvious these boys were having a great time—most of the time. Paul Newman once said that this was the most fun he’d ever had making a move. He and Robert Redford drank a lot of beer (on location) in Mexico. The film is rated #2 of Best Westerns filmed in Colorado.

Did you know there is a sort of prequel, filmed ten years later? Butch and Sundance: The Early Days. Made in and around Ouray in 1979. This low-budget film chronicles the outlaw’s lives before their escapades in the ’69 blockbuster.

You could say most of the best western movies filmed in Colorado are “oldies but goodies.” #10 The Great K&A TrainRobbery (1926, Glenwood Canyon) with silent film start Tom Mix  turning to “talkies” and his Wonder Horse Tony. (Not sure if the horse talks, though.) John Wayne was an extra in this one, but uncredited, and he didn’t talk.) #9 Colorado Territory (1949, Silverton, Durango, D&RG RR), with Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Dorothy Malone. #8 The Naked Spur (1953, same location; different cast), with Jimmy Stewart and Janet Leigh. #7 The Searchers (1956, Gunnison and Aspen), the first John Wayne movie on the list (and arguably his best role). The Duke made the list three times. Also in this film: Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood. #6 Saddle the Wind (1958, made in Rosita) with Robert Taylor, John Cassavetes, and Julie London, who sang the lead song. #5 How the West Was Won (1962, Silverton, Durango, D&RGW RR, Ridgway, and Montrose), another John Wayne blockbuster and the the last of the deluxe, all-star-cast studio “road shows”. Wayne teamed up with Jimmy Stewart (another western regular), Gregory Peck and Debbie Reynolds.

Topping the Westford “Ten Best” list is another John Wayne film: The Cowboys. And this one’s a surprise. One of Wayne’s last movies, it was made in 1972, six years before he died of cancer. In the movie he recruits and trains inexperienced boys to help him get his cattle to market. A group of cattle rustlers trail them, and in the end, one of them kills Wayne’s character. Same thing also happened in The Shootist (1976), John Wayne’s last movie and his swan song as a film legend. Dying of cancer in the film, as he was in real life, Wayne chooses to go out in style, and, in the best John Wayne tradition, take a bunch of the bad guys with him.

While most of the Colorado westerns follow a loose story line—good guys triumph over bad, one of the more recent breaks the rules. In The Hateful Eight, (2015, filmed mostly in Telluride’s Wilson Mesa), everybody’s bad. As one reviewer said, “Hateful is the operating word with these characters, there’s nothing really noble about any of them. The Hateful Eight is a great movie, but it ain’t your grandpa’s kind of western.”

Although the scenery and the pioneer history make the area perfect for telling a western-themed tale, not all movies made here follow that format. In the National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Chevy Chase and his family are on a quest to a Walley World theme park. Although scenes are filmed in Illinois, Missouri, and California, Utah, and Arizona, enough are shot in Colorado to put it on our Colorado film list.

Many of the hair-raising, death-defying exploits of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) are filmed in Italy, Spain and England. . . but some of the best scenes are filmed right here in Alamosa, Cortez, and Pagosa Springs. You’ll see some awesome footage aboard the Cumbres and Toltec railroad out of Anonito, and you will definitely recognize the spectacular scenery of Arches National Park.

Thelma and Louise (1991) take their fatal plunge into what purports to be the Grand Canyon, but the film was actually shot mostly around Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands. A few scenes were also made in the Unaweep Canyon, near Gateway and Grand Junction. The “west” plays a major role in the film, but it isn’t a “western.”

The Prestige (2006) tells the story of dueling illusionists, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackson, who have become bitter, life-long enemies. It’s not a western, and a lot of it was filmed on location in Hollywood, but some of the more impressive scenes—at least to us locals who viewed the film—are shot at the Redstone Castle, in Telluride, and aboard the Durango and Silverton train. It’s a great film, definitely keeps you guessing. The cumulative gross, in the first year alone, was nearly $110 million dollars. (Compare that to John Wayne’s first film, Ride Him Cowboy, that pulled in less than $225,000 in 1932.)

Darling Companion, (2012), filmed in Telluride with Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, and Sam Shepard—none of them “western” stars, is about a dog that goes missing, and helps a family recover what’s missing in their personal relationships.

How many movies have been made in western Colorado? Depends on who you ask, and perhaps the economic impact of their answer. The statistic vary, but the number seems to hover around 50. We’re not counting Denver or the Front Range; their story is different. Western Colorado is part of the Four Corners, where those colorful western states—Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—all join together, all made up of the uniquely spectacular scenery and rugged individualism of our pioneer history.

To find out more about what’s been made here, or to make your own movie, contact the Four Corners Film Office, Durango, Colorado, the Colorado Tourism Office, movie division, or Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media.