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Cowboy Nostalgia

Cowboy Nostalgia


Even before the film industry, Americans have been rooting for men with horses and guns in their movies. A long-lived, beloved American genre, Westerns were first shot on the East Coast before the film industry took root in Southern California in the early 1900s, said Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, department chair of Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Although Westerns aren’t unique to the United States, the typical Western plays on American idealism.

How the West Was Won shot many scenes in Ridgeway, CO

“The Western is particularly suited to making American mythology because it revolves around a great American myth, which is expansion west — Manifest Destiny,” said Acevedo-Muñoz, who teaches “The Western & its Contexts” course at the university. “There’s all this land and ‘we’ white people have to take it. There is that narrative of motion that is embedded into the myth of this country. This country was invented on that myth. It cemented itself in the early 19th century.”

Acevedo-Muñoz credits director John Ford who “put together the visual mythology of the West” during the ‘20s and ‘30s. By the ‘40s and ‘50s, Westerns were synonymous with Ford and his beloved Arizona and Utah backdrops. By the ‘60s film directors were looking for something more edgy.

“One of the logical answers were certain types of [film] locations, particularly in Western Colorado, where you get mountains, you get prairies, you get the aspen trees, you get the water and creeks and rivers,” Acevedo-Muñoz said. “Colorado has spectacular scenery that wasn’t exactly already seen in the classical Westerns, mostly in John Ford. It gave a good variation from those motifs.”

A few brave film directors challenged the unpredictable weather and chose remote — at least during the ‘60s — filming locations in Colorado. Before the present-day development, towns like Telluride and Ouray offered an exotic place for the viewer to enjoy. These filming locations are now a lot more famous and developed from the movie scenes once filmed there. Movie buffs and fans of history can find nostalgic travel adventures through exploring filming locations around the state.

Chimney rock national monument

Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall, “How the West Was Won” proved to be more of a novelty than an important movie, Acevedo-Muñoz said.

The film was shot for a new wide-screen Cinerama format, developed specifically for showing vistas and landscapes.

“It’s a terrible movie,” Acevedo-Muñoz joked. “Yeah a lot of people saw it, but then when it moved to television you could literally only see one third of the frame.”

Little did directors know that one of their backdrops would become a national monument in 2012 —   Chimney Rock National Monument between Durango and Pagosa Springs. Open May through October, self-guided and Great House tours of the uniquely shaped rock formation are available.

Other scenes of the movie were shot in the small town of Ridgway, which is right down the road from Telluride, Montrose, and Ouray. The downtown still retains its old-school Western appeal, and you can easily see why it was the perfect spot for a city scene in “How the West Was Won.”

Scenes from “True Grit” (1969), shot in Ouray and Ridgway

Ouray County Courthouse

The 1968 novel, “True Grit,” an “anti-Western Western” classic, upended a lot of conventions and clichés of violence that were synonymous with the genre, said Acevedo-Muñoz.

“The western is concerned with justifying violence and specifically gun violence in American history,” Acevedo-Muñoz said. “That has ideological influences that go to the foundation of this nation. We are still debating guns today. Taking guns out of America is like the Viet out of Vietnam — you can’t. The Western celebrates that and justifies that. More importantly, we celebrate when the bad guy gets killed.”

With many scenes shot in Colorado, “True Grit” not only challenged clichés of violence but also the clichés of the traditional Arizona and Utah shooting locations.

“That is a movie we really associate with Colorado,” said Acevedo-Muñoz, who assigns the film to his students. “‘True Grit’ is in vogue. It touches younger people.”

Directed by Henry Hathoway, who had an eye for landscapes, it was the only movie in his career for which John Wayne won an Oscar for falling off a horse, said Acevedo-Muñoz.

John Wayne’s painting true grit cafe

Sprinkled in the towns of Ridgway and Ouray are “True Grit” landmarks including the historic Ouray County Courthouse where Rooster Cogburn gave testimony at the trial of Odus Wharton.

Opened as a café in 1985, True Grit Café kept the original internal walls of Chambers Grocery from one of the first scenes in the movie. The café could easily ride on John Wayne gimmicks but serves authentic and tasty American comfort food.

While enjoying fried shrimp baskets, catfish and beef brisket, and other weekly specials or hearty meals served at True Grit Café, patrons can enjoy the many authentic western decorations and numerous pictures and paintings of John Wayne.

Scenes from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), shot in Durango

Directed by George Hill and William Goldman, “Butch Cassidy” successfully put the “bad guys” in the hero’s seat, which was a new concept for the time. The movie came out during the American new wave of cinema that strove to be edgy, smart, and cool, said Acevedo-Muñoz.

“What’s cooler than Paul Newman and Robert Redford?” Acevedo-Muñoz said about the film’s cast. “If you could throw Steve McQueen in there, the theater would have exploded.”

A conductor prepares for a departure on
the Cascade Canyon Winter Train route.

Bad boys Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid famously rob a train, which is barreling down a scenic canyon. The train they rob in the movie still runs today. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, leaving from the historic Durango Depot train station, runs steam train excursions all year. Riders can experience the Rocky Mountain vistas seen in the movie while riding in vintage steam and diesel locomotives.

The free museum at the train yard has an exhibit dedicated to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad cars and railroad used in Hollywood.

Scenes from “The Hateful Eight” (2015), shot in Telluride

Schmidt Ranch in Telluride

Quentin Tarantino was seven years old when he saw Butch Cassidy in theaters. Inspired by the TV Westerns he watched as a kid, Tarantino thought up the idea of creating a Western with the main characters trapped in one room. Although most scenes were shot in a California studio, a few scenes were shot around Telluride. The characters were trapped in Minnie’s Haberdashery, whose exteriors are the real-life Schmid Ranch outside of Telluride.

“‘The Hateful Eight’ may be Quentin Tarentino’s worst movie,” said Acevedo-Muñoz. “It wasn’t particularly well received either by critics or audiences when it came out. People get there, and then they lock themselves in the house and start screaming at each other. That’s what I remember of the movie. I don’t remember much more.”

Although a striking backdrop to the haberdashery, the Telluride mountains proved to be a bit of a production challenge for Tarantino, who went $10 million dollars over budget.

“I understand that he had planned a lot more shooting in Colorado than he was actually able to do, mostly because of weather events,” said Acevedo-Muñoz. At least two former students from his department worked on “The Hateful Eight” film. “There are always external factors that filmmakers have to take into account when they choose to film on location. The reason why most filmmakers favor filming in the studio is because they can control all the conditions.”

Outdoor explorers can walk the same trails where Bounty Hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth questioned Major Marquis Warren on Wilson Mesa outside of Telluride. It’s U.S. Forest Service land that can be hiked or explored by snowmobile during the winter to make you feel like you’re also an outlaw braving the elements.


Zoe Jennings
She really knows how to pick those high earning careers. As both a journalist and a preschool teacher, selling out is a worse fate than being broke for Zoe Jennings. Author of ‘The Word on the Yard: Stories from D.O.C. #166054,’ a humanizing look at life in prison, she hopes to become a writing instructor for students earning their degrees while incarcerated. Zoe enjoys music and the outdoors in her limited free time.

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