Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 27, 2010

Where Was True Grit Filmed?

"True Grit", the book, starts in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which does not have scenery that looks anything like this.

The excellent 1968 novel, “True Grit,” by Charles Portis, has now been made into two equally excellent movies. Authenticity was said to be important to each of the filmmakers, but each sets the movie in locations completely foreign to the book.

Original "True Grit" cover

The 1969 film, directed by Henry Hathaway, is shot mostly in southwestern Colorado and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Bishop, California. The 2010 film by the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen uses locations in Texas and New Mexico (why? read this). The book, meanwhile, begins in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then ventures into “Indian Territory”, which is modern-day Oklahoma.

Fort Smith is pivotal to the story, because of its location, hard against the Oklahoma border in northwestern Arkansas, at the confluence of the Poteau and Arkansas rivers. Cross the border, in 1878, when the story is set and you would have been in what was called Indian Territory back then. (The Texans had done a pretty thorough job of pushing all the Comanches and other tribes out of their state and into the territory set aside for the tribes – until the Oklahoma Land Rush in the early 1900s.)

Fort Smith has changed a bit since 1878; so Granger, Texas, which hasn't too much, filled in. (Awards Daily)

Fort Smith has changed a bit in the past 120 years, so the Coen brothers felt obliged to find a modern-day location that would be a believable stand-in. So they chose Granger, Texas, which was founded in 1882. Its 100-foot-wide main street is lined with many 19th Century brick buildings.

Granger was chosen, said Robbie Friedmann, a Paramount Pictures location manager, because “it has a lot of empty lots between brick buildings. There are a couple of buildings, then a vacant lot, and then more buildings. We are constructing wood buildings on these lots from rough-sawn lumber, which is what old Fort Smith looked like.”

Granger has achieved some renown for its quaint brick streets, but the filmmakers covered them with dirt for the shooting (in April 2010).

Granger was also chosen because it was (and is) a rail terminus, and scenes with people arriving and corpses leaving on various trains could also be shot. Footnote: The steam engine used in the shooting, and assorted rolling stock came in on flatbed trucks. (Interesting photo montage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUq1VjQG17g)

Courthouse ready for action! (Blanco Co. News)

The Old Blanco Courthouse in Blanco, Texas, was chosen for the courthouse scenes, because they have a more-or-less period-correct courthouse. It was built in 1884.

Scenes were shot in the old courtroom, on the stairs and within the hallways. Since the courthouse had to pass for a court set in 19th century Arkansas, that means getting rid of items such as “Exit” signs, blinking fire alarms and, of course, the Texas state flag.

Interesting footnote about this historic courthouse: This was the home county of President Lyndon Johnson and his father Samuel Johnson, and each in his day was probably quite familiar with the place (as practicing lawyers and elected politicians).

For the outdoor locations, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was established as home base. But the location scout Tyson Bidner says the production roamed far afield from there. At one point, there was discussion about shooting at radio personality Don Imus’ ranch there, but Mr. Imus actually recommended a neighboring ranch – Buena Vista Ranch – as a better location. The Coen brothers agreed.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld filming near Santa Fe last spring. (Paramount Pictures)

Why New Mexico? First, it’s very scenic. Second, the state is offering filmmakers big financial incentives to shoot there (hence, everything from “Crazy Heart”, to “MacGruber” to “Due Date” has been filmed in New Mexico lately). Third, the Coen brothers filmed a lot of “No Country for Old Men” in the Land of Enchantment (that’s New Mexico’s slogan). Plus, if I were a cinematographer, I would be in love with the unique light in New Mexico; the sky, earth, trees, even buildings glow with an other-worldly palette of colors not easily found elsewhere (why Georgia O’Keeffe and other artists located there.) Admirably, the Coens only spent $38 million making their movie (compare that to $130 mil for “Little Fockers”.)

What about John Wayne’s “True Grit”?

John Wayne loved the Four Corners area & filmed dozens of movies there. (Paramount)

Ouray, Colorado, has made quite a name for itself as the home of “True Grit” trivia and memorabilia (http://www.truegritouray.com/). You can still eat at the “True Grit Cafe” there.

The cafe is, btw, for sale.

Of course, Ridgway and several other locations in Colorado claim to have been used in the filming of the original. Quite a few scenes were also shot in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Bishop, California (oddly, Wayne’s “North To Alaska” was also shot, in part, there).

Inevitably, there will be comparisons between each of the versions of “True Grit”. Kudos to the newest version for hewing more closely to Portis’ wry dialogue (if Wayne had been allowed those lines, the Oscar would have been even more of a slam dunk, I think) and plot twists; Mr. Bridges just makes an admirable stand-in for The Duke (may he rest in peace). Matt Damon reminds us how bad Glen Campbell’s acting was. And Ms. Steinfeld is far less annoying than the otherwise forgettable Kim Darby.

So which version wins? How do you ever top this? (Brilliant job, Jeepster Gal!)

Jerry Garrett

December 27, 2010

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Responses

  1. We were by the old neighborhood and learned that you had moved so the question is where to?

    • Still TBA. I bought a cabin high up in the southern Utah mountains, but that is just one piece of the puzzle. Still scouting other locations, including some not far from where we all were. Best wishes for the holidays!

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  3. the true grit cafe is in ridgeway, colorado and not ouray AND has been for sale for years and is full of John Wayne.

    • Thanks for clarifying that point. Seems like small restaurants and inns all through the Four Corners area are shrines to The Duke. Particularly worthwhile ones are Nedra’s in Kanab and Fredonia, Utah; Gouldings at Monument Valley, Utah.

  4. Great background information on the locations of both films and you tied them both back to the book. Enjoyed reading this blog post because I’ve recently watched both films and read True Grit. While John Wayne stretched as an actor, the original is still a cameo star film whereas the Coen brothers version uses movies stars to pull in the audience but the star is Mattie Ross’ story.

    • Thank you. I hope the movie revives interest in the book and Charles Portis’ wonderfully witty and insightful writing. A classic in Western literature.

      • Me too! I love the book best of all. Portis is a fabulous writer. His life as a journalist prepared him well to make this an authentic classic western!

  5. Living in Austin, we heard a lot about True Grit being filmed here. The outskirts of Austin, particularly to the east, are a haven for period filmmakers. Granger, Bartlett, Smithville… all homes to produced movies. It’s one of the nice parts of living here – 30 minutes and you’re in the past.

  6. Ridgeway is where the actual TRUE GRIT CAFE is located. I have been there numerous times and most of town scenes were shot in RIDGEWAY, CO… East of RIDEGWAY, CO. in the mountains near OWL CREEK pass is where some parts were filmed. Like the gunfight in park at end of movie, with COURTHOUSE ROCK in the background. Just thought this should be corrected. I would like to know more about specific location of scenes from the originally movie. I liked the new TRUE GRIT, but in my opinion it will never compare to the Duke and his version. Long live.both TRUE GRIT movies. They both are one of a kind.

    • Thanks for a bit of info. I’ve come to know this area over the last decade as we’ve spend a chunk of our summers over the past decade in Telluride and the surrounding area, and our daughter goes to college nearby in Gunnison. But I didn’t know that the Duke’s True Grit used this area. Of course, Ouray is what, about five minutes from Ridgeway? Thanks for identifying Courthouse Rock. At first glance in the movie, this reminded me of Lizard Head Rock just south of Telluride. Here’s some coincidence for you: I’m was born and raised in Ft. Smith, and I worked in the movie biz for two decade…and did a handful of westerns when they were popular again in the late 80s and 90s. Small world. Cheers.

      • God’s Country! All of it!

  7. The new movie sucks compared to the old. The cast, the filming location, etc. was much better in the old and nothing personal but no one could surpass the duke. Not a bad job by Mr. Bridges, just poor compared to Mr. Wayne. Course, if you haven’t seen the old then the new is okay.

    • Regarding filming locations…I grew up in Ft. Smith, and I have spent a good bit of time every year in southwestern Colorado where Duke’s True Grit was filmed. The 2010 locations are by far more similar to the terrain along the Arkansas Oklahoma border region, so I have to give the Coen’s props for that, but I’ll gladly take southwestern Colorado for sheer eye candy. Judge Parker’s courtroom set in the scene in the 2010 movie is very much like the actual courtroom which can be visited today in Ft. Smith. I enjoy both movies. Nice blog, Jerry.

      • Many thanks for your kind words, and invaluable insights.

  8. The snake pit scene was filmed outside of Ouray, CO. The company even built fiberglass boulders to dress the set. My brother asked around when he was on vacation and got directions to that area and even brought back some great photos and chunks of the fake boulders. Even after all those years, you can still plainly see the photos match up.

    As for whose version is better: that’s like comparing apples to oranges. Matt Damon makes mince meat out of Glen Campbell’s acting, and Haley Steinfeld fits the age and vulnerability of the character better than Kim Darby. Jeff Bridges does a passable Rooster Cogburn. And I admit the remake comes closer to the novel. But nobody can touch the magic that John Wayne created in his version. The charm, the humor, the bravado that Wayne lent to the character — priceless.

  9. I continue to enjoy your blog. And the commentary you attract. Thanks.

    • Thank you, when thoughtful people like you take time to share their kind words, it makes me feel guilty I’m not writing more of the fun and interesting stories that I have stacked up on my desk – waiting to be written!

  10. I would like to know where is this medow that the gun fight at the end of the movie, where is this is it in the Dechutes natinal forest?????

  11. I’m a model railroader and do some modeling of the Rio Grande Southern (RGS) which was headquartered in Ridgway, Colorado. It ran 168 miles south from Ridgway down through Placerville to Durango, Co.
    In the John Wayne version of ‘True Grit’, The beginning of the movie was filmed there in Ridgway. The ‘Hanging scene’ was filmed in the city park in downtown Ridgway. The RGS station was located across the street from the park, to the east. After the railroad was dismantled in the early 1950′s the original station was relocated a couple hundred feet further east and has been used as a residence, with some modifications, since then. Also, the tracks were removed, probably in the 1950′s. So, in the movie, when Km Darby arrives on the train, she’s in the right place, but the movie company probably built a temporary station ‘set’ and just the back half of a passenger car for her to de-train from. No train is actually shown, and in the background of some scenes, you can see the original station/house. I’ll bet they didn’t even lay any RR track for the scenes, as none is ever shown .I’ve been to Ridgway several times and have also watched the movie several times, really just to verify this aspect of things. Also, I’ve always loved the movie.
    It’s been my general understanding that, after talking to people in Ridgway, that the area southwest of Ridgway was used for most of the outdoor scenes. Mt. Sneffles shows prominently in the background throughout movie and what you are seeing is the North face of that 14,000′ peak.
    If you look at Ridgway on Google Earth, several photos have been posted that show the ‘Hanging Park’, the True Grit Cafe, the Fort Smith Saloon, etc. Also, the old station building can be seen directly across Railroad Ave.from the tennis courts in the park. It also can be seen in a ‘street view’ from Sherman Street (Hwy 62) but is somewhat obscured by trees. It’s the house with the second floor ‘tower’, back behind the parking lot.
    Well, that’s my two cents worth…..

    • Great information! Thank you so much for sharing. What a scenic wonder that area is. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was no actual “train” per se. In that “Inception” film two years ago, they built a wooden mockup of a train that rode on a tractor trailer (right down the middle of downtown Los Angeles!). Anything is possible with “movie magic”.

      • The train scene was filmed in silvertown the station is still their.we visited Ridgeway and looked up most of the places where they filmed true grit. l My wife and i rilly enjoyed backtracking where JOHN WAYNE FILMED TRUE GRIT.LEE

  12. Nobody could play the role of Rooster J. Cogburn, but John Wayne. He was my hero!!

  13. “Where Was True Grit Filmed? Garrett On The Road” was a wonderful blog post
    and therefore I was quite joyful to discover the blog post.
    Thanks for the post-Randall


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