John Wayne’s Durango Westerns put Mexico on Hollywood’s map


Lozoya said he’d give anything to have those years back, from the minute Wayne showed up in 1972 to buy his cornfields, through the building of a life-size Old West town, to all the happy years when Wayne and his movie-star friends wooed the ladies and vamoosed the varmints in all the Hollywood Westerns they shot here.

“I wish they’d make a movie here every day — I’d let them use this place for free,” Lozoya, said as he walked the ground where Burt Lancaster and Maureen O’Hara also used to clomp around on horseback. “We need work and money. But John Wayne died and nobody ever came back.”

Here in the state of Durango, where it all started for Hollywood moviemaking in Mexico a half-century ago, Wayne’s death in 1979 marked the end of an era that everyone here is now trying to reclaim.

“The Western is coming back, and Durango is ready,” said Juan Jose Sanchez Garnica, a stubbornly optimistic promoter in the state’s Tourism and Cinematography Bureau.

It is a point of pride in Durango, which bills itself as the “land of film,” that this state was a sort of Hollywood South long before other parts of Mexico drew the world’s hottest stars. Before Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love on a movie set in Puerto Vallarta, where Burton starred in “The Night of the Iguana” and Taylor was off-screen; before James Bond drank in Acapulco and Rambo killed in the jungle; before Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet got frisky on the “Titanic”; before Salma Hayek became “Frida”; before Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia looked good being bad in a Zihuatanejo pool; before Ben Affleck defended Pearl Harbor and Kate Beckinsale in Baja California; John Wayne’s Durango Westerns put Mexico on Hollywood’s map.

Wayne and his buddies came here in the early 1950s and saw what they had been looking for: stunning desert landscapes and a sky drawn by angels, practically free labor and all of it only a few martinis’ flight from Los Angeles.

In all, more than 140 films, the vast majority of them Westerns, have been made in Durango, in the desert 600 miles northwest of Mexico City. Studios built mock-ups of Western towns, imported the notion of air-conditioned trailers and filmed as many as seven pictures a year here. Several of the sets are still standing, like fine antique cars waiting for someone to come install a new engine.

Hollywood luminaries strapped on their chaps and got into the spirit of gunfight days and tequila nights. Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson, Anthony Quinn, Susan Hayward and Chuck Connors all made Westerns in the Duke’s Durango.

Echoes of those days live on at the Campo Mexico Motel, a 1960s-style drive-in with walls the faded yellow of a week-old lemon. Back in its heyday, it was a half-moon of hip where Wayne always stayed in suite 22A, the only two-story room in the place.

Guests today can still drink tequila at the big wooden bar, backed by a mirror etched in faux gold, where Wayne and Dean Martin did the same during the 1965 filming of “The Sons of Katie Elder.” Upstairs, they can sleep in Wayne’s king-size bed, now draped in a shiny pink satin spread, next to a sagging air conditioner that must have once been the dandiest appliance in the desert. A pair of framed lithographs of American Indian chiefs in full headdress hang on the wall.

The motel lobby is a Naugahyde shrine to the days of the Duke, with skinny-legged furniture and deco debris that trendy Miami Beach hotels have paid millions to re-create. An entire wall is covered with autographed photos of star guests, who stamped their handprints and bootprints (and Wayne’s famous fist) in cement tablets that still stand in the long grass behind a line of parking spaces, like cheery tombstones.

On the small road between Durango city and La Joya, the village of Chupaderos looks like any other Mexican desert town, except for the faux-front Western town that Wayne built into its center. More than 60 films have been shot here, where a fake bank and a hollow hotel sit on the main crossing. Down the dirt road, a gallows stands next to the Wells Fargo office, across from Efren’s Guns, which advertises “Winchesters, Colts and Bullets.”

Manuela Flores Gonzales, 41, was born in a concrete house behind the wooden movie facade of a barbershop, where she is now raising her nine children.

“I met John Wayne when I was 8 years old,” Flores recalled, with a dazzled look in her eyes that has hardly dimmed over the decades. “He was so tall, and so handsome, and so nice to all of us.”

Flores said she remembers her first glimpse. There were technicians and cameras and actors all over the street when the big man stepped out of an air-conditioned trailer. She didn’t know John Wayne’s name. But she could tell immediately that he was The Star, and the children were awestruck when he walked over and gave them candy. By Kevin Sullivan.


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