In the spring of 1965, John Wayne arrived in Chupaderos in the state of Durango, Mexico to make “The Sons of Katie Elder.” Between 1965 and 1973 he made six more films here: ”The War Wagon,” “Chisum,” “The Undefeated,” “Big Jake,” “The Train Robbers.”
Westerns, cowboy pictures.
“El Wayne,” as he was called, last visited Chupaderos in 1973 to shoot “Cahill, U.S. Marshal.” He died in 1979 and within a few years so did Hollywood Westerns.
Chupaderos was a sunburned village of 839 very poor people when then movies came to town. Hollywood was attracted to its clear sunny skies and its quiet … the kind you can almost hear.
Overnight, Chupaderos was turned back in time.
Overnight, it was transformed into a false-front, frontier town with hitching posts and watering troughs and board sidewalks. A pretend town that could have been 1870’s Wyoming or Colorado.
Pool halls, cafes, The Elite Hotel, blacksmith shop, six saloons., harnessmaker, gaming house, sheriff’s office and jail. The French Lady’s Pleasure House, gunsmith, mercantile, a church with a fancy cupola and a fine brass bell.
And the people had work as extras, wranglers, cooks and maids.
And John Wayne became … a deity, a god.
They still talk about the old Mexican cowboy songs he sang in his mis-pronounced Spanish. Late at night around the Double Eagle with maybe Burt Lancaster and Ernie Borgnine and Shelly Winters.
They still have one of his high-crown Stetsons under glass. There on the back bar.
They still have the John Wayne dinner special on the chalkboard menu at Best Eats.
They still have his private bottle of Sauza Commemorativo tequila on reserve at The Ace High.
And to this day no one has set foot upon the brick tiles he laid in the entryway to Francisca Flores’ house. Took a day off from shooting to do hard, manual work. Because he damn well felt like it.
It has been almost 40 years since John Wayne sauntered down the main street of Chupaderos, a gun on his hip and blood in his eye. Today the town is sad and confused and very poor.
Nothing is as it was.
Except the church. The adobe is even more beautiful, the bell more sonorous. Villagers still make the sign of the cross as they pass by and some go in to pray. They pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe and then they stop before a picture of John Wayne – a movie poster under plastic. “The Duke” in heroic pose and armed to the teeth.
And they ask-- very quietly – “When you comin’ back, Chon Wayne?”