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In They Came to Cordura (1959), one of his last film appearances and his only movie opposite screen goddess Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper plays Major Thomas Thorn, an officer branded a coward because of a moment of hesitation during a 1916 battle against Pancho Villa in Mexico. But instead of demoting and disgracing him, his commanding officer puts him in charge of selecting soldiers worthy of awards of valor. The Army, gearing up for America's involvement in World War I, is looking for heroes as part of an image campaign, and Thorn chooses five men he believes displayed courage during a raid on a house occupied by some of Villa's men. His commanding officer, angry that he was not chosen for a medal, orders Thorn on a virtual suicide mission that consists of accompanying the nominated men back to the remote rail station at Cordura (Spanish for "wisdom" or "good sense"), a trek through a barren and hostile desert they may not survive. Thorn is also forced to bring along Adelaide Geary (Hayworth), a disgraced senator's daughter accused of treason for harboring Villa's men in her house. Along the way, Thorn finds it increasingly difficult to find true courage in any of the five men, and as they show their worst sides (particularly in their dangerous intentions toward Adelaide), Thorn begins to realize his own strength and bravery. And in a single self-sacrificing act, the accused woman shows perhaps the greatest courage of all.
They Came to Cordura (1959) was not a typical Hollywood Western, which may explain why, despite the star power of Cooper, Hayworth, and teen idol Tab Hunter, the film was a box-office flop on its initial release. Although there are some big action scenes, particularly the exciting cavalry charge against Villa (shot by second-unit director James Curtis Havens), most of these moments come at the beginning of the film. This is really more of a character study, an examination of what it means to have courage, the kind of movie one would expect from director-scenarist Robert Rossen, who began his career as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers in the 1930s. Whether as writer or director, Rossen's films - from the Bette Davis vehicle Marked Woman (1937) to the political melodrama All the King's Men (1949) to the interracial love story of Island in the Sun (1957) - often displayed a deep concern for social justice and the hypocrisy of power. Some have attributed his viewpoints to his time as a member of the Communist Party, a chapter in his life that forced him into his own personal confrontations with issues of courage and cowardice. Initially blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he relented in 1953, admitting his party membership and naming many fellow members. Nevertheless, for several years he had a difficult time getting his Hollywood career back on track and was forced to work outside the country. He never quite got over the failure of his only Western, which he blamed on changes forced on him by Columbia (for one thing, the studio insisted that Cooper could not die at the end). He eventually bought back the film rights and planned to re-edit it for re-release. His next two films, The Hustler (1961) and Lilith (1964), brought him his greatest critical success, but he died two years after the latter's release, never having the chance to restore and release his director's cut of They Came to Cordura.
Gary Cooper also made only two more films after Rossen's picture. He was already in poor health during the filming of They Came to Cordura, which is evident in many scenes, particularly one in which he is forced to pull a railroad car along the tracks. A month after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1961, he died of cancer. Rita Hayworth, the top sex symbol of the 1940s, also looks a little worse for wear in this movie, although that was the work of makeup artist Bob Schiffer. Clay Campbell was credited on the film, but it was Schiffer, Hayworth's makeup man for 18 years, who spent two hours every morning transforming the still-attractive 41-year-old into a soiled, weathered outcast with bloodshot eyes. Columbia, where Hayworth had been under contract since the early '40s, did not want her deglamorized, but producer William Goetz insisted and Hayworth was only too happy to comply. The actress wanted to retire from the screen some years earlier, but her fifth husband James Hill (Burt Lancaster's partner in film production) kept pushing her into roles, determined to have her seen as a serious actress and not just a sex symbol. The efforts payed off; They Came to Cordura brought her some of the best reviews of her career.
The movie was shot by legendary cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who had worked with Rossen on his directorial debut, Johnny O'Clock (1947), and on All the King's Men. Filming began in the desert near St. George, Utah, a location that was abandoned after being hit by a record cold-snap. The production moved to Las Vegas, where almost everything that had been done in Utah had to be reshot.
Producer: William Goetz
Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Ivan Moffat, Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Editing: William Lyon
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Original Music: Elie Siegmeister, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen
Principal Cast: Gary Cooper (Maj. Thomas Thorn), Rita Hayworth (Adelaide Geary), Van Heflin (Sgt. John Chawk), Tab Hunter (Lt. William Fowler), Richard Conte (Cpl. Milo Trubee), Michael Callan (Pvt. Hetherington), Dick York (Pvt. Renziehausen), Robert Keith (Colonel Rogers), Carlos Romero (Arreaga).
by Rob Nixon