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The film opens with the following onscreen written prologue: "On the night of March 8th, 1916, a large mounted force of Mexican rebels under Pancho Villa crossed the American border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing and wounding both American civilians and soldiers. As a result of this action, the United States Army sent an expedition to Mexico with orders to capture Villa and disperse his forces. It was during this campaign that one man, an United States Army officer, was forced to come face to face with two of the great fundamental questions that affect mankind: What is courage? What is cowardice? This is the story of his search for an answer." An article in Look noted that the story was based on the last mounted charge ever made by the United States Cavalry. The charge, which was under the command of Gen. John J. Pershing, took place in Mexico during the 1916 campaign against Pancho Villa.
Filmfacts adds that author Glendon Swarthout was a professor of English at Michigan State University when he wrote the novel on which the film was based. Swarthout, who wrote military citations during World War II, ended his novel with the character of "Major Thorn" being stoned and shot to death by his "heroes." According to the article, director Robert Rossen changed the ending of the film because he felt Thorn had to reach Cordura, and thus face the fact that although he had once been a coward, he could go on and face the rest of his life with courage. A September 1959 Variety news item adds that Elie Siegmeister, who wrote the music for the film, was a Professor of Music at Hofstra College. They Came to Cordura marked his first score for a feature film production.
Hollywood Reporter news items from October and December 1958 note that location filming was done in St. George, UT and in the Moapa Valley, NV. According to an article in American Cinematographer, the production was shot in actual continuity and without the use of any interior sets, with at least one-third of the picture composed of day-for-night shots. A December 1958 New York Times article noted that local residents of St. George were hired as extras to portray the soldiers in Villa's army. According to a modern source, an extensive cold spell caused the company to shut down their St. George location and move to the Moapa Valley outside Las Vegas, NV.
They Came to Cordura marked the screen debut of Michael Callan. Tab Hunter was borrowed from Warner Bros. to play the role of "Lt. William Fowler." Baroda Productions was star Gary Cooper's production company. Although Hollywood Reporter news items place Jack Entratter, Slim Talbot and John Milltown in the cast, and a New York Times article adds Wendell Hoyt to the cast, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Modern sources add that Rita Hayworth's costumes were designed by Jean Louis and that Tom Dawson supervised the design of the men's costumes.
An October 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the proceeds from the film's New York benefit premiere went to New York University's Bellevue Medical Center. According to a March 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, producer William Goetz planned to film a sequel to the picture and hired Swarthout to write the story for the sequel. That film was never made, however. For additional information on Gen. Pershing's expedition into Mexico and Pancho Villa, please consult the entry for the 1934 M-G-M production Viva Villa in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40.