Cast & Crew
In 1916, as Pancho Villa besieges the towns along the U.S.-Mexican border, Colonel Rogers is assigned to rout Villa's troops, led by the rebel Arreaga, from the hacienda where they have taken refuge. Accompanying Rogers is Major Thomas Thorn, the officer in charge of nominating candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his nominee, Pvt. Andrew Hetherington. Rogers relishes the conflict as the "last glorious cavalry campaign" before mounted riders will be supplanted by trucks and airplanes. The hacienda is owned by American Adelaide Geary, who Rogers suspects is aiding the rebels. Upon reaching their objective, Rogers orders his regiment to form a single line abreast and charge, while Thorn and Hetherington are to remain on the sidelines because their safety is of utmost importance. In his zeal, Rogers has neglected to survey the terrain, and consequently, the men charge into a trench that the rebels have dug around the walls of the hacienda. As Thorn watches the attack through a pair of binoculars, he witnesses Lt. William Fowler lead a one-man charge while Cpl. Milo Trubee risks his life to toss a firebomb over the hacienda walls. Sgt. John Chawk then scales the walls, followed by Pvt. Renziehausen, who throws opens the gates, allowing the regiment to breach the walls and rout Arreaga and his men. When Thorn and Hetherington join the others, Thorn is dismayed by the fervor with which Rogers asserts that "God was on his side," as well as his eager anticipation of being awarded a general's star for his feat. After Rogers suggests that Thorn nominate him for a medal, Thorn vehemently refuses, prompting Rogers to denounce Thorn and remind him of his own cowardice in facing the enemy at Columbus, New Mexico. Thorn, however, decides to nominate Chawk, Fowler, Trubee and Renziehausen for medals, and as they mount up and ready to ride to Cordura, the Texas town at which the ceremony is to take place, Rogers arrests Geary for treason and sends her with them. After heading out, the men begin to grumble about the hardships of the journey, and Geary claims that the charge of treason against her is both unwarranted and unenforceable. That night, Thorn, trying to discern the true nature of courage, asks Renziehausen what made him risk his life, but the private is unable to recall what spurred him to action. Meanwhile, the others, antagonized by Geary's flagrant smoking of cigarettes and drinking of tequila when they have neither, begin to squabble with her, but Thorn breaks up the fight. Later, a drunken Geary confesses to Thorn that she is the "dissolute daughter of a disgraced United States Senator." Having lost custody of her two children, her only companion is now a pet parrot. The following morning, Geary awakens to find her bird has been killed, an act Thorn denounces as savagery. As they continue on their trek, Fowler, the only other officer in the group, asks Thorn to withdraw his nomination because he fears it will generate jealousy among his superiors and thus hurt his chances for promotion. Soon after, Arreaga and his men attack, boxing Thorn and his heroes into a canyon. Thorn insists on outwaiting their assailants, and as they mark time, Renziehausen, who lost his ear in the battle, requests that Thorn withdraw his nomination because he is ashamed of his disfigurement. When Thorn asks Chawk his motivation for bravery, Chawk states that he enjoys killing and can use the pay raise that the medal will afford him. Next, Trubee asks Thorn to use the medal as leverage to transfer him out of combat duty because he is sick of fighting. When Fowler challenges Thorn's decision to outwait Arreaga, Geary suggests that Arreaga is only interested in their horses, prompting Thorn to order the animals turned loose. After Arreaga rounds up the horses and begins to ride away, Geary tries to join him but is restrained by the others. With forty miles to cover before reaching Cordura, Thorn tries to defend his decision to sacrifice the horses, explaining that the men need to stay alive to present role models to the U.S. troops about to enter the war in Europe. Unimpressed, Trubee offers to trade his medal for some time alone with Geary. Trubee's diatribe is interrupted when Hetherington collapses from fever, necessitating the others to carry him on a litter. With water in short supply, they begin trudging through the desert burdened by Hetherington. When they stop for the night, Chawk and Trubee try to rape Geary. After Thorn stops them, Trubee says that he knows of Thorn's cowardice at Columbus and calls him "yellow guts." Furious, Thorn orders Fowler to confiscate the men's weapons, and after disposing of the guns, Fowler tells Thorn that he is "on his own," then accuses him of trying to repair the damage wrought by his own cowardice by making them heroes. As Geary and Thorn treat the delirious Hetherington, Geary asks about Columbus and Thorn explains that in the chaos of battle, he panicked and took cover, and from that moment on, defined himself as a coward. Geary responds that one of act of cowardice or bravery does not make a man a coward or a hero. When she expresses incredulity that any of the five deserve a medal, Thorn asserts that they have redeemed themselves through a single act of bravery. Continuing their journey, they finally reach the railroad tracks that Thorn hopes will lead them to Cordura. Along the side they find an abandoned handcar, and begin to pump their way down the tracks. Chawk, who is wanted for murder, is desperate to avoid the notoriety of being a hero and so determines to kill Thorn before reaching Cordura. After Chawk hurls a knife at Thorn, Fowler tries to assume command but is met with contempt. Aware that Chawk is awaiting an opportunity to kill him, Thorn tries to remain vigilant, but eventually succumbs to exhaustion. Geary then offers to stand watch, and after Thorn awakens, she confides that she, too, is ashamed of the way she had led her life. Moved, Thorn entrusts her with the journal he has kept of the men's statements. When they reach an uphill slope, the others refuse to assist, forcing Thorn to pump on alone. After his hands become too blistered to continue, Thorn straps the cart to his back with a rope and begins pulling it, but loses his footing when Fowler hurls a rock at him. Because Thorn is near death after being dragged downhill by the cart, Fowler assumes command and decides to finish him off. Fowler demands that Geary turn over the journal, and when she refuses, he rips it from her bodice, then haltingly reads Thom's glowing description of their bravery and his recognition of the "crippled child in all of them." Chagrined, they listen to Thorn's conclusion that they must all make it to Cordura and thus prove that good lives in all men. Just over the hill, they spot Cordura, and after Geary helps Thorn to his feet, they join the others and begin their descent into Cordura.
Maggie, A Parrot
Frank G. Carson
Robert Coburn Jr.
Col. Paul Davison U.s.a. (ret)
Carter Dehaven Jr.
A. W. Kennard
William A. Lyon
Mary Lou Tobler
Frank A. Tuttle
Homer Van Pelt
They Came to Cordura
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
They Came to Cordura
I became two men. One can't stand living in the same skin with the other.- Major Thomas Thorn
Did you ever see the Medal of Honor?- Major Thomas Thorn
No, Sir.- Private Renziehausen
It's the most beautiful decoration of all, as it should be. I'd trade an ear for one any time, two in fact.- Major Thomas Thorn
Excuse me, Sir, but I'd rather have the ear.- Private Renziehausen
If there's one piece of truth in your insect soul, I want it!- Major Thomas Thorn
I wouldn't give him my sweat if he was dying of thirst.- Adelaide Geary
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.
Released in United States 1959
Released in United States 1959