They Came To Cordura

by Glenn Erickson Apr 18, 2023

We finally caught up with this bold yet misconceived Robert Rossen drama, a desert trek in which Army major Gary Cooper must deal with 5 mutinous Medal of Honor nominees. It’s a lengthy discourse on bravery versus cowardice, held together by the fine actors Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter and Richard Conte. A lot to discuss here: a masterful extra with the late, great Bertrand Tavernier makes the film ten times more interesting. A heck of a big desert battle, too.

They Came to Cordura
KL Studio Classics
1959 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 123 min. / Street Date April 11, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Richard Conte, Michael Callan, Dick York, Robert Keith, Carlos Romero, Edward Platt, Maurice Jara.
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Director: Cary Odell
Film Editor: William A. Lyon
Original Music: Elle Siegmeister
Screenplay by Ivan Moffat, Robert Rossen from the novel by Glendon Swarthout
Produced by William Goetz
Directed by
Robert Rossen

This 1959 release is something I should have seen before writing about Major Dundee. Sam Peckinpah believed himself an important filmmaker; he was just a couple of years too early in trying to play the Auteur Card. We think he wanted to make a meaningful action film, and to be perceived as a profound liberal . . . in the mold of writer-director Robert Rossen.

Writer-director Robert Rossen persisted in making films with personal themes, even after running the gauntlet of HUAC persecution. We’re glad that he eventually won commercial and critical vindication with his 1961 The Hustler; he of course followed that with yet another highly personal film about psychological distress, Lilith. But before those pictures Rossen failed badly with They Came to Cordura, a big-budget western that mostly left audiences un-moved and unimpressed. Adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s novel, it was filmed entirely on outdoor desert locations, in three states and a little in Mexico.


The contents of the screenplay seem best suited for a TV piece dramatized on a minimalist indoor stage. A fine acting ensemble emotes for two hours in terrific scenery — debating the notion of Bravery versus Cowardice. Never in movies before or since was a film’s theme so ‘Up Front,’ billboarded in almost every speech. It’s even announced in the opening text crawl. We read that the subject is General Pershing’s 1916 incursion into Mexico to chase Pancho Villa, which sounds excellent … and then the text finishes with the Courage/Cowardice theme. No matter how eloquent the message, audiences expected big-screen spectacle, where ‘big ideas’ are expressed in action, not position speeches.

They Came to Cordura was produced by companies owned by William Goetz and Gary Cooper. Robert Rossen made his film as he saw fit, right up until Columbia asked for cuts prior to release.

Pancho Villa has raided into U.S. territory, prompting President Wilson to send General Pershing on a ‘punitive’ cavalry expedition into Mexico. Coming upon a Villa-fortified Mexican hacienda, the glory-hungry Colonel Rogers (Robert Keith) rushes his entire troop into an ill-advised, antiquated cavalry charge. It’s madness — the horsemen are easily cut down under direct fire. The attack succeeds anyway due to the efforts of individual soldiers that stick their necks out to break through the defensive wall: Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Corporal Trubee (Richard Conte), Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter) and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York).

Observing the fighting is Major Thomas Thorn (Gary Cooper), an officer detailed to find Medal of Honor nominees — the incursion has become a public relations disaster, and Washington needs an ‘American heroism’ angle to divert the attention of the press. Thorn already has one nominee, Pvt. Andrew Hetherington (Michael Callan), a rather meek preacher’s son who distinguished himself back when Pancho Villa crossed the border to raid Columbus, New Mexico.


Major Thorn is surprised when Colonel Rogers expects a medal nomination for himself, as payback for overlooking Thorn’s alleged cowardice back in Columbus. When refused, Rogers orders Thorn to ride back to U.S. territory with his nominees and Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth), the expatriate American woman who owned the hacienda. Rogers wants Adelaide punished as a traitor for aiding the enemy in wartime, even though  1)  Pancho Villa was considered a friend of the U.S. only months before,  2)  Adelaide had no choice but to harbor any armed force that came through her valley, and  3)  there is no declared war anyway.

Thorn’s nominees show their true colors on the trail. They resent that Adelaide Geary has liquor or tobacco while they have none; she’s even brought a pet parrot along. The crude Chawk and Trubee have other designs on the woman. When the remaining Villa troops pin them down, Renziehausen’s ear is shot off. He doesn’t want the award and just wants to hide himself. Chawk fears the publicity that comes with the award, because he’s wanted for murder in Albuquerque. Young Andrew falls sick with a fever, and becomes a liability. Even the clean-cut Lt. Fowler rebels against Thorn’s command, when Trubee spills the word about Thorn’s supposed yellow streak. As the miserable detail threatens to break down, Adelaide finally says it — the coward / hero business is all absolute nonsense, and she doesn’t care who lives or dies. Isolated and exhausted, Thorn presses on even when Chawk threatens to kill him. Is Thorn trying to atone for his own crisis of self-esteem?

The anti-laconic hero: A Man’s Gotta Talk About Feelings.

In 1945 Robert Rossen wrote the screenplay for the excellent ‘sensitive’ combat film A Walk In the Sun. The next few films he scripted presented an increasingly dark view of American life. Adapted and directed from Robert Penn Warren’s novel, his 1949 All the King’s Men rang like an alarm for the future of democracy. Then came the blacklist; Rossen eventually had to ‘name names’ to the HUAC to work again. They Came to Cordura’s critique of the military is atypical of Hollywood fare, which at the time mostly pandered to pro-enlistment sentiments. Conservatives would say that it slanders the military in general, by suggesting that the Medal of Honor is awarded for purposes other than the recognition of valor.

Cordura would also seem untenable on a simple commercial level. All of the picture’s action and excitement is finished by the end of the second reel. The big battle that opens the film is spectacular, with 200 horses charging a fortified hacienda.


The rest of the show is a small-scale desert trek, with less incident than the average Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott western. The scenery is terrific — some of the locations are as exciting as those in from Richard Brooks’ The Professionals. But more than an hour of the show is what we would call ‘campfire scenes,’ or static arguments among the rocks and cactus. Michael Callan’s character spouts Bible babble when delirious with fever.

When Thorn gives away their horses, to get the Villistas to withdraw, Tab Hunter’s honor-fixated lieutenant accuses him of treason. The soldiers’ gripes grow increasingly mutinous, until Van Heflin’s Chawk openly threatens to kill the Major. To prevent a killing, Thorn orders the men to throw away their guns … the film’s least believable event. They reach the railroad and find a hand-cranked service car to ride on — but after days without food are soon too weak to make it go.

Stanley Kramer was never this preachy.

The film’s ironies become absurd. Thorn persists in his intention to award Medals of Honor to these mutinous cutthroats. Adelaide concludes that there are no heroes or cowards in this madness, that the distinction is a fraud, yet Ivan Moffat and Robert Rossen’s moral speechifying continues unabated. Frankly, this viewer only began to appreciate They Came to Cordura through the visual essay on this disc, by critic Bertrand Tavernier. His arguments explore things largely outside the experience of the film itself: the film’s historical context and Robert Rossen’s personal backstory. (See the notes on the Extras, below).


Robert Rossen clearly worked well with Columbia’s top cameraman Burnett Guffey — the show has excellent ‘on the trail’ western compositions. The blocking of the soldiers nicely frames arguments and quasi-standoffs in the rugged hills — we’re always aware of the topography. The experienced cast can be credited with making some of the difficult scenes work, like the attempted rape. It’s still a little awkward when Thorn and Adelaide can converse ‘privately’ by their bedrolls, when we know the mutinous soldiers are no more than a few feet away. The no-water, no-food ordeal wears the audience down, too. By the time that Thorn is too weak to push the rail-cart, and has been dragged fifty feet through the rocky road-bed, the movie has ground to a halt.

This is a fascinating movie, but we can feel it sliding into preachy pretension right from the beginning. Rossen’s modified ‘O. Henry’ finale has the mutineers humbled by the praise in Thorn’s award write-ups. But is the audience impressed?  This is essentially a western, where we expect issues of right and wrong to be resolved through action. Forget abstractions like bravery and cowardice . . . we wanna know what kind of scum would kill a parrot.

The public stayed away from They Came to Cordura. That didn’t stop the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther from giving it a positive review, praising Gary Cooper even as most reviewers thought him too old for his part. Rita Hayworth was very much praised, handling such a difficult and unrewarding role, but Richard Conte and Van Heflin’s work was mostly overlooked, as was Tab Hunter’s very good performance. Variety wrote that Cordura is the Spanish word for Courage. Nope nope nope — it’s Sanity, or just Common Sense.



The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of They Came to Cordura appears to be from the same video remaster that came out on the Mill Creek label a few years back. The picture is intact but seriously in need of a remastering — it’s reasonably sharp but the density is low and the colors not bright. Those spectacular ‘red rock’ locations just don’t have the punch of Columbia’s Technicolor The Professionals. The Cordura prints were made at the cheaper Pathé Lab, as were the American prints for Major Dundee. The daytime scenes look reasonable-to-good, especially the exciting Mexican battle up front. But the many night scenes are shot Day For Night, and are not attractive at all. Did a faded negative make it more difficult to get a good-looking video image?  Did original prints have more contrast?  The Day For Night scenes in Dundee have an identical dull quality.

Sony routinely performs terrific remasters on many features not half as marketable as Cordura — why would this big-production be left in this condition?  We theorize that Cordura hasn’t been fully remastered for the same reason that Warners’ The Hanging Tree was neglected for so long. Both movies are partly owned by Gary Cooper’s heirs, and the studios must split their income from sales. It’s simple corporate economics — no Bucks, no Buck Roy Rogers. Other titles are more profitable.

That said, compared to old TV broadcasts, this disc of Cordura impresses with its wide, wide screen dimensions. The miserable Pan-Scanned TV prints we saw looked terrible, as bad as old Pan-Scanned prints for Major Dundee.


Duelling Lens Credits.

Another odd thing that made us stop and think: the main titles for Cordura carry the credit ‘Lenses by Panavision’ . . . but the movie opens with a big ‘CinemaScope’ logo. Perhaps Michael Schlesinger has a simple explanation for that — was it the only way to reconcile conflicting contracts?

The not-bad music score is by the noted Elie Siegmeister, a composer of operas and symphonies who did very little film work.

The esteemed critic Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘introduction’ for They Came to Cordura is really a full half-hour visual essay. His talk is some of the best movie analysis I’ve heard (or read, as it has subtitles). He notes that Robert Rossen was forced to cut twenty minutes from Cordura. To our eye some scenes look truncated and others show continuity mismatches where we suspect material was deleted. Almost everyone remarks that this shorter version feels way too long already.  *

The French critic acknowledges the show’s failings. He doesn’t at all agree that the longer version would necessarily be an even slower ordeal. He argues that cutting a film sometimes makes it seem longer, by changing the pacing and removing context that builds interest. He offers Sam Peckinpah pictures as examples — to Tavernier the long The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid feel less draggy than their truncated original theatrical cuts.


Tavernier champions Cordura as a highly personal expression of Robert Rossen’s disenchantment with America’s stated values. The military hypocrisy in the Glendon Swarthout story parallels what Rossen experienced when he was labeled as a subversive artist. The men in charge of the fraudulent Mexican campaign think only about appearances and personal promotions. The medal winners seem heroic only on the battlefield. A civilian woman is arrested on a trumped-up charge of treason, which on paper might lead to a military execution. The Colonel responsible sent thirty of his men to death, for personal gratification. It’s as close as a Hollywood film has gotten to the bitter accusations of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.

Comparing historical facts with conservative critical reactions, Tavernier notes that John Wayne condemned the movie and rejected everything in it. Of course, Wayne is himself a product of the hero-making industry; at the time of Cordura’s release he was producing and starring in The Alamo, a gloriously distorted view of Texas history. Tavernier doesn’t defend Cordura as much as he helps us see it as Rossen’s personal cry — he must have identified with the Major Thorn character.

The only thing wrong with the word Heroism today, is its misuse in the media and in politics, like the word Freedom. The veterans I’ve known weren’t cynical, but I doubt any would think an argument about heroism was even relevant. They’d likely reject the Swarthout/Rosson dichotomy out of hand.

The images available online for Cordura are uniformly wretched. And not a single one of the impressive battle sequence!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

They Came to Cordura
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good — minus minus
Video: Fair ++ plus plus
Sound: Excellent
Introduction by director, historian and critic Bertrand Tavernier (28:00)
Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
April 14, 2023

*  Editor William Lyon also edited Major Dundee. We strongly feel that in general, Rosson/Guffey gave editor Lyon much better film to work with than did Peckinpah/Leavitt.

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Robert DiMucci

Dueling Lens Credits: With the plethora of widescreen systems in use by the late 1950s, theater owners were looking for some consistency. So for a while, the studios had an informal agreement that regardless of which CinemaScope-compatible system they were using, they would advertise the films as being in CinemaScope. Eventually, though, up-and-coming companies like Panavision wanted their own credit, and “Filmed in Panavision” was born. Earlier though, even when CinemaScope WAS the system be used, the lens maker often had a credit, e.g., “Lenses by Bausch & Lomb.”

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