What I’ve Been Watching: They Came to Cordura (1959).
Who’s Responsible: Robert Rossen (director); Ivan Moffat, Rossen (screenwriters); Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin (stars).
Why I Watched It: Coop and Rita? Please.
Seen It Before? Yes.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.
And? Col. Rogers (Robert Keith, the poor man’s Les Tremayne) leads a cavalry unit of the “punitive expedition” sent to Mexico in 1916, in retaliation for Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Maj. Thomas Thorn (Cooper)—whose father, killed in action, served with Rogers—is in charge of recommending men for the Congressional Medal of Honor and writing their citations. He has suggested that his first candidate, Pvt. Andrew Hetherington (Michael Callan), be sent back to the base at Cordura until the citation is approved; most Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously, and with the U.S. shortly expected to enter World War I, it is seen as desirable to have live heroes as role models.
For that reason, Thorn and Hetherington are ordered to hang back when Rogers leads an old-school cavalry charge on a hacienda filled with Villistas and owned by the proverbial fallen woman, Adelaide Geary (Hayworth). Although it does accomplish its objectives, Thorn considers the assault a fiasco and refuses to recommend Rogers for a medal; stung, he orders Thorn to escort Geary—charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy—to Cordura personally, with four additional nominees from the charge: Sgt. John Chawk (Heflin), Lt. William Fowler (Tab Hunter), Cpl. Milo Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York). Who among them will reach Cordura? Therein lies the tale.
I had only so-so memories of this film—based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, as were the likes of Where the Boys Are (1960) and The Shootist (1976)—but with two favorites toplining it, I gave it another spin, and quickly recalled that it had simply been a case of false expectations. Rita is probably my ultimate 1940s screen goddess (off-the-cuff nominees for her immediate successors being Grace Kelly and Raquel Welch, respectively, in the ’50s and ’60s) . So it was a little sad to see her so far from her luminescence opposite Fred Astaire in the aptly titled You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and yes, that number reduces me to tears faster than ever. Also, like The Shootist, this is much more than a straight-up oater, whose theme she herself states overtly: “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”
For we gradually learn two things, the first being that Rogers, in honor of Thorn’s father, covered up the fact that at Columbus, Thorn cowered in a ditch…and Rogers, it turns out, is not the only one who knows it. The second is that, however brave circumstances might have led them to be during the assault, each of the “hacienda quartet” is deeply flawed in one way or another, so much so that Thorn eventually has more to fear at their hands than at those of the Villistas they seek to avoid. So the story is a meditation on courage and cowardice, as he tries to understand how the others—worthy or not—found the courage he’d lacked and, perhaps (like Geary to a lesser degree), find some sort of redemption in the process.
There’s something fun about watching a film that, after a certain point, is restricted to seven characters—all of them played by actors I know, even if one of them, Heflin, is among my biggest bêtes noires; he and Conte, conversely an old favorite, both play pretty disreputable guys here. Yes, it’s that Dick York, the original Darrin on Bewitched (who reportedly suffered a back injury while making this film that had a detrimental effect on the rest of his life and career), and speaking of sitcoms, Edward Platt, the Chief on Get Smart, has a nice supporting role at the beginning. Hunter amply demonstrates why he never won an Oscar, although perhaps his performance was too subtle for me, because John Wayne was supposedly outraged by a gay subtext regarding him and Coop that went right over my head. The character least defined by the script is that played by Callan, recalled in BOF circles for Harryhausen‘s Mysterious Island (1961) and the Matheson-based Journey to the Unknown episode “Girl of My Dreams.”
Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it, this would appear to be the stylistic opposite of Rossen’s next, penultimate, and presumably best-known film as a writer-director, The Hustler (1961), although it’s interesting that in his pre-directorial days, he worked on no fewer than three Humphrey Bogart vehicles: Marked Woman (1937), Racket Busters (1938), and The Roaring Twenties (1939). Of the two late-career leads, Coop comes off better despite having just two years and two films—The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) and The Naked Edge (1961)—ahead of him, and apparently the film was widely criticized for the discrepancy between his age and Thorn’s. Like Cary Grant and Astaire, Rita always looks better in black and white, but in fairness, her character should appear as though she (like poor Rita herself) had seen some hard living.