Rootin' Tootin' Judge Bill Treadway says that this Western is jes' as purty as a heifer at moonrise.
A timeless story of courage and cowardice.
They Came to Cordura is a film of such depth and power that it makes the viewer wonder why it is so little known and disregarded among major film circles today.
Facts of the Case
U.S. Cavalry Major Thomas Thorn (Gary Cooper, High Noon) is a man with a deep, dark secret. Within the heat of battle, he chose to hide rather than confront the enemy, forever branding himself a coward. Although this act has been covered up to an extent, it is still common knowledge to most of his superiors.
Thorn receives a new assignment: choose and lead four Medal of Honor candidates from a cavalry unit stationed to ward off Pancho Villa. He will lead the four men to the military base located in Cordura, Texas. Thorn chooses Sgt. John Chawk (Van Heflin, Shane), Corporal Milo Trubee (Richard Conte, I'll Cry Tomorrow), Lieutenant Bill Fowler (Tab Hunter, Polyester), and Private Renziehausen (Dick York, Bewitched). Tagging along under arrest orders is Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth, Gilda), an American woman branded a traitor due to her sympathetic treatment of Mexican rebel soldiers.
Over the course of the story, the four alleged heroes turn out to be anything but, resorting to rape, pillage, and even treason against the flawed Thorn and the fiery Geary. As a result, Thorn is forced to confront his demons and take control of the situation.
Legend has it that They Came to Cordura was originally a George Stevens project, and there are certain elements that suggest this could be true. Most notable is the presence of several Stevens collaborators, such as actor Van Heflin and screenwriter Ivan Moffat. Also, the basic theme of bravery and cowardice was a staple of several Stevens films, most notably Shane, Giant, and The Only Game in Town. However, I have my doubts regarding this rumor. Aside from the simple fact that by the time Cordura was in pre-production Stevens was already working on The Diary of Anne Frank, he was also in preparation for the deeply personal pet project The Greatest Story Ever Told. With two such mammoth, deeply personal projects as those in the works, I doubt Stevens had much time or energy to devote to Cordura.
The project found itself in the hands of Hollywood maverick Robert Rossen, fresh off a colossal box office flop, Islands in the Sun. For the first time in his directorial career, Rossen was not given complete creative control, instead having to work under renowned producer William Goetz (fresh off the 1957 Marlon Brando film Sayonara). Despite being allowed to rewrite the script, Rossen was not granted final cut. His initial three-hour-plus cut was whittled down to 123 minutes for theatrical release.
Amazingly, despite the massive cutting, it is a testament to Robert Rossen's gifts as a filmmaker that They Came to Cordura remains a coherent powerhouse of a film. Watching it today, I firmly believe that Rossen was a much better fit for this material than Stevens would have been. The basic story of Cordura reflects a common theme found in many of his other films, including The Hustler: the man labeled as a loser who remains determined to fight his way back to the top, despite the obstacles placed in his path.
The main theme of the picture is the distinction between bravery and cowardice. Despite the film's being a Western, Rossen doesn't simply confine himself within the traditional outlines of a Western. He refuses to paint his film in very simple shades; he deliberately chooses grey areas. In fact, he often completely blurs the line between black and white in order to accurately reflect human nature. It is a brilliant decision, as such reflection enhances the underlying drama.
The acting seems lightweight upon first glance. When the film is over, however, you begin to recognize the power and depth of each individual performance. As Thorn, Gary Cooper turns in the third best performance of his long career (the first two being The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell and Sergeant York). We can see from the outset that Thorn is a broken man, a gentle soul who happened to be thrown in the middle of havoc and only reacted in the manner that most would have. Cooper aptly conveys this with the trademark gentleness and quiet strength that punctuated many of his performances. He does add one key ingredient to the mix: the element of vulnerability brought on by self-doubt. This isn't the confident Cooper screen persona but a new variation that is just as completely convincing and heartfelt.
At this point in her career, Rita Hayworth had been considered a has-been by Columbia executives, especially after the troubled production Pal Joey (1957). Her then-husband, producer James Hill, masterminded a reinvention of Hayworth as a serious actress. Through his encouragement and the promise of a substantial paycheck to use toward a new home, Hayworth accepted a part in Cordura, albeit with extreme reluctance. Despite those less than ideal circumstances, Hayworth does some of the best work of her career here. One can sense that the loneliness and isolation of her character have particularly personal meaning for her due to her often turbulent personal life. She uses those experiences to add an extra dimension to her role, and the result is a performance that is startling in its power.
The supporting cast is also impressive. Van Heflin and Richard Conte make two of the most cold- blooded and vile antiheroes ever found in a Hollywood Western. Heflin is particularly terrifying in scenes with Hayworth, completely unafraid of investing his character with hateful qualities that are guaranteed to obtain the audience's hatred, war hero or not. Tab Hunter was primarily known as a matinee idol and was seldom acclaimed for his acting ability. Yet in They Came to Cordura, there is evidence that the idol could act convincingly when given the right material to work with. Dick York will forever be synonymous with the hapless Darrin Stephens on the popular sitcom Bewitched, but he was always a first-rate character actor in his too-brief film career. His work in Cordura is particularly impressive in that it is in sharp contrast to his best-known role. Renziehausen is a quiet, meek mouse of a soldier with no backbone, and York's performance suggests these qualities very nicely.
They Came to Cordura is offered on a flipper disc, with the full-frame version on side A and the widescreen version on side B. Cordura has long been unavailable in letterbox, so it is good to see that Columbia has finally rectified this oversight. However, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is not very good. Although the complete CinemaScope picture is intact, the print is loaded with imperfections. Scratches and specks fill the screen. Grain is often present, particularly during night scenes. The colors are washed out and dull. Since this was a Technicolor picture, colors should be bold and vibrant. In addition, certain colors change tones, sometimes within the same scene. Simple color correction could have solved both problems quite nicely. The image also suffers from varying degrees of flickering. These defects seriously diminish the effectiveness of Burnett Guffey's widescreen photography. He and Rossen make the exteriors as much of a character as the human protagonists, and to see Cordura in such poor shape is sad. As poor as the widescreen version is, however, the full-frame version is even worse. Aside from the butchering of the CinemaScope frame, the panning and scanning only accentuates the imperfections. Grain is even thicker here than in the widescreen version. Scratches and specks loom larger over the horizon than before. Flickering and tone changes are emphasized by the panning and scanning rather than reduced. The result is a shambles and should be avoided at all costs.
Audio is much better. Although it is the standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix offered on most barebones discs, Columbia has done good work. There are no major defects located within the soundtrack, but there is some evidence of the lifelong side effect of analog recording: tape hiss. It is most noticeable during silent stretches sans dialogue and music. Other than that, the track is clean, with the dialogue and music coming through well enough to comprehend.
Since They Came to Cordura is a catalog disc, there are no extras of substantial worth. We do get a few theatrical trailers, ranging from full-frame muck to sparkling anamorphically enhanced widescreen. As is the norm with Columbia, the original theatrical trailer for Cordura is not among the trailers offered. Given the uncertainty of Cordura's pre-production history, I would have liked a retrospective documentary clearing the air once and for all. Hell, I'd even settle for a featurette or on-screen notes of some type. They Came to Cordura is a good and underrated film that deserves better treatment than what it has been dealt.
They Came to Cordura is a rare type of Western, one that isn't made any more: the thinking man's Western. Excellent performances, direction, and writing combine to form a unique and satisfying film. Despite the poor video quality and lack of substantial extras, I happily recommend checking out this disc. Those hungering for the opportunity to see the film in its original aspect ratio (long denied to faithful Turner Classic Movies viewers) will eagerly dive for the disc. As for those who are not faithful Western fans, do give Cordura a chance. You may be surprised by the thoughtful intelligence and strong acting in the film.
Columbia is once again guilty of shortchanging an important film with a shabby video transfer. I know they are capable of good work, which is why it is painful to see such callousness with many of their catalog items.
As for the film itself, it is not at all guilty of the charge of cowardice. This is one brave Western indeed.
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