Thought-provoking themes and excellent performances by a big-name cast led by Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, and Van Heflin aren't enough to get They Came to Cordura over the finish line. Writer-director Robert Rossen's gritty Western about a ragtag group of soldiers trudging across a stretch of barren Mexican terrain drags on too long and doesn't quite fulfill its potential. A tattered transfer also diminishes the impact of this valiant, often intriguing movie that should be a lot better than it is. For Fans Only.
An esteemed cast, fine director, and accomplished writers sometimes aren't enough to make a great film, and that's sadly the case with They Came to Cordura, an intriguing Western that examines the nature of courage and cowardice, but somehow lacks gumption. Writer-director Robert Rossen, who 10 years earlier served up the Oscar-winning All the King's Men and two years later would wow critics and audiences with The Hustler, fails to infuse the film with the energy it craves, focusing more on ideas than action. The result is an intermittently fascinating but often inert motion picture that simmers but never reaches the boiling point.
After Mexican rebels led by Pancho Villa cross the border and attack the town of Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, killing more than a dozen civilians and soldiers, President Woodrow Wilson dispatches U.S. Army troops to Mexico to capture Villa. Colonel Rogers (Robert Keith) taps awards officer Major Thomas Thorn (Gary Cooper), whom he shielded from an allegation of cowardice earlier in his career, with observing a cavalry raid on the villa of American expatriate Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth), who provides shelter and sustenance for Villa's men. Thorn will single out individual acts of heroism during the battle and nominate the brave soldiers who performed them for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
To protect these men from harm so they can be properly feted in Washington DC and drum up support for America's imminent entry into World War I, Thorn is then tasked with leading his quintet of nominees - along with the captured Adelaide - across the barren, blistered terrain to the Texas town of Cordura, where he'll submit his recommendations, deposit his heroic charges, and hand Adelaide over to the authorities. Over the course of the trek, Thorn, who's haunted and shamed by his former cowardly conduct, tries to find out what makes these courageous men tick. As they gradually reveal their true colors, Thorn becomes disillusioned and begins to question whether any of them are heroes at all. Hardships along the way intensify their faults and spawn friction, and Thorn's efforts to keep the men in line force him to find the hero in himself.
Potent themes course through They Came to Cordura, which is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, and you'd think such accomplished writers as Rossen, whose screenplays include The Sea Wolf, A Walk in the Sun, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Desert Fury, All the King's Men, and The Hustler, and Ivan Moffatt, who a couple of years prior received an Oscar nomination for adapting Edna Ferber's Giant, would be able to weave them into a dramatic, tension-filled script, but their efforts fall oddly flat. Their talky script progresses in fits and starts and though the characters are colorful, they lack dimension. As the arduous journey goes on (and on and on), Thorn and company begin to wilt...and so does the audience. By its end, we feel as battered, bruised, and wiped out as they do.
Some truly harrowing and shocking moments take us by surprise and remind us of man's animalistic nature, but the introspection often feels forced and a little trite. They Came to Cordura likely plays better on a second viewing, when the character beats, subtle bits of business, and subtext can be more acutely examined. The abrupt ending also doesn't help the film; after such a lengthy trip, we need more time to decompress and find closure before the end credits roll.
Cooper, who looks even older than his 58 years, is a tad long in the tooth to play Major Thorn, but he files an achingly sincere, understated portrayal that anchors the film. His frail appearance (he would pass away from cancer a mere two years later just days after his 60th birthday) makes the relentless efforts of his brutal cohorts to break him especially wrenching, and we admire his grit in the face of adversity and staying power during the physical trials he's forced to endure. Though Hayworth spends much of the film silently sulking, her tête-à-têtes with Cooper brim with conviction and she seems to relish her no-glamor character role. Make no mistake, Hayworth's natural beauty still shines through, but it doesn't overshadow her portrayal like it so often did during her reign as The Love Goddess.
Heflin, as always, makes a great villain. His eyes twinkle whenever he slings a snarling threat Cooper's way, and though he sometimes overplays his hand, he provides the jolt of electricity the movie sorely needs to propel it forward. Conte, who never seems to get the credit he deserves, is equally good as the obnoxiously pugnacious Corporal Trubee, while Hunter puts a dark spin on his golden boy image with a forthright, no apologies portrayal that stands as one of his best.
We all remember York as Samantha's often befuddled husband Darrin on the 1960s sitcom Bewitched, but we forget what a fine dramatic actor he was as well. It's tough to hold your own against the likes of Cooper, Heflin, and Conte, but York does, just as he would with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March the following year in Inherit the Wind as the teacher who goes on trial for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. Sadly, York would suffer a severe back injury while shooting They Came to Cordura that would drastically alter the trajectory of his career and life. The intense and debilitating pain that would plague him for the next 30 years forced him to leave Bewitched during its prime in 1968 (he was replaced by Dick Sargent) and led to an addiction to painkillers. The combination of the two effectively ended his acting career.
They Came to Cordura is one of those movies that just misses its mark, making it difficult not to rue what might have been. All involved in front of and behind the camera are capable of greatness, but somehow all the pieces of this substantive Western just never fall into place. I hope to revisit the film sometime in the future, and maybe then I'll find the journey to Cordura more rewarding.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
They Came to Cordura arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
There's no mention of any remastering on the packaging, which is a relief because the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is pretty disappointing. Print damage is the prime offender, and man, is there a lot of it. From the moment the Columbia logo flashes on the screen and throughout the next 123 minutes a barrage of marks and scratches litter the frame and it's impossible not to be continually distracted by them. Plenty of fading afflicts the source as well, dulling the usually vibrant red-rock Utah landscapes, and the brightness of the day-for-night photography that's used extensively throughout fluctuates wildly. Some scenes only give a hint of darkness, while others are so murky, details are obscured. It's hard to imagine the cinematography of Burnett Guffey (who won Oscars for From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde) looking so drab when the film was first released, so I blame the inferior Eastmancolor process and lack of proper archiving for the movie's unfortunate state of disrepair.
Good clarity and a natural grain structure distinguish the transfer, although solid backgrounds like the pleasingly vibrant blue sky exhibit some noise. Moments of brilliant color crop up on various flags and Navajo blankets, and the dusty grit of the desert is well defined. Blacks are a tad weak and shadow delineation is inconsistent, but the sun-blistered flesh tones look accurate and sharp close-ups highlight the array of parched, dirty complexions.
They Came to Cordura desperately needs a complete overhaul to restore its original splendor. Hopefully, one day it will get one.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of the only film score by composer Elie Siegmeister without any distortion and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. A strong bass presence brings the thunderous rush of horse hooves during the cavalry attack sequence to brilliant life and sonic accents like a bugle call, gunfire, and screams are crisp. Silences are clean and no age-related pops or crackle intrude.
Just a couple of extras are included on the disc. Kino usually supplies an audio commentary for its Studio Classics releases, but this one lacks that track.
Introduction by filmmaker/film historian Bertrand Tavernier (HD, 29 minutes) - More of an analysis than an introduction (and best viewed after you watch the movie, not before), this absorbing 2018 interview with Tavernier is in French with English subtitles. Tavernier calls They Came to Cordura "a strange film," but he possesses great affection for it. He links the film's themes of cowardice, courage, and atonement to writer-director Robert Rossen's decision to name names before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and the guilt and regret that followed it. Tavernier also reveals about 20 minutes were cut from the movie prior to its release (and argues the film might have been more compelling if they were left in) and notes They Came to Cordura was one of the first films to be shot with Panavision lenses. In addition, he expands upon the film's historical context and praises the actors for saving the uneven story.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview is partially presented in a cropped format that's blown up to 1.85:1 and partially in the original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The trailer's shape oddly shifts about a third of the way through. Several previews for other Kino releases starring Cooper, Hayworth, and others are also included.
A top-notch cast gives it their all, but languorous pacing and a lackluster script drag They Came to Cordura down. The gritty Western also suffers from a subpar transfer that keeps the viewer detached. On the plus side, Kino supplies solid audio and an interesting featurette. If you're a fan of Cooper, Hayworth, Heflin, and/or Hunter, you might want to grab this release, because it's doubtful we'll get the restoration this film deserves anytime soon. For Fans Only.