THEY CAME TO CORDURA was a prestige production. $4,000,000 was a chunk of bread to expend in 1959, as respected director Robert Rossen took a sterling cast and a battalion of extras into extensive location work on isolated and stunning desert locations in Utah and Bavispe, Sonora in northern Mexico. His story was top-loaded with ‘importance’, from the first discordant blasts of Elie Siegmeister’s score to its grueling wrap-up 123 minutes on. Success was partial.
US cavalry surge into Mexico in 1916, after a raid from Pancho Villa prompts a serious butt-in & butt-kick response. Recording the expedition’s heroism for posterity falls to a nerve-shamed Major, who is charged with writing up several soldiers for the Medal of Honor. The types of men, their reactions, disparate and questionable characters and subsequent ugly behaviors bedevil the officer, also saddled with a sexy, allegiance-challenged American woman who was hospitable to the Mexican foe. “What is Courage? What is Cowardice?” asks the script from the get go. Get ready to sweat.
Trouble is, things get muddled in the relentlessly downbeat, over-written script and by performances that were allowed to swing from felt to frantic, pinging from wooden and rote to honest and bracing. The coward-cum-hero Major is played by a distressingly worn (and ailing) Gary Cooper, alternately guilty and laudable on both ends of the tonal spectrum, but for sure Coop was twenty+ years too old for the role to make logical sense.
Rita Hayworth’s reign likewise was fading, though to her credit she does allow her beauty to be mussed up during the trek. Van Heflin does the best job as the coarsest and meanest of the lot, he’s believably threatening. Tab Hunter is generally very effective until going a bit overboard at the end. Richard Conte, Michael Callan (debut) and Dick York put in their shots as best they can per the wobbling script and direction.
There is a fair amount of good writing, albeit trending to the Deep. Some of the choppiness no doubt comes from Rossen cutting nearly a half-hour from the original running time. The failure of the film bothered him for the remaining seven years of his life. Points for a College Try. Factor in that the alcoholic Rossen, according to York, was in the bag for a lot of the shoot, and his carelessness with stunt work, regarding both people and stock made for some needlessly harrowing circumstances. York hurt his back so severely that it tormented him for the rest of his life, hampering his career in the bargain.
The desert scenery is lovely in Burnett Guffey’s camera. Highlight of the bleak and basically unpleasant film (which hobbled a lame #38 of the years moneymakers, drawing snipes from the press) comes ten minutes in, when Rossen stages a full-throttle, large-scale cavalry charge against a fortified hacienda. It’s notably furious, quite well choreographed, with good use of sound effects and stuntwork and lasts an exciting eight minutes.
With Robert Keith, Carlos Romero and Edward Platt.