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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » They Came to Cordura
They Came to Cordura
Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // July 27, 2004
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 17, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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A well-intentioned but most unsatisfying message Western, They Came to Codura (1959) has a top-drawer cast giving good performances but little else. The film was reportedly cut substantially prior to its release; based on the release version though, it's hard to imagine how a longer cut might have helped.

The film's theme is front and center from its opening titles, which plainly ask two questions: "What is courage? What is cowardice?" Set in Mexico in 1916, U.S. Cavalrymen are ordered to retaliate against rebels (under the command of Pancho Villa) that had crossed the border and attacked a small town in New Mexico. Gary Cooper stars as Major Thomas Thorn, an disgraced officer accused of cowardice, but because his father was a famous cavalryman, he's spared a court martial. Instead, Thorn is given the task of finding five men to recommend for the Congressional Medal of Honor. With the Great War heating up in Europe, politicians want ready-made heroes to aid in building public support once America enters the war.

After finding one such soldier, Pvt. Hetherington (Michael Callan), Thorn observes a disastrous charge on Villa's men, won only because of the apparent bravery of Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter), Cpl. Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York). After falling out with commanding officer Col. Rogers (Robert Keith), Thorn is ordered to take the men, along with Adelaide (Rita Hayworth), a mysterious expatriate accused of aiding the Villistas, to a base at Cordura.

Even before the six depart, it's quite obvious which direction the 123-minute film is heading. In varying degrees the "heroes" quickly reveal themselves as cowards, liars, deadbeats, and degenerates. As the band faces the harsh and dangerous trek across the desert, fighting Villa rebels, running out of water, etc., Thorn struggles to keep the group from unraveling, and to get them safely to Cordura, even as they try to kill him. As the "heroes" become increasingly belligerent, threatening Adelaide with rape and Thorn with murder, the accused coward rises to the occasion.

The film was based on a well-regarded novel by Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote The Shootist, Bless the Beasts and Children and, peculiarly enough, Where the Boys Are. This reviewer hasn't read the novel, though evidence suggests the film version is reasonably faithful to its source. It's also not hard to imagine where the novel might have been subtler and more literary than the heavy-handed film version.

They Came to Codura smells like it was conceived as a project for director George Stevens, who surrendered it to director and co-screenwriter Robert Rossen, then struggling professionally before making a comeback with The Hustler in 1961. Co-screenwriter Ivan Moffat had been with Stevens since the 1940s, and had been a producer on A Place in the Sun and Shane, and co-wrote the script to Giant (1956). The presence of Van Heflin and several other actors associated with Stevens also appears to bears this out.

In any case, the film in Rossen's hands is well acted, especially by Cooper, in another excellent, low-key performance; by Hayworth as a strong-willed, intelligent, but tragic woman; and by Heflin, cast against type (though partly an extension of his role in 3:10 to Yuma) as a scurrilous, depraved foot soldier. Tab Hunter is unusually good, while Dick York lends his able support. (This was the film where York was injured while riding, which led to a career-killing back ailment.)

Conversely, the film is directed with little visual flair and often is stagy and stilted, and Elie Siegmeister's over-emphatic score is quite bad. When Adelaide tells Thorn about her past, Siegmeister's music Mickey Mouses around every phrase, like a cartoon.

But the main problem with They Came to Cordura is the simple existence of far better movies dealing with similar subject matter. John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951) is more poetic. Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) is more cinematic. William Wyler's The Big Country (1958) is more epic. They Came to Cordura is sincere, but its Theme (with a captial "T") dominates at the expense of good moviemaking.

Video & Audio

Unlike their now notorious panned-and-scanned DVD of Castle Keep, Columbia TriStar's DVD of They Came from Cordura is a flipper disc, one side 16:9 letterboxed, the other 4:3 panned-and-scanned. Unfortunately, the film elements are not in the best of shape, with both transfers looking brown and washed out. The image is soft and grainy simultaneously, with numerous hairline scratches and speckling visible throughout most of the picture. One of the first films credited with using Panavision lenses (though the CinemaScope logo is still used for marketing purposes), They Came to Cordura had lab work completed at the long-defunct Pathe. If Columbia housed its film elements there, that may account for the less than stellar look of the film. (A great many Pathe-stored negatives remain MIA.) Nonetheless, this is the first letterboxed home video release of this title -- even the laserdisc was panned-and-scanned -- and while the film elements aren't very good, the transfer itself is fine. The mono sound is okay, though one would think this title probably had some sort of stereo release when it was new. Subtitle options are limited: English and Japanese only.

Extra Features

The only extras are Previews, a clever 4:3 trailer for Cowboy (1958), a reissue trailer for Gilda (1946), and a made-for-video ad (not a trailer) for the DVD of Silverado (1985). These trailers cannot be selected individually, but play one after another when the "Play Previews" option is selected.

Parting Thoughts

They Came to Cordura, like its awkward title, is preachy and obvious, though the performances and mildly involving story make it worth a look. The weak film elements don't make the film any more appealing, though Columbia TriStar deserves some credit for offering this title in both panned-and-scanned and 16:9 anamorphic versions.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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