No Bravery in Playing it Safe
Having been charged with cowardice but spared punishment due to his father having been a war hero, Major Thomas Thorn (Gary Cooper - Man of the West) is sent on a mission to select brave soldiers worthy of receiving the congressional medal of honour. Having witnessed the Cavalry successfully attack a house where some of Pancho Villa's rebels are hiding Thorn chooses Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter), Cpl. Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York) as it was these men's bravery who made it success. As they start back to Washington they are accompanied by Adelaide (Rita Hayworth - Pal Joey) who is accused of having been hiding Pancho Villa's men. But it is a long dangerous journey to Washington a journey which will show people's true colours.
Big name stars, big open spaces, soldiers doing battle these are all ingredients for an epic movie and they are ingredients which "They Came to Cordura" possesses yet it lacks something as rather than being epic it is ultimately ordinary. And a perfect example of this is the scene early on where the cavalry attack Adelaide's home as Pancho Villa's men are hiding up inside as we have shots of the cavalry riding in numbers set against an impressive backdrop, we have the knowledge of how many of Villa's men wait inside the ranch and we have the bravery of the individuals. But all it ends up is a melee of guns a blazing with a few scenes thrown in of the select men acting brave and an accompanying soundtrack which I suppose is meant to be triumphant but in truth is only in your face. After this okay but less than impressive scene the expectations for "They Came to Cordura" quickly fall.
As for the story itself, well it would be okay if "They Came to Cordura" wasn't a typical product of the 1950s as you know that whilst Cooper may be initially cast as the coward he won't be by the time the credits roll. And you can just be as sure that whilst Hayworth is accused of treachery for playing host to the enemy by the time the movie ends we will realise things are not as they seem. It is simply how it was, put popular stars in a movie and you just can't have them playing bad guys. Of course if you're a star and come further down the billing such as Tab Hunter, Dick York and Van Heflin then it is fine for your character to end up shown in a less than favourable light.
Despite this annoying trait of Hollywood movies each of the actors play their parts well. Cooper gives us good guy right from the word go, a bit weak but a guy who follows his own moral compass which means when called upon any bravery is not too surprising, although Cooper looks far too old for the role. Meanwhile Hayworth gives us a woman who has lived a hard life and smart enough to be a survivor. And then you have the rest of the cast with the likes of Tab Hunter and Richard Conte playing typical cavalry soldiers and with Dick York he provides just a touch of humour.
What this all boils down to is that "They Came to Cordura" ends up an ordinary movie from the late 1950s which fails to make the most of not only its impressive outdoor locations but also its cast with them shackled by the Hollywood way and public expectations.