Welcome to today’s show, They Came to Cordura (1959), my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. You can also go to classicmovierev.com to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to iTunes and give me a review.
Today’s movie is They Came to Cordura (1959). I’m going to do a lot of background on the historical events related to this movie. Francisco “Pancho” Villa was a Mexican Revolutionary general that lived for 1878 – 1923. Villa was the commander of the División del Norte. He was quite successful for a time fighting the Federal forces of usurper Victoriano Huerta. Following two major loses in 1915 Villa’s forces were in tatters. On March 9, 1916, Villa raided across the US border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Villa’s men looted and burned but they were not ready to the resistance from over 300 American soldiers stationed nearby. Some historians think he conducted the raid to try and bring foreign powers into the Mexican Civil War.
President Woodrow Wilson ordered a punitive expedition into Mexico with the stated goal of capturing Villa. The expedition, under the command of General John “Blackjack” Pershing last from March 14, 1916, to February 7, 1917. While this helped to prepare the US Army for World War I, it did not do much related to Villa, as they constantly moved to avoid American forces. This movie is set during the expedition following the Battle of Columbus.
I had previously mentioned that directors Christy Cabanne and Raoul Walsh made a film titled The Life of General Villa (1914) that had actual footage of battles from the Mexican Civil War. However, this film has been lost. There is a TV movie titled And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) with Antonio Banderas about the filming that is worth watching.
On another tangent, I have had the opportunity to do archaeology in Brownsville, Texas. Locals will tell you that the town is named for Captain Brown who died there in the Mexican-American War. But I am pretty sure it is because of the color of the landscape. Dusty, dry, and brown.
I thought it was very suited that Steve Martin’s character in the movie The Big Year (2011) co-starring Owen Wilson and Jack Black was at the Brownsville Dump looking for the elusive Tamaulipas crow. This bird also known as the Chihuahuan raven is at the north of its’ range in Brownsville.
But I digress. When we were down there you could still cross the border without getting killed. A nice Mexican archeologist invited us to visit the Agrarian Museum in Matamoras. Oh great, what is better than looking at a bunch of old plows and tractors. When we got there, in spite of the name, it was more like the museum of agrarian reform. A large portion of the museum was devoted to Villa and the Mexican Revolution. So, we spent the evening looking at guns that were used during the battles.
Well anyway, on to Gary Cooper and today’s movie.
Gary Cooper played the role of the coward Major Thomas Thorn. Cooper was covered in Episode 83 – Sergeant York (1941).
Richard Conte played Cpl. Milo Trubee. He kept his tough guy image in this film. Conte was covered in Episode 78 – The Big Combo (1955).
Michael Callan played Pvt. Andrew Hetherington. Callan was covered in Episode 71 – Cat Ballou (1965).
Rita Hayworth played American expatriate Adelaide Geary. She is pretty amazing in this movie playing an older character without much makeup as opposed to her normal glamours roles. Rita Hayworth was the daughter at a Spanish dancer. She joined the stage act at 12. Three years later she was signed by Fox Studios and made her first movie, Dante’s Inferno (1935) at age 16. After a few small roles, Hayworth was released from Fox. Her first husband aggressively marketed her and she got a Columbia contract. Thirteen small roles and then she was loaned to Warner Brothers where she had her first success. These movies were The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) where she showed off her dancing talent with Fred Astaire.
Hayworth became a superstar with the release Gilda (1946) which showcased her sexiness. She stopped acting in 1949 to get married but it turned out badly. Upon her return to films she had some very fine performances including Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) and They Came to Cordura (1959).
In 1960, Hayworth was beset with what now appears to be early onset Alzheimer’s. This forced her to take increasingly smaller roles. Hayworth died at the age of 68.
Van Heflin played another tough soldier, Sgt. John Chawk. Heflin was born in Oklahoma in (1910. After High School, he signed on with a tramp steamer. After one year at sea, he studied law at the University of Oklahoma. After two years, he returned to the sea. When he returned to school he tried drama at the Yale School of Drama. For a time, he alternated between theater and the sea.
In 1936, Katherine Hepburn saw him on stage and convinced him to try film. She got him his first film role in A Woman Rebels (1936) He spent a year at RKO before returning to the stage. In 1940, Heflin acted in Santa Fe Trail (1940).
Heflin signed with MGM and stayed there for 8-years minus the two years he was in the Army Air Corp. During the MGM years his movies included Johnny Eager (1941), winning the best actor Oscar, Kid Glove Killer (1942), Grand Central Murder (1942), Tennessee Johnson (1942), Presenting Lily Mars (1943), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) with Barbara Stanwyck, Green Dolphin Street (1947), The Three Musketeers (1948), Act of Violence (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), East Side, West Side (1949), and The Prowler (1951).
After leaving MGM Heflin floated around a big but made some great westerns. This includes Shane (1953); 3:10 to Yuma (1957); Gunman’s Walk (1958). Most of his movies through the 1960s were of poor quality like a remake of Stagecoach (1966). However, he turned in a great performance as the bomber in Airport (1970). Heflin died of a heart attack in July 1971, at the age of 60.
Surfer hunk Tab Hunter was cast in the role of Lt. William Fowler. Tab Hunter, the surfer girls dream, was born in New York City in 1931. At 15, he joined the Coast Guard but was discharged when they found out his true age. Because of his good looks and toned body, he decided to go into acting. His first film was The Lawless (1950) with Gail Russell. Next, he made a British film, Island of Desire (1952) with Linda Darnell. He spent much of the movie shirtless.
After Hunter was signed by Warner Brothers, it was not long before he became a star in the WWII drama Battle Cry (1955). He continued his role with more films such as The Sea Chase (1955), The Burning Hills (1956) and The Girl He Left Behind (1956).
Following a musical, Damn Yankees! (1958) Hunter went on star in the William A. Wellman directed WWI drama Lafayette Escadrille (1958). Hunter left Warner’s in the 1960s and roles became hard to find. He did do a lot of television during this time including his own show for one season.
He was cast in a comedy, The Pleasure of His Company (1961) with Debbie Reynolds. But good roles became hard to find. He was in stuff like Operation Bikini (1963), Ride the Wild Surf (1964), City in the Sea (1965), and Birds Do It (1966). He bounced back in the 1980s and 90s with more mature roles. He even spoofed his clean image playing the partner of a transvestite, played by Divine, in the John Waters film Polyester (1981).
Dick York was cast as Pvt. Renziehausen. I know I have mentioned Dick York before. He is known to the world as the long-suffering husband Darrin Stephens on television’s “Bewitched” 1964-1969. He left the series in 1969 and was replaced by another actor. The injury that forced him to leave the show occurred while filming They Came to Cordura (1959).
Robert Keith played Colonel Rogers, the commander of Major Thomas Thorn. Robert Keith is a well-known American character actor. He began acting in stock companies and eventually ended up on Broadway as an actor and writer. In 1927, he began writing for movies and acting as well. He returned to the stage in 1932 but returned to films in the late 1940s.
Some of Keith’s most well-known movies are Guys and Dolls (1955) as Lt. Brannigan, The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando where Keith played Sheriff Harry Bleeker, Written on the Wind (1956), and Love Me or Leave Me (1955).
He often acted with his son from his second marriage, Brian Keith. However, the story of his first wife is very interesting. His first wife, Peg Entwistle was a successful actress. In 1932, she committed suicide by jumped from the top of the H on the Hollywood sign. Robert Keith died in 1966.
The role of the parrot was uncredited and was performed by Maggie. There is no evidence that Maggie made any other films.
The movie begins with a shorter introduction to the scene than I have given above and then says it is the story of a man trying to answer two questions: What is courage and what is cowardice?
The American encampment is set on a rugged hilltop in northern Mexico. An officer explains to bored reporters that a few hundred of Villa’s men have occupied a large hacienda owned by an American woman.
Maj. Thomas Thorn (Gary Cooper) arrives and the officer refuses to shake his hand. The men are told that he has been assigned to the responsibility of being awards officers for the expedition. The reports ask Thorn if he was with Col. Rogers (Robert Keith) when the town of Columbus was attacked. He confirms that he was and then they start to ask him why such a senior office was chosen for the task when the other officer changes the subject.
Thorn has Pvt. Andrew Hetherington (Michael Callan) in tow. He wants to award him a medal but doesn’t want him to get killed so he asked that all of the men recommended for awards be pulled out of the line and be sent to Cordura. When the reporters ask about the awards program he says a bigger war is coming.
Thorn and Hetherington head to meet-up with Colonel Rogers before the attack on the hacienda. When they arrive, Rogers is saying that the American woman is a traitor. He also says that since the war in Europe is being mechanized he wants to make one last great cavalry charge with the regiment in a single line. As we called it when I was in the Air Cavalry boot to boot and they say later in the movie. Of course, we had helicopters, not horses.
That night Thorn tells Hetherington that he is being recommended for the CMH. Hetherington says he did it because the lord took hold on him. This medal was created in 1862 during the Civil War and is now referred to at the Medal of Honor. As far as I can tell no one received a MOH for the Mexican Expedition but 56 were awarded around the same time for the occupation of Veracruz.
In the morning, the cavalry lines up while the battle-hardened Mexicans wait on the walled roof of the hacienda. In the hacienda, a well-dressed Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth) gives a drink to the Mexican commander.
When the Americans attacked. a large number are killed by rifle fire before they even get near the hacienda. The formation hits piecemeal due to the terrain. Lt. William Fowler (Tab Hunter) at first orders his men into a ditch but later charges a part of the line and overruns the Mexicans. Cpl. Milo Trubee (Richard Conte) throws a bomb back at some of the Mexicans. Sgt. John Chawk (Van Heflin) used a hay wagon for cover and then attacked the line. Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York) climbed the gate under fire and opened it for the other Americans. The remaining Mexicans escaped.
After the battle, Thorn walks among the men and watches how they handle the aftermath. Col. Rogers in praying in the chapel when Thorn comes in. Rogers states that he knew Thorn’s father. Rogers asks to be recommended for a medal because he leads the charge. When Thorn refuses, Rogers becomes enraged and first says he has done a lot for Thorn and then he threatens to expose what he knows about Thorn. Rogers orders Thorn to take the five men and Ms. Geary to the railhead at Cordura. He also says that Thorn was a coward at Columbus.
Major Thorn, Lt. Fowler, Sgt. Chawk, Cpl. Trubee, privates Renziehausen and Hetherington, and Ms. Geary head out for a two-day ride. Ms. Geary has her parrot Maggie on the trip with her. Geary makes a very good case for letting her go. Thorn orders the men to stay away from Geary and Geary to stay away from the men, of course, they can’t keep eyes off of her.
On the journey Lt. Fowler asks Thorn what he thought of the battle. Thorn explains that Rogers was reckless sending his men against a position without reconnoitering the strength of the enemy and the terrain to be crossed. The lines were single and weak. So when Thorn turned down Rogers for a medal he also held back that the old commander was a fool and got a lot of men killed. The Lt. can only see the victory. The men are getting grouchy because they don’t have any tobacco and Ms. Geary is consistently smoking in front of them. Ms. Geary says she hasn’t been across the border in 8 years. She also said she had a lot of family trouble and will be a victim of the newspapers.
Most of the men don’t know why they are on the trip. Thorn keeps asking them about their bravery and why they did the things that did in battle. Ms. Geary drinks her spirits and Thorn tells the Lt. why they are going to Cordura. Chawk and Trubee try to steal the booze from Ms. Geary. He tells the men why they traveling in hopes of getting them to act right. Later that night Ms. Geary gets drunk as a monkey and reveals she is a disgraced US Senator’s daughter. She makes a lot of noise talking to her parrot about the men.
In the morning, Ms. Geary finds that someone has killed the bird. She begins screaming at the men in Spanish but no one will fess up. Thorn is mad and doesn’t allow the men breakfast or any breaks during the day. During the ride, Trubee gets an ass boil. Thorn wants Ms. Geary’s tequila bottle. She refuses but he says he has to take it anyway. They make a fire and heat the lip of the bottle. Thorn then pushes the hot end of the bottle down on the boil as Trubee howls. When Thorn brings back the tequila in a cup Ms. Geary pours it out to taunt the men.
Some time later the detail is attacked by some of the Mexican’s that fled after the battle. In the initial attack, Renziehausen’s ear is shot off. Thorn leads the men into a defensive position in a canyon. Chawk shows he has no redeeming values. Trubee wants to get transferred to the quartermaster. Then he finds out that Trubee is just as bad as Chawk. Chawk starts talking about mutiny.
In the morning Ms. Geary tells Thorn that the revolutionaries just want the horses. Thorn tells the men to cut the horses loose. The Lt. calls Thorn a coward for surrendering the horses. Chawk threatens Thorn again. The gamble works and the Mexicans head out after the horses. It should be a two-day walk to Cordura. Ms. Geary goes crazy screaming in Spanish for her friends to take her. Thorn tells the men he didn’t try to take them out because he didn’t want any of them to be killed. Hetherington is starting to get sick. Trubee brings coffee to Thorn. Trubee tells Thorn he knows about his cowardice at Columbus. Trubee wants the woman instead of the medal. Hetherington falls out and they have to make a stretcher for him. The ragged band burns their equipment and heads out.
That night Hetherington is delirious from fever. Chawk and Trubee slip away tries to rape Ms. Geary. Thorn, Lt., and Renziehausen. Trubee tells the other’s about Columbus and has the Lt. take the guns. The Lt. takes side with the men and says Thorn is on his own. Chawk tells Thorn that he is a wanted man for murder. During the night Ms. Geary helps tend to Hetherington. Thorn tells his story of Columbus and his cowardice. She quizzes him like he has been asking the men. She says one act of cowardice make a man a coward just like one brave act doesn’t make you a hero forever. Thorn says the men are still heroes and Ms. Geary says basically they are scum.
They travel another day across the desert until the come to an alkaline pond. The men drink inspire of Thorn’s warning. Later they day they make it to the railroad. Thorn is woozy from lack of sleep. They start heading down the railroad towards Cordura. Trubee tries to quit but Thorn drives them on. They eventually find and railroad handcar. They get it on the track and head out. On a rest break, Chawk throws a large knife at Thorn but misses. They have to stop for another night and the Lt. riots. He orders Chawk to follow the railroad but Chawk knocks him to the ground. Ms. Geary draws strength from Thorn’s convictions. When Thorn passes out, Ms. Geary goes and has sex with Chawk to protect Thorn.
In the morning, Thorn gives his citation book to Ms. Geary in case something happens to him. Ms. Geary is in love with Thorn and says he is the bravest man she has ever known. Hetherington recovers but he is still weak. Chawk and Renziehausen get into a fight and Thorn clubs Renziehausen. As they start out Thorn is the only one pushing the cart. The rest walk ahead. When they get to a big hill Thorn cannot push the cart up. Thorn and Ms. Geary are trying to hold it up while three men wait for a chance to jump on him. Thorn ropes himself in and starts pulling the cart up the hill. Ms. Geary is helping until Trubee trips her. The Lt hits Thorn’s feet with a rock and he is drug back down the hill by the cart. The five soldiers walk back towards Thorn. The Lt. gets ready to shoot Thorn. Chawk reminds him to look for the citation book. They take the book away from Ms. Geary and start reading the write-ups. They start having regrets. Hetherington goes on a hill and sees Cordura. Ms. Geary helps Thorn up and they all head to the town. Thorn walks towards the town and the others follow. The Lt. is crying for them not to go because his crime was the greatest of all. But the Lt. goes anyway.
So what happened? Did they get their medals or did they just get executed?
World-Famous Short Summary – No good deed goes unpunished
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Beware the moors