They Came to Cordura (1959)



Director:     Robert Rossen. 

Starring:     Gary Cooper (Maj. Thomas Thorn),  Rita Hayworth (Adelaide Geary),  Van Heflin (Sgt. John Chawk),  Tab Hunter (Lt. William Fowler),  Richard Conte (Cpl. Milo Trubee),  Michael Callan (Pvt. Andrew Hetherington),  Dick York (Pvt. Renziehausen),  Robert Keith (Col. Rogers),  Carlos Romero (Arreaga),  Jim Bannon (Capt. Paltz),  Edward Platt (Col. DeRose). 

story of courage or the lack of it set during raiding activities of Pancho Villa along the Mexico/USA border


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

"On the night of March 8th, 1916, a large mounted force of Mexican rebels under Pancho Villa crossed the American border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing and wounding both American civilians and soldiers.  As a result of this action, the United States army sent an expedition into Mexico with orders to capture Villa and disperse his forces.  It was during this campaign that one man, an United States army officer, was forced to come face to face with two the the great fundamental questions that affect mankind:  What is courage?  What is cowardice?  This is the story of his search for an answer."   

On the Ojos Azules (blue eyes) ranch a group of the US Army men, along with two reporters, are conferring over a map.  Col. DeRose says that Col. Rogers is 30 miles southwest of them.  Two or three hundred Mexicans under two of Villa's generals attacked the town of Carrizal yesterday.  They defeated the Mexican regulars and then moved on to the ranch.  Major Tom Thorn comes up and is introduced to the reporters.  Thorn is the awards officer designated by General Pershing.  He has a candidate for a Congressional Medal of Honor with him and he wants to send the man to their base at Cordura so he doesn't get killed before he can receive the medal.

Col. Rogers sends a message asking for permission to attack.  Col. DeRose gives his permission.  Thorn tells DeRose that he can catch up with Rogers at the base of the mountain at Cusihuiriachic.  One of the reporters tells DeRose that he wants to do a story on Thorn, but DeRose says no and he refuses to say why.  The reporters complain of censorship to each other. 

Thorn, riding with the to-be-designated heroe Pvt. Andrew L. Hetherington, catches up with Rogers, who is busy interrogating some Mexicans about the size of Villa's force.  One Mexican says 100, another 200 and still another says 400.  The Mexicans work for the Ojos Azules Ranch and Rogers says that the owner Adelaide Geary is giving aid to the enemy.  Tomorrow the unit will march up to the top of the mountain and have a good old cavalry charge against the enemy at the ranch.  

Thorn talks with Hetherington and asks him why did he go above and beyond the call of duty at Guerrero.  The question upsets Hetherington and he cries.  He pulls himself together and tells Thorn that at Guerrero the Lord took hold of him once again after he had lost the faith of his strict preacher father. 

The men start moving up the mountain.  The Mexicans under Arreaga know they are coming and are waiting for them.  Adelaide Geary is there with them. The American cavalry makes a charge on an entrenched position, which is almost always fool-hardy.  As they get closer the Mexicans open fire on the cavalry.  There are many ditches and the horses are slowed down considerably.  The unit starts taking heavy casualties.  Lt. William Fowler has some of the men take cover.  He makes a one man charge on an enemy position and is followed by his men.  Cpl. Milo Trubee rides right up to the walls of the settlement and jumps off his horse into a little niche in the wall.  Another man scales the walls successfully and opens the gates for the Americans.  Arreaga and his men go out a back gate. 

Col. Rogers is very proud of his victory and he asks Thorn if he could put him in for a medal.  This would help Rogers be made a general.  Thorn explains that leading a cavalry charge as the commander is not an official basis for a medal.  But he is citing four men for medals:  Lt. William Fowler, Sgt. John Chawk, Cpl. Milo Trubee and Pvt. Wilbur Renziehausen.  Col. Rogers now gets mad at Thorn and says that he has done more than anyone to help Thorn.  He suggests that someone might put two and two together and possibly embarrass Thorn.  Thorn won't budge.  He asks that someone take the four men to Cordura, but Rogers just tells him to take them himself.  Thorn protests that there may be a fight at Peloncillos and he needs to observe it.  Rogers doesn't care.  He restates his order and then tells Thorn to take the Geary woman with him.  She will be charged with aid and comfort to the enemy.  Rogers goes on to say that Thorn is an awards officer because he recommended Thorn for the position.   He could have ordered a court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy, but he didn't.  It seems that Rogers is trying to blackmail Thorn into giving him a medal for bravery. 

The five men and one woman move out in the morning.  The journey will take two days.  Adelaide asks Thorn to let her go because Rogers doesn't have the authority to arrest her and the charges against her will never hold up.  After all, they are not at war with Mexico.  Thorn won't let her go.  He tells her she is much too logical for a woman and to stay away from the men.  

At a rest stop Lt. Fowler asks Thorn what he thought of the battle.  Thorn says it was a farce.  This shocks Lt. Fowler a bit.  He asks what's this detail all about.  Thorn tells him he will tell the Lieutenant in time.  The men are mad at Geary because they have no smokes and she smokes little cigars right in front of them.  Before moving out, Geary tells Thorn that her family had developed a deserved bad reputation in the United States.  She has not been in the States for eight years.  The charges against her will not stick, but the newspapers will hang her and her reputation.  She offers him a $1,000 dollar bribe.  Thorn only tells her:  "That wasn't a good idea."   She now begs him to let her go.  That doesn't work either.  So she starts to call him some bad names and rides away from the men.  One of the men goes after her.  Thorn stops Sgt. Chawk from shooting her in the back as an escaped prisoner. 

At night Chawk and Trubee try to get a rise out of Geary by asking her in Spanish how much does she charge, but Geary remains cool.  Thorn interviews Renziehausen and asks him why did he go above and beyond his duty.  He isn't able to tell Thorn what it was.  Lt. Fowler tells Thorn that he should be told what is the purpose of this detail.  Thorn agrees and tells him.  He also tells Fowler to keep it quiet. 

Chawk takes a bottle of liquor from Geary and won't give it back when she protests.  Thorn has to order Chawk to give him the bottle.  Chawk asks Thorn whose side he is on.  Thorn scolds all the men for acting like a bunch of squaws.  The Major now decides to tell everyone the purpose of the detail. 

Geary drinks so much that she gets drunk.  She tells Thorn that her father was a United States Senator and a very rich man.  But in 1908 he was convicted of selling Indian lands.  She herself has been married three times. 

In the morning Geary wakes to find that her parrot has been strangled to death.  She shouts "cowards" at the men in Spanish and cries.  Thorn asks who did it, but there is no answer.  He is really angry at the men, so they will have no breakfast and there will be no breaks. 

On the ride Trubee complains about a boil.  Thorn stops the column to check out the boil.  He asks Geary for the tequila to help disinfect the boil.  She hates Chawk and Trubee so much that she refuses.  Thorn warns her he will have to take it from her, so she gives him the bottle.  Lt. Fowler asks Thorn to take  his name off the list of possible medal recipients, but Thorn refuses. Thorn lances the boil. 

Riding on the men are attacked by a large band of Mexicans under Arrega.    Renziehausen is shot in the ear.  The Americans take up a defensive position.  While waiting to see what the Mexicans are planning, Chawk continues giving the Major a hard time.  The Sergeant is definitely insubordinate.  He says if the Major won't guide them out of there, then he will.  Thorn says not while I'm alive you won't.

Geary tells Thorn that the Mexicans are after the horses and he should let the enemy have them.  Thorn has the animals released, but only after Lt. Fowler protests that this is an act of cowardice.  Chawk tells Thorn:  "If this don't work, this is the last order you're ever going to give." 

With the horses released, the Mexicans immediately go after them.  Geary runs toward Arreaga calling his name and telling him to come with his men and to wait for her.  The men chase her down and bring her back.  The men now have 40 miles to walk.  They will walk to the Tex-Mex railroad and reach it by tomorrow afternoon.  Then they will follow the railway all the way back to their base.  He tells the men that they will be heroes for the Americans.  It is his duty to see them come back alive.  And only because of this did he chose not to fight the Mexicans. 

Trubee now tries to blackmail Thorn because he knows about the charge of cowardice.  He has two demands.  He does not want a medal and he wants to have sex with Geary.  They are interrupted by Heatherington fainting.  He has typhus and the men will have to carry him from now on.    They have some quinine for him which helps.  Chawk and Trubeee capture Geary with the intent of raping her.  Thorn intervenes with his pistol.  He tells Chawk if he has any more trouble with him he will prefer charges against him.  Trubee intervenes and tells the men that Thorn was a coward at Columbus.  The Corporal suggests that they overpower the Major and get home by themselves. 

Thorn has a very reluctant Lt. Fowler disarm all the men and throw their weapons away.  Chawk threatens the Major again. 

At night Fowler turns against Thorn.  He will not share night guard with him.  He won't participate in any attempt by the men on Thorn's life, but he won't lift a finger to prevent it.  Chawk then tells Thorn that he can't get the medal because his picture will be in the paper and he is wanted for murder.  He then tries to throw ashes into Thorn's face to overpower him, but Thorn moves away in time.  Chawk tells him that he has got to kill Thorn. 

Thorn asks Geary for help with the sick man.  She helps nurse him.  Geary asks Thorn if he wants to tell her about Columbus and Thorn launches right into his tale.  Pancho Villa descended on them at night and he took cover in a ditch.  When he left the ditch he had become a coward.  Geary says that one act of cowardice does not make a man a coward forever, just as one act of heroism doesn't make a man a hero in every situation.  She can't believe that he still has loyalty to these "heroes" after the way they have acted.  She says that Thorn is still in that ditch, unable, or too afraid, to come out of it.  Geary tells him:  "Heroes?  Saints living in the desert?  Oh, my God.  They tried to rape me and blackmail you.  . . . No, Thorn, they're only men.  And damn poor specimens at that."  But Thorn still says that their heroism is something that redeems them.  Geary goes to get some sleep.  Thorn gets very sleepy and Chawk sits nearby waiting like a vulture to pounce. 

The next day the men find some water and start drinking it.  Thorn warns them it's alkaline and will make them all sick, but they just don't believe the Major.   They reach the railway.  Another incidence of insubordination takes place.  Thorn threatens to shoot Turbee if he doesn't get up and help carry Heatherington. 

The guys find one of those railway carts.  They fix it up and get it running.  At a rest stop, Chawk throws a knife at the Major.  Geary warns him and he is able to avoid the knife.

Now the Lieutenant openly discusses rebellion in front of the Major.  He gives Chawk an order to walk to the nearest town behind them, but Chawk just trips him and tells Fowler to go to sleep.  Geary now says she can't go on.  She's says they can all die:  "They can get their medals in hell because that's where they're going."  She tells Thorn that he is military crazy and she hopes the men kill him and put him out of his misery.  Finally, she tells Thorn to give her the gun and she will stand guard.  Thorn refuses.

To give Thorn some sleep, she has sex with Chawk during the night.  When Thorn wakes up she tells him that Ojos Azules was her culvert in which she hid from the world.  He gives Geary his citation book just in case anything happens to him.  She says to him:  "You're the bravest man I've ever known."   Chawk starts picking on Renziehausen about his ear and the two men fight.  Instead of knocking Chawk out, Thorn knocks out Renziehausen to stop the fight.   

The men say they won't help with the cart, so Thorn has them walk in front of it.  Thorn can't keep the cart moving, so he puts a rope around himself and pulls the cart by himself.  Geary tells him to stop or he will kill himself.   The men are plotting a take-over.  The Lieutenant throws a huge rock at Thorn.  It hits him on the foot, he drops and the cart starts dragging him backwards.  He is finally able to stop it.  Now the men approach him to look at him.  The Lieutenant takes his weapon.  He makes up a story for everyone to tell the authorities.  He makes a deal with Geary to let her go if she won't tell on them.  He then takes the citation book from her.

The men read through the book.  They are surprised that Thorn was so generous in his written descriptions of them.  From a hill, Heatherington discovers that they are near Cordura.  Thorn gets up and walks to the top of the hill.  He sees Cordura and starts walking toward it.  Everyone else, except the Lieutenant, follows him.  The Lieutenant tells them to stop.  He calls them fools.  They will all be court-martialed and hanged!  The men just keep on walking and the Lieutenant goes with them. 


Good movie, but I have some serious reservations.  Major Thorn is such a wimp, so damaged by his guilt over his cowardice at Columbus that he does not behave as an officer should.  Being stranded and having to walk back to Cordura, the men tell him that they are going to kill him.  He does not take one disciplinary action against any of these treacherous men.  The men may have been heroes in battle but they are all cowards, cry babies and criminals (except for the sick man and Renziehausen).  Instead of trying to cooperate to get themselves out of the mess they are in, all they do is plot rebellion.  And Thorn has much of the blame for this as he fails to discipline the men.  The only actions he takes are in pure self-defense.  Thorn may be a brave man in some respects, but he certainly is a fool and a mental weakling.  His failures of leadership could have led to all their deaths.  I certainly would have tied up the most rebellious of the men at night, at least in self-defense if nothing else and made a deal with Geary to spell me on night watch.  .

Adelaide Geary's behavior also seemed foolish and short-sighted.  She had every reason to fear for her life, but she does not insist that Thorn shape up to protect her, himself and, ultimately, everyone else.  I found the script just not to be believable.  The only thing that saved Thorn was that they had reached Cordura by the time the men were all set to kill Thorn and leave his body behind for the vultures.  The acting was good all around, but it's too bad the story wasn't as good. 

Not much history here.  And the thing is that the American army was never able to catch Villa and his men.  There were no big American victories. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

See  Viva Villa! (1934).


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