They Came to Cordura (1959): Robert Rossen’s Psychological Western, Starring Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin and Tab Hunter–Gay

Robert Rossen directed and co-wrote They Came to Cordura a psychological Western made in the last career phase of Gary Cooper, co-starring Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin and Tab Hunter.

They Came to Cordura
They Came to Cordura FilmPoster.jpeg

Based on the 1958 novel by Glendon Swarthout, the tale is set in 1916, when U.S. soldiers chase after Pancho Villa.  Cooper plays Army Major Thomas Thorn, who’s assigned with observing the battlefield and reward heroism. He has been recommended for the position by the old Colonel Rogers (Robert Keith), who’s impatiently to be promoted to general before his retirement.

Rogers leads his regiment in poorly planned Cavalry charge on Ojos Azules, a villa owned by the hospitable Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth) where Villa’s men withdrew after victory over Mexican government troops.

Thorn, excused from fighting, observes various acts of heroism by Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter), Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Cpl. Trubee (Richard Conte) and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York) in defeating Villa’s men.

Rogers is furious when Thorn won’t nominate him for citation, claiming that leading his regiment was “in the line of duty,” but that the Medal of Honor is awarded for heroism “above and beyond the call of duty.”  Rogers had protected Thorn from  investigation for cowardice, which he did out of respect for Thorn’s father.

The squabbling between Thorn and the men, who are hostile to him, threatens to destroy them all. Then, some harrowing incidents make it clear that the apparent heroes were motivated by ambition, terror, or chance, while it is the disgraced Thorn who possesses moral courage.

In the end, the men learn personal, not physical, courage from Thorn’s example.

Gay Overtones

Cooper’s character was supposed to have been in a prior homosexual affair with the character by Tab Hunter, but concerned with his screen image, he insisted that his character be “toughened up.”

Gary Cooper as Major Thomas Thorn
Rita Hayworth as Adelaide Geary
Van Heflin as Sgt. John Chawk
Tab Hunter as Lt. William Fowler
Richard Conte as Cpl. Milo Trubee
Michael Callan as Pvt. Andrew Hetherington
Dick York as Pvt. Renziehausen
Robert Keith as Col. Rogers
Carlos Romero as Arreaga
James Bannon as Capt. Paltz
Edward Platt as Col. DeRose
Maurice Jara as Mexican Federale
Sam Buffington as First Correspondent
Arthur Hanson as Second Correspondent


Directed by Robert Rossen
Produced by William Goetz
Screenplay by Ivan Moffat and Robert Rossen, based on Glendon Swarthout novel
Music by Elie Siegmeister
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Edited by William A. Lyon

Production company: Goetz Pictures, Baroda Productions

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: October 21, 1959

Running time: 123 minutes