Wednesday, February 04, 2009

They Came to Cordura

They Came to Cordura posterThey Came to Cordura (1959) depicts a desperate trek by U.S. Army personnel and a civilian woman, from a Chihuahua battlefield to the military base of Cordura, Texas. Reversing the conventions of the typical Western, leading man Major Thomas Thorn is branded as a coward, yet his job is to select candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honour in the 1916 U.S. invasion of Mexico against Pancho Villa. Suspense mounts as the viewer wonders who will mutiny against Thorn under the intense physical and psychological strain of the trek, but They Came to Cordura is about more than suspense alone. The meaning of heroism, existential questions about the self, and the possibility of redemption are all raised by the quiet, tense and guilt-ridden Thorn.

They Came to Cordura begins with the exhilarating rush of a cavalry charge on a hacienda filled with rifle-bearing Villistas. The cavalry are initially mowed down by the Villistas, but brave maneuvers by a few individuals secure an American victory. Thorn (played by Gary Cooper) watches the battle through binoculars, then approaches Captain Rogers with the names of Medal of Honour candidates. These exceptionally brave men are to be taken out of action so that when the U.S. enters World War I its army will have exemplary role models. Rogers becomes angry when Thorn refuses to add his name to the list; he could have had Thorn court marshaled for cowardice in a previous battle, but instead he recommended him as the Awards Officer. Though the details of this event are still unknown, it is clear that Thorn is haunted by it. Thorn is ordered to take five Medal of Honour candidates to Cordura, plus Adelaide Geary (played by Rita Hayworth), the American hacienda owner charged by Captain Rogers with aid and comfort of the enemy.

After the initial burst of action, the rest of the two-hour film depicts how the hardships of the journey make the candidates act in ever greater juxtaposition to their new heroic titles. Thorn carries a small book in which he makes notes on the men to support their citations. On the road, he interviews them one by one, attempting, as he says, “to put [his] hand on the bare heart of heroism, to hear answers about one of the great questions that man has even asked himself: What is courage?” He pays special attention to those who are still ignorant about the journey’s purpose, reasoning that once a man has been called a hero he will assume this identity to the point of forgetting what originally motivated him. Thorn is confronted with the men’s forgetfulness and self-interest, but remains patient throughout his moral inquiry. Meanwhile, he has to keep dousing the passions that Geary arouses in the men; not only is she the object of their sex-starved desire, but her aloof and taunting attitude raises their hackles.

It is not long beofre dehydration, physical discomfort, the Villista threat and growing doubt that Thorn can lead them to Cordura cause the men's civility to degenerate. Added to this, each has given Thorn their own reasons for not wanting the medal, but he is adamant that they receive it anyway. The moral code breaks down; Geary is the victim of an attempted rape and Thorn is offered bribes. Two men have a mutinous hatred for Thorn, another two resent him, and the last is delirious with fever. Sergeant John Chawk tells Thorn that he will kill him the second he closes his eyes. Geary, who like Thorn has a murky past in need of redemption, sacrifices herself by having sex with Chawk so that Thorn can get some shut-eye. However, the men are still insane with exhaustion, and in the penultimate scene, as Thorn pulls a cart along the railway bearing the ill soldier, one man throws a rock at him, causing him to collapse and be dragged downhill. Thinking that he is dead, they seize his notebook intending to destroy evidence of their reprehensible behaviour, but what they find instead are descriptions of their better selves. It turns out that Thorn is not dead and Cordura is visible over the hill, so the men, moved by what they have read, forget about their rejection of the Medal of Honour and follow Thorn’s lead the rest of the way.

They Came to Cordura is an overtly philosophical film that asks whether people are defined by their actions or by some an inherent inner nature. When Thorn opens up to Geary, telling her how in the previous battle he jumped into a ditch amidst the gunfire, she says that one cowardly act does not make a man a coward, nor one heroic act make a man a hero. Thorn disagrees; he will never shed his identity as a coward but he will nurture the heroic kernel in the other men, despite their murderous intentions toward him. Thorn is a Christ-like figure; he is forgiving to even the most evil-minded character, and when he pulls the cart while being stoned he is an unmistakable cross-bearing Christ, sacrificing himself for the salvation of the others. Though it is never entirely resolved whether being a hero is a matter of performance or of being, Thorn at least teaches the men to recognize their potential for good. Mexico serves as nothing more than a backdrop to this philosophical odyssey. Only one Mexican is named and his screen time is brief, and little can be said about the dusty, unforgiving Chihuahuan landscape that blends seamlessly into the Texan one. Despite the historical detail of the American retribution against Pancho Villa, Mexico is merely another foreign land where Americans seek to bury their murky past and the U.S. Army undertakes punitive incursions.

Labels: , , ,