They Came to Cordura stars Gary Cooper as Major Thorn, an officer guilty of cowardice who now wants to create some real heroes. He takes five men after a 1916 battle against the Mexicans, intent on delivering them up as real-life heroes to be looked up to in the troubled years ahead. They are accompanied by a prisoner accused of helping the Mexicans - Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth). But as they travel through the difficult landscape, tempers fray and the nature of these 'heroes' becomes clear.
The first twenty minutes of this film - establishing Thorn and showing the actual battle - dragged for me. I understand why it was included but it was only when the seven set off on their trek that the film got interesting. I'm not certain we needed to see the heroic deeds in order for the rest of the film to work. Also, it's fair to say that Cooper was too old for this role, but that only makes itself blatantly clear in the final sequence. It was a decent performance but he did feel out of place.
Rita Hayworth, coming into her own towards the end of the film, was a revelation. Apart from the irritating aspect of her perfect hairstyle throughout (after days in the desert), she fulfilled her role wonderfully from the first time she sets herself against the men to the painful finale. Her act of sacrifice for Major Thorn is notable for its unshrinking honesty. There is one scene where Thorn and Adelaide are discussing what happened to label him a coward and it is stunning for its quiet intensity.
Occasionally, the soldiers become caricatures, almost pantomime villains. That can be said of the chief antagonist, Sergeant John Chawk (Van Heflin), who offers us tantalising glimpses of the man beneath but not enough to justify why he makes it his mission to not only overthrow Thorn but to kill him too. Lieutenant William Fowler (Tab Hunter) is probably the most intriguing of the detail - the man who joins the pack last and has the final line of the film.
This is a film about courage and cowardice, one that attempts to demonstrate that simply being a 'hero' or a 'coward' once in your life is not all a person is about. As Adelaide says: "One act of cowardice doesn't make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn't make a man a hero forever." That is the point of this film, and it's one it makes very well.