In one of his last performances, Cooper appears in this adaptation of a best-selling novel as an officer during the punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa in 1916. He has a moment of hesitation in battle and is branded a coward, but his commanding officer, Keith, is eager for promotion to general, so he assigns Cooper to duty researching and...read more
In one of his last performances, Cooper appears in this adaptation of a best-selling novel as an officer during the punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa in 1916. He has a moment of hesitation in battle and is branded a coward, but his commanding officer, Keith, is eager
for promotion to general, so he assigns Cooper to duty researching and writing up awards, one of which he expects to receive himself in return for not sending Cooper packing in disgrace. Furthermore, the Army is eager to come up with some heroes for America's imminent involvement in WW I. Cooper
chooses five men who displayed courage above and beyond the call of duty during an assault on a house occupied by some of Villa's men. The five are to be nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. As he brings them back to base, Cooper tries to fathom what made these men heroes and himself a
coward. When he arrives at headquarters, Keith, angry at Cooper for not nominating him for a medal, orders the major to accompany the group to the rear area at Cordura. It is clear from his tone that he expects them all to die in the desert during the long trek. With them is Hayworth, the daughter
of a disgraced US senator and the owner of the hacienda where Villa's men were holed up; she is to be brought to trial as a traitor. As they travel through the awesomely forbidding desert, Cooper still probing for the spark of heroism in these men, all order begins to break down. The heroes all
begin to show their worst sides, while Cooper demonstrates his real strength. Sergeant Heflin turns out to be a wanted murderer who joined the Army seeking anonymity and is willing to kill to keep his picture out of the papers. Young lieutenant Hunter doesn't want the award because he thinks it
will ruin his Army career by intimidating colleagues. Cooper is reduced to keeping the mutinous group together at gunpoint after Conte and Heflin try to rape Hayworth, but with Cooper desperate for sleep and Heflin just waiting to kill him, Hayworth gives herself to the sergeant to give Cooper a
chance to rest. Eventually, Cooper triumphs and brings his charges safely into Cordura.
Cooper was in frail health during shooting, and the agony he brings to the part, especially when he pulls a railroad car with a long rope, is hard to bear. The film certainly had promising material (a novel written by a man who had performed the same award-writing feat as Cooper, but during WW
II), but the intelligent film that director Rossen made was raped in the cutting room and flopped with the public. Rossen bought back his own film and planned to recut it the way he had originally intended, but he died before his plans could be realized. The shooting went far over budget and
behind schedule when the first desert location chosen, St. George, Utah, had a record-setting cold snap. They then moved to Las Vegas and filmed outside of town, reshooting almost everything from the first location. Although not a wonderfully good movie, it somehow has power, thanks to Cooper. The
film ended up losing more than $5 million.
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