“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.”
This pride has a bittersweet feeling for me since it also doubles as the fifth anniversary of the death of Tab Hunter. One of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs of the 1950s, the actor started his career as a contract player at Warner Bros. before making a name for himself as a full-fledged leading man. His work in films such as Damn Yankees, Lafayette Escadrille, and That Kind of Woman was sold on his all-American image, which usually ensured audience interest. His frequent pairings with Natalie Wood made him the object of desire to countless female fans, while away from the studio, Hunter worked at his craft by starring in live television plays (not too often done by major movie stars) and stage productions.
As most fans now know, the greatest role Tab Hunter ever played was Tab Hunter. For the majority of his life and career, Hunter was successful at keeping the fact that he was homosexual a secret, thereby forcing himself to play a part even when he wasn’t on a set. It wouldn’t be until the mid-00s that the matinee idol would reveal his sexuality to the world. If the secret he fought so hard to protect caused him to channel any anguish or nervous energy into his work, it showed. Throughout his career, Hunter fought against his dreamboat looks to be taken seriously as an actor, giving a series of performances that only grew stronger and deeper the more he delved into his craft.
Recently, Kino Lorber released a new Blu-Ray reissue of 1958’s They Came to Cordura, a stirring western that also features one of Hunter’s best performances. Set during the 1916 U.S. war against Pancho Villa, an officer (Gary Cooper) is tasked with recommending four men for the Congressional Medal of Honor and guiding them and a prisoner (Rita Hayworth) to the town of Cordura. During the trek, however, the definition of honor is tested by each individual.
They Came to Cordura got some much-publicized criticism (most famously from John Wayne) at the time of its release, and it’s easy to see why. The film (much like the novel it’s based on) challenges the notion of honor as well as those who are deemed fit enough to declare a soldier a hero. The film exposes the dark side of those men who are classified with the label of hero, exploring what their mentality has become as a result of what they’ve witnessed and experienced. The movie’s unflinching look at how a man’s humanity can be torn away remains hard to take but also offers up a fascinating insight into the cost of battle most would prefer not to acknowledge.
In the film, Hunter plays Lt. Fowler, whose fearless acts during battle have earned him a citation for the Congressional Medal of Honor. This stuns him at first. Of all the men being led to Cordura, it’s his arc which feels the most full circle. Fowler is a man beholden to both his pride and arrogance. He’s a determined soldier who defines his existence by his heroism. Fowler is humble, but also strategic, with the former characteristic shielding the latter. Like most servicemen, Fowler is careful with his emotions. He lives and dies by the military code, but when his character turn happens, it’s not without him facing his conflict between loyalty to duty and pure primal instinct. When he eventually gives in to the intensity of the situation he’s in, he begins to lose his grip on his sanity and becomes the antithesis of who he thought he was.
Fowler proves to be the film’s most plum part, and Hunter seemed to have realized this by the way he takes charge of the character. The actor carefully guides Fowler through his situation with an air of empathy that allows the audience to see how someone like Fowler can end up being pushed to the brink, mentally. The sensitivity Hunter shows towards his character echoes the maturity he’d developed as an actor by that point. With They Came to Cordura, the pinup boy for thousands of female movie fans had turned into a student of acting with the ability to turn out a compelling character portrait that in a just world would have garnered him an Oscar nomination. Perhaps the reason Hunter’s work is so good in the film is because it’s slightly reminiscent of his own struggle with himself.
They Came to Cordura should have done more for Hunter than it did. Despite what may be his best performance on screen, the actor was never able to shake that pretty boy image that largely defined his career in the eyes of others. Apart from a supporting role opposite Fred Astaire and Debbie Reynolds in the romantic comedy The Pleasure of His Company, Hunter found himself relegated to lower-quality films as a result of audiences’ changing tastes. However, his resurgence thanks to his work in the likes of Polyester, Lust in the Dust, and Grease 2 made him an icon for a new generation.
What’s always been interesting about Hunter’s coming out was that it was done without much ceremony. The coming out of someone as adored and lusted after for decades as Hunter was should have had more of a bombshell factor than it did. But the response to Hunter’s revelation mirrored that of the life he led following his announcement, which was itself quiet, grounded, and peaceful. It’s fair to say that Hunter wasn’t the biggest flag-waver the community ever had. Still, there’s something so undeniably inspiring about someone finally living the life they were always meant to after spending decades letting their outward persona define them. That will always be worth celebrating.
They Came to Cordura is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.