Chuka is chockful-a problems. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of
Fort Clendennon, 1876. Captain Robert R. Foster (Ford Rainey), having gathered information from captured Arapaho War Chief Hanu (Marco Lopez), recounts the events that led up the fort's massacre...a neat trick, since he and Hanu couldn't possibly have known what was going on in that fort since they weren't in there. Roving gunfighter Chuka (Rod Taylor), a "strange, lone man, ridden in from the North," quietly impresses Hanu when he offers food to the starving Indians when Chuka comes upon the Indians' burial ceremony in a snowstorm. Later, Chuka sees a broken-down stagecoach and goes to help; once there, he's shocked to see Senora Veronica Kleitz (Luciana Paluzzi), a woman from his troubled past, and her ward, Senorita Helena Chavez (Victoria Vetri). When the group is suddenly surrounded by an Arapaho raiding party, Chuka's previous act of simple kindness saves the travelers, when Hanu recognizes Chuka and departs without violence. Arriving at Fort Clendennon, Chuka witnesses the martial cruelty of the fort's commanding officer, Colonel Stuart Valois (John Mills), formerly with the Fifth Lancer Brigade, British Army India, and now with the U.S. Calvary: Valois has instructed his trusted aide, Sergeant Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine)--who has just whipped recaptured deserter Spivey (Michael Cole) to within an inch of his life--that henceforth, all deserters will face the firing squad. Gradually aware that he's come upon a dregs-only cavalry unit--one increasingly threatened by the starving Indians outside who will storm the fort and kill everyone just to eat--the independent Chuka is all for leaving the fort, regardless of Valois' threats and drunken insults, or a vicious fight with the loyal Hahnsbach. However, Chuka is soon drawn into Valois' vainglorious effort to prove himself courageous against the Arapaho--a move that will prove fatal for most of the fort's inhabitants.
Having spent a sizeable amount of my waking life either watching TV, or going to the movies (or watching movies on TV), it's now starting to become just a little bit more difficult for me to find a major Hollywood movie from say, the 1930s to the 1990s or so, that I haven't already caught at some point in time. If I ever did see Chuka on the afternoon or the late, late show 30 some-odd years ago or more, I don't remember it...but then again, considering how inconsequential Chuka plays in my mind after having just watched it a day ago, that lapse in memory may be entirely excusable'a pity, too, because I was quite looking forward to this disc, considering my affinity for the Western genre and for the absolutely stellar cast. How can you take those actors, place them in an efficient machine like a mid-60s big studio Western production, a machine, mind you, driven by the lead actor whose passion for the story prompted him to bank money and his own prestige on it and produce the project...and come out with such a tame, tepid product?
One might be tempted to first find fault with the story's over-familiarity and the subsequent cliches that wind up in Chuka's script. Credited to Richard Jessup (The Cincinnati Kid, the Wyoming Jones Western series and the Montgomery Nash spy novels), the script was apparently significantly reworked by producer/star Rod Taylor; I haven't read the original novel, so I can't comment on what's been changed (or how well it's been changed). Clearly, however, what shows up on the screen is a fairly routine, thoroughly recognizable variation of Beau Geste, with stock Western characters--the loner gunslinger with something to hide, the woman from his past with something to hide, the martinet C.O. with something to hide, his loyal, idolizing "son" with something to hide--dressed up in dirtier clothes and with tad more salacious pasts and more violent natures to reflect the changing 60s (but not too much "change," so that the whole family couldn't still see it at the drive-in). Cliches and re-worked plots, however, have never been deal breakers in making exciting or even meaningful movies: how those cliches and familiar stories are told can raise questionable material to at the very least "entertaining-and-that's-all" levels, and that's all that was needed with Chuka.
However, I suspect the people behind Chuka wanted to do something "different," something "more," with what could have been just a clean, enjoyable, unpretentious genre exercise. They wanted to say something within the traditional action framework, and make something "meaningful." Taking cues from the three dominant trends in the Western genre at that time, Chuka strives to hit all three...and misses all three times. Although it has the makings for these elements (big stars photographed in saturated color playing Western dress-up), Chuka certainly doesn't come off as a big, colorful cartoon of a Western, like that year's The War Wagon with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, or The Ballad of Josie, with Rod's former co-star, Doris Day, or Waterhole No. 3, with James Coburn, or Rough Night in Jericho, with Dean Martin and George Peppard. Chuka homogenized, censor-safe brutality and eroticism also can't match Sergio Leone's ultra-violent stylistics in that year's The Good , The Bad, and The Ugly, with Clint Eastwood, or its Italian cousin, Death Rides a Horse, with Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law. The somber, dour, downbeat "adult" Hollywood Westerns more concerned with messages than with action, such as that year's Hombre with Paul Newman, or Hour of the Gun, with James Garner, are probably closest to what Chuka was aiming at; however, missing a layered, complex script, backed up by a director like Martin Ritt or John Sturges who could wrestle meaning out of the action dynamics, Chuka's message about starving Indians and vainglorious soldiers and the senselessness of violence in service of personal foibles, fails to resonate on any appreciable level.
And that leads to where Chuka biggest obstacle lies: its budget. With Rod Taylor wearing three hats here--star, producer, and apparently uncredited script doctor--he needed the services of a top-notch director who would shepherd the material with the same care he obviously felt for it...and that kind of director was not Gordon Douglas at this point in his career. A genial, genre-hopping journeyman whose scattershot output was widely dependent on the team assembled prior to his involvement (and whom the studios loved for his no-drama, on-budget shoots), Douglas could swing wildly from classics like the Our Gang two-reelers and Them!, to relatively undemanding but consistently entertaining fare like San Quentin, I Was a Communist for the FBI, Young at Heart, Follow That Dream, Tony Rome and In Like Flint (Douglas' two other entries with Chuka for 1967), The Detective, and Skullduggery...to absolute junk like Sincerely Yours, Bombers B-52, The Sins of Rachel Cade, Call Me Bwana, Harlow, Way...Way Out, Stagecoach, and They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!. Here, in Chuka, Douglas fails to create even the semblance of a fatalistic, seethingly violent mood, with the banality of his deadly pacing and the D.O.A. rhythm of individual scenes, vying with the TV compositions of his frames, to see which one can put the viewer to sleep first (and when he does have some action here, such as the long fistfight between Taylor and Borgnine, it's a hysterical hoot, full of outrageously unrealistic punches and much grotesque--and grotesquely funny--grimacing and snorting from hambones Borgnine and Taylor).
Even taking all of those drawbacks into consideration, one might hope to at least enjoy Chuka on a purely visual level, considering it's a major studio release from a time period when veteran studio craftsmen could make even TV series look lush and glossy. At least we can breathe in a Western, and enjoy watching a horse trot along a desert canyon against the backdrop of a sinking fireball sun, or see the dust kick up in a spit of gunfire as the vast mountain ranges echo the blasts. So...what the hell is Chuka doing on that crappy little studio fort set? The handful of actual desert location shots here do nothing to "open up" the movie--an absolute requirement for a genre that is centralized around the concept of wild, endless spaces--while the too-clean, too-bright, too-plastic fort mock-up looks like a giant Marx Toys cowboys-and-indians playset, with the actors reduced to Lilliputian proportions. Even largely studio-bound TV Western series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza did most of their shooting outside on the back lot, giving some semblance of heat and air and dust; Chuka, on the other hand, is hermetically sealed, where the set decoration (if you can call it that) resembles a high school play production, and the cheap, fast lighting simulates a TV sitcom.
How, then, with all these roadblocks, can the actors succeed in creating dimensional characters we believe in and root for? Well...they can't, and that's tough to write because Taylor, Mills, and Borgnine are particular favorites of mine. Mills, as a cowardly, drunken eunuch (yep), does a twitchy, labored facsimile of his award-winning turn in Tunes of Glory; Borgnine is competent and not one little bit more as he phones in his undemanding role; future Mod Squad idol Michael Cole is laughably bad, giving a poor imitation of Michael Callan imitating Michael Parks imitating James Dean imitating Marlon Brando; and Paluzzi, gorgeous and embalmed in her endless, staring close-ups, is again wasted in a do-nothing Hollywood part until her one pathetic "sex scene" with "Hot Rod" Taylor, where for about four seconds you can see how erotic she could be when given full rein...before the editor reins her in by fading to black. As for Taylor, Chuka was an attempt by the actor to gradually move into tough-guy, character/lead parts, and he certainly looks disheveled most of the time (...while sometimes looking suspiciously like he's got half a bag on). The script patiently tells us time and again how dangerous Chuka is, but brawny Taylor conveys that without the unnecessary dialogue. It's a good fit for him, but unfortunately, he isn't working with a director who's strong enough to tamp down some of Taylor's more enthusiastic mugging, resulting in a performance that fluctuates quite wildly. Considering the overall moribund nature of Chuka, however, maybe we should at least be thankful for Taylor occasionally chewing up the sets.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.