Paramount // 1967 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Steve Evans (Retired) // June 23rd, 2006
Of his kind Chuka's the best there is. At fighting. At loving. And when it had to be -- at killing!
Rod Taylor (The Birds) co-produced this 1967 western and delivers a rich performance as the titular gunslinger. Too bad the melodrama drags down an otherwise interesting film on the cusp of a relaxed production code.
Renegade gunfighter Chuka tries to make peace between the starving Indians and the commander of a frontier fort whose by-the-book military doggerel puts everyone under his command in danger. The fort is manned by military losers and malcontents who've pulled duty at this particular outpost because of their incompetence elsewhere.
The commander (John Mills, Ghandi) is an alcoholic Englishman who resolves to defend the fort and dispel longstanding rumors about his cowardice, which has ruined his career. His sergeant (Ernest Borgnine, The Wild Bunch) harbors a shameful secret of his own. The sergeant is still willing to follow his commanding officer into certain death and will take his soldiers over the edge with him, if so ordered.
Chuka insists everyone can be saved and bloodshed avoided if they abandon the fort and leave behind food, rifles and ammunition. That's all the Indians want in order to save their tribe. Peace may be preferable, but they're willing to massacre everyone in the fort if necessary.
Chuka's problems are compounded by the arrival of his long-lost lover, a beautiful Mexican aristocrat (Luciana Paluzzi, Thunderball) and her ward (Angela Dorian). In an efficient recounting of the back story, we learn Chuka and the wealthy woman were in love years ago when she lived on her father's ranch. At the time, her father considered lowly ranch hand Chuka an inadequate suitor, so the embittered young man left the ranch and reinvented himself as a gunslinger-for-hire. Only in the cinematic realm of essential plot coincidences would Chuka's former lover turn up at a fort about to fall under siege by a hostile Indian tribe.
Chuka delivers real western grit and surprising violence, but is undone in the end by a simplistic script that harkens to cowboy pictures made three decades earlier. In some ways Chuka was ahead of its time with psychically damaged characters, realistic dialogue, and believable settings. Problem is, these interesting characteristics become lost in a contrived script by Richard Jessup, adapted from his novel.
It's clear that director Gordon Willis (Them!) wanted to push the envelope. He elicits strong, even heartfelt performances from his principal cast, especially Borgnine, whose talents as a craggy character actor are without equal. While Borgnine could carry a picture (and did in his Oscar-winning turn in Marty), he excelled at second-fiddle roles that allowed him to play off the star -- Taylor in this film and, a couple of years later, William Holden in The Wild Bunch. Borgnine provides superb support to almost every film graced with his screen presence. The film also features James Whitmore in a small role as a sarcastic desert rat. Whitmore had worked with the director a decade earlier in his giant-ant thriller Them! (he was chomped to death in a big bug's mandibles).
Taylor delivers an intelligent, nuanced performance as the angry Chuka, a man who's been dealt a bad hand and will not hesitate to kill anyone foolish enough to challenge him. This is easily among Taylor's finest roles, proving that he could be much more than a good-looking, two-fisted hero (The Time Machine, or any of Doris Day's interchangeable boyfriends). On the downside, Luciana Paluzzi is a thespian lightweight, seen here in her steady decline into caricature. The lovely but vapid Italian actress first gained notice with American audiences as James Bond's one-night stand and eventual nemesis in Thunderball (Can my friend sit this one out? She's just dead."). That was 1965. Two years later she's in Chuka as a one-note love interest, more worthy of hot lovin' than enduring romance. By 1968, she would be found in goofy low-budget nonsense like the Japanese-American produced The Green Slime, a notoriously silly science fiction film that deserves at least one viewing for the title alone.
There's an almost seamless blend of location and studio work, especially during the climactic shootout.
The sharp video transfer is free of artifacts and annoying pixilation. This is a good-looking picture, vibrant with rich color and deep, true blacks. Audio is clean but unspectacular in the original mono. There are no extras on the disc.
Chuka is ultimately hampered by a melodramatic plot and a censoring production code that hobbled ambitious films of period by limiting how much adult-oriented material could be said or shown. Two more years would make all the difference, as Sam Peckinpah wrote and directed The Wild Bunch in 1969, forever changing the portrayal of violence in westerns in particular and movies in general at the moment the studios' self-imposed ratings code came into place.
Chuka represents an interesting transitional point for the western genre. Plotwise, the film is stuck in the traditions of the past, while the actual production points the way for the future. Careful viewers will perceive trace elements of Chuka in later, better films, especially those directed by Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven spring to mind).
Guilty of cliché, but acquitted by this compassionate court for the filmmakers' mighty efforts to transcend a mediocre script.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated