Chuka, an underrated western I caught for the first time as I was just starting my reviews here at Just Hit Play.
Out of the snow-capped, frigid mountains of the north, a man named Chuka (Rod Taylor) rides south into the desert. A hired gun and a saddle bum, he has not set destination but is quickly realizing he's riding into the beginnings of an Indian uprising. As he rides across the desert, Chuka stumbles across a waylaid stagecoach carrying two women, one a woman from his past many years ago, the beautiful Senora Veronica Kleitz (Luciana Paluzzi). He agrees to escort them to the nearest outpost, Fort Clendennon but has no idea what he's heading into. The fort is commanded by a former English army officer now serving in the U.S. cavalry, Colonel Valois (John Mills), who is ignoring all the telltale signs of the coming uprising. Can Chuka convince the stubborn colonel to do something or is the entire outpost doomed to be wiped out by the warring Arapaho warriors?
This was a Netflix find for me way back in 2009. I'd never heard of it despite its impressive cast, much less seen a single minute of it. It left quite an impression on me then, and it did again on this recent revisit courtesy of Encore Westerns. The biggest reason? Made on the relative cheap, it is B-L-E-A-K. This is one dark, nasty western from director Gordon Douglas. It has the feel of a TV movie, but my goodness, it doesn't pull any punches. 'Chuka' is a tough guy movie for guys. Plain and simple. There aren't heroic good guys or even despicable villains, just flawed folks in a hellish situation looking for some way -- any way really -- to get out unscathed and keep on living. If there's no way out? Well, hell, let's have a bloody finish.
One of Hollywood's more underrated tough guys and one of my favorites, Rod Taylor passed away this past January at the age of 84 after a long, distinguished career. This is a dark role even for Taylor, ranking up there with Dark of the Sun as one of his more highly charged tough guy roles. I like his Chuka character, a reflection of where the western genre was in 1967. He's not particularly heroic, thinks of himself for the most part and has a reputation as a brutal gunslinger. It's a cool part because it is so brutally efficient. He is the anti-hero, a flawed figure, and as far as westerns go, you don't see a lot of main characters who are just what they seem. Chuka is a saddle tramp, a drifter, a killer and trying not to get shot in the back because of his bloody, body-riddled past. Taylor is always an above average screen presence, and he looks to be having some fun with this darker part.
How about the rest of the cast? It isn't a huge cast -- that whole B-movie feel -- but what's there, it's pretty preemo. John Mills is the flawed outpost commander, his checkered past floating over him at all times. Redemption? You bet, no matter the cost. Ernest Borgnine has some fun too in a role he specialized over the years, the tough as nails right hand man, playing Sgt. Otto Hahnsbach, Valois' loyal NCO who's served next to him for years. The always reliable James Whitmore plays Lou Trent, the fort's drunken scout who forms a fast friendship with Chuka upon his arrival. Paluzzi unfortunately isn't given much to do other than look worried/distressed, but dang, she's gorgeous. Also look for Victoria Vetri as her traveling companion, Louis Hayward as the cowardly Major Benton, and Joseph Sirola as Baldwin, the stagecoach guard who finds himself trapped in the fort with all the others.
So that whole bleak angle....yeah, this is one rough western. There are some slower portions -- Taylor and Paluzzi reuniting just ain't as interesting -- but the focus is this isolated, lonely outpost with a small army of Arapaho warriors waiting to attack. The odds are (to say the least) stacked against them. The fort's garrison? From Mills' Valois and his officers down to the enlisted men, these are the dregs of the army, all of them screw-ups, foul-ups, thieves, killers and deserters. A massacre seems impossible unless something is done and done quickly. A brutal knockdown fight between Taylor and Borgnine is an exhausting affair and a testament to the two actors who didn't appear to use ANY stunt doubles. When the action does come along, it is surprisingly graphic. It isn't bloody, but it is quick and hard-hitting and uncomfortable. It's quite an ending.
A hidden gem of a western. Sure, it has some flaws, but I'm glad I caught up with it (again). The claustrophobic fort set is a gem, really giving a sense of being closed in by the surrounding Indians. You get a sense of the coming doom, all of it building to quite an ending. Solid cast, surprisingly dark, a refreshingly brutal change of pace. Well worth catching up with.
Chuka (1967): ***/****
Rewrite of March 2009 review