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December 15, 2007

Chuka

chuka 1.jpg

Gordon Douglas - 1967
Paramount Region 1 DVD

It's the 100th birthday of Gordon Douglas, and the director who started his career working for Hal Roach may be getting the last laugh. While Andrew Sarris consigned Douglas to the "Miscellany" section of his book , The American Cinema, Douglas' craftmanship and efficiency would be an improvement over much of what passes for mainstream filmmaking today. Douglas' filmography is remarkable if only for some of the entertainers he directed, not simply movie stars, but multi-talents Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and five films (including three in a row) with Frank Sinatra. Douglas also helmed Rio Conchos, the debut film football star, Jim Brown, in 1964. Brown returned the favor by having Douglas direct Slaughter's Big Rip-Off when Brown became a star of blaxploitation films. Douglas most beloved film involved the direction of giant radioactive ants in Them!.

Of the three films directed by Douglas in the productive year of 1967, Chuka is eclipsed by the better remembered In Like Flint and Tony Rome. In placing the film with other Douglas films Sarris has cited such as Young at Heart and Come Fill the Cup, Chuka is of more thematic interest and consistency. Even more so than Douglas' more serious films, the characters of Chuka simultaneously face both inner demons and an insurmountable outside threat.

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While the main narrative is told as a flashback, Rod Taylor as the title character is first seen riding his horse in the snow. Nature is one of the uncontrollable forces in Chuka, be it snow, sand storms, fire, or the constant wind. Most of the film takes place in a remote fort commanded by John Mills, a last ditch assignment for all of the soldiers. A wagon train with two women finds that the temporary stop has been extended out of concern for an imminent Indian attack. It is revealed early on that the Indian attack has been motivated out of starvation. Chuka's sharing of some meat with a band of Indians encountered in the snow in the beginning of the film temporarily gives him some measure of protection.

As a western, Chuka was part of a general trend of films that challenged some of the genre conventions. While neither as epic as Cheyenne Autumn nor stylized as Welcome to Hard Times, Chuka was one of the films to take steps towards more graphic violence, and less obscure sexuality. The greater drama in the film is not the threat of the Indian attack, but of the characters in the fort revealing their particular truths, their strengths and weaknesses. What also makes Chuka something of a departure in the genre is the deliberately ambiguous ending - someone is buried at the fort, but the identity of the person or persons is never revealed.

The film is helped by the strong casting of Taylor, with John Mills and Ernest Borgnine as the fort commander and his loyal Sergeant respectively. Chuka also provided Douglas the opportunity to work again with James Whitmore and Louis Hayward. Curiously, Luciana Paluzzi and Mills would work together again in the proto-giallo, A Black Veil for Lisa. Chuka came and went at a time when Bonnie and Clyde was the major film of that summer. Gordon Douglas may not have had the ambitions of Arthur Penn, but there is enough visual artistry to remind one that Douglas could display his talent within the right opportunities.

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Posted by peter at December 15, 2007 12:18 AM

Comments

Hello.By chance I have bumped aud of her side.This film finds I splendidly.Why this film as a B-Movie appeared a riddle remains to me.Unfortuna,there is not this film in Germany (DVD).With pleasure I would have this film in German.Many greetings Maik.

Posted by: Maik at March 8, 2009 12:23 PM

Saw this film when It came out. It dos'nt turn up much on tv-the ending still puzzles me! But Rod Taylor is a great actor-good at playing americans, brits and,of course, australians.

Sir John Mills, Ernest Borgnine etc, all very good as always.

Posted by: Stuart E Wright at September 24, 2009 06:39 AM

Saw this film when It came out. It dos'nt turn up much on tv-the ending still puzzles me! But Rod Taylor is a great actor-good at playing americans, brits and,of course, australians.

Sir John Mills, Ernest Borgnine etc, all very good as always.

Posted by: Stuart E Wright at September 24, 2009 06:39 AM