Chuka (1967) ****

I’m astonished this highly original western has disappeared into critical oblivion. As cruel as it is unusual, overturning every cliché, brimming with realism, more drama that action, some stunning scenes, and an ending only the bold would ever consider, this is desperately in need of reappraisal.

A refuge becomes a trap. The hero never wins. A spurned lover remains spurned. The cavalry are the dregs of society. Nobody listens to common sense. There’s no sending for help to relieve the beleaguered garrison. What chance does anyone have when the commanding officer is proud to die “by the book” rather than engineer a simple escape.

Gunslinger Chuka (Rod Taylor), arriving from the wintry north, shares some of his provisions with starving Arapaho Native Americans, comes upon a broken down stage containing two high-born Mexicans en route to California, Veronica (Luciana Paluzzi) and Helena (Victoria Vetri), his presence, thanks to that simple act of generosity, ensuring the marauding Arapahoes spare their lives. At the fort, a deserter is being whipped on the orders of martinet English commander Col Valois (John Mills). A patrol has failed to return so Valois won’t let the newcomers leave.

Chuka, sympathetic to the situation of the starving Arapahoes, suggests the colonel gives them food and sufficient weapons to allow them to hunt their own food. Veronica, now a widow, turns out to be Chuka’s long-lost love. Romance beckons but his unsavory occupation turns her stomach. Hired gun Chuka is not the only one to exploit need. Major Benson (Louis Hayward), the fort’s second-in-command, has a squaw (Herlinda Del Carmen), trading shelter for sex, stashed away.

Valois convenes a dinner party in honor of his guests – “I miss conversation and the elegance of dining in mixed company” – only to torpedo the occasion by revealing “what a uniform can conceal,” the sins of his officers: Benson a card cheat, Lt Daly (Gerald York) court-martialed for treason, the company doctor a coward. An arrow through the window ends dinner prematurely, Chuka demonstrating his skills in shooting the perpetrators.

Bit of artistic license here – Luciana Paluzzi is buttoned up all the way, no naked back,
and Rod Taylor is not quite so athletic.

Honor plays no part in Chuka’s life and he refuses to help out Valois unless paid $200, enough he thinks to start life afresh with Veronica, and only after a knockdown no-holds-barred fight with faithful Sgt Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine), the only man on the post who doesn’t despise Valois – an upper-class stranger in a  strange land – prevents Chuka leaving in any case.

On a scouting mission, Chuka finds the patrol strung up and a massive Arapaho war party on the verge of attack. He returns to a mutiny, led by Benson, quelled by a single shot by Valois, the first time, it transpires, he has killed a man.  In a very moving speech, Hahnsbach reveals that Valois saved his life, but in consequence was tortured and castrated. Benson turns out to have a very soft spot for his squaw, feelings naturally unreciprocated. Valois refuses Chuka’s entreaty to abandon the fort, leaving the supplies and guns behind, but saving the lives of everyone.

This time it’s the Native Americans who exhibit the strategic martial skill. It doesn’t end well. And here’s no stirring music to comfort the audience. Defeat here is raw, none of the manufactured heroics of The Alamo (1960) or The Wild Bunch (1969).

Sure, I expected a tad more action, but in its place was a more than satisfying drama that honed to the reality of the American West, a pitiless region exploited by the pitiless. The rule of authority doesn’t just commit commanding officers to suicidal action, it also condemns civilians like Veronica, who flees her home rather than confronting her father over another forced marriage.

The ranks of the U.S. Cavalry – beatified by the likes of John Ford for whom occasional drunkenness and a fondness for fisticuffs were the only sins – must in reality, like armies the world over, have been filled with the scum of the earth, wanted men, killers, thieves and vagabonds, using new identities to escape their past. As if the best source of recruitment was characters on a par with The Dirty Dozen. While Valois and Hahnsbach believe they have whipped the men into shape, there wouldn’t be any whipping of deserters if that were true.

Valois the martinet certainly has parallels with the commanding officer of Tunes of Glory (1960), also played by John Mills, on the verge of a nervous breakdown  as a result of his war experience. And we are led to believe that Valois is as “guilty” as the rest of the outfit when, in fact, he keeps his heroism hidden. Hahnsbach begins with an impersonation of Victor McLaglen, John Ford’s high priest of rowdiness, but he also reveals hidden depths.

This is Rod Taylor reinvented, far removed from the romantic charmer of the Doris Day comedies or the tough hero of The Mercenaries/Dark of the Sun (1968). And Taylor, himself, was very much responsible for bringing this laid-back but deadly gunslinger to the screen. He was the film’s producer, had an uncredited hand in the screenplay, redefining the role as he saw fit. And it was an audacious character to put on the screen. The gunslingers of The Magnificent Seven bemoaned their lot, lack of family, wives, emotional baggage, but they didn’t bring the Revisionist Western to life.

And although Clint Eastwood would put a different spin on the hired gun, the Leone films were not released in the U.S. until after this was made so would not have influenced the production. As well as sharing his food with the starving Arapaho, Taylor ensures his character puts their case in straightforward language.

And a sense of foreboding, courtesy of the opening scenes, hangs over the whole enterprise, and part of the skill of director Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) is to lull us into a false sense of security, that somehow the main characters will escape the foretold destiny. I have mentioned before my surprise that Douglas is treated just as a journeyman director. Sure, his western output can’t be mentioned in the same breath as Ford, Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone, but this is not far off not just for its down’n’dirty attitude to the West, but for some moments of pure cinema. Not only does the ending echo the opening but our introduction to Taylor, via an aerial shot, echoes our last image of him, in both cases eyes gazing upwards in apprehension.

The dinner party scene is quite superb, and Mills goes from hidebound martinet to sympathetic character, his wistfulness as he recalls wooing women in the past likely to stay in the memory, as does his reaction to shooting the mutineer, while Borgnine’s recollection of Mills’ heroism is beautifully done, Borgnine, too, morphing from cliché bully to proper  character. In another film, a star of Taylor’s caliber would have fought for a happy ending, but every opportunity for one, Taylor and Paluzzi scampering off into the sunset, for example, or being reconciled, is denied.

Good to see Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965) in a more interesting role and Victoria Vetri (credited here as Angela Dorian), prior to her Playboy fame, given the chance to play a more rounded character than when she went down the Raquel Welch route in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). Richard Jessup (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) wrote the taut screenplay based on his own novel.

Couple of minor quibbles – why doesn’t the window break when an arrow comes through it but shatters when Chuka jumps out, how come the Native Americans have enough guns to launch a major attack on the fort but not enough to hunt for food? But those are very minor points.

Very worth seeing.

Tunes of Glory (1960) ****

Fans of Succession will appreciate this power struggle in a Scottish army regiment set in 1948. In a reverse of The Godfather (1972) where the Corleones complain about needing a “wartime consigliore,” here the powers-that-be have decided this unnamed distinctly Highlander company requires a commanding officer with skills more appropriate to peace time.

Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) has been in charge of the battalion since the North Africa campaign in World War Two when the original commander was killed. But he has never been promoted to full Lt. Col. Naturally, having been in charge for six years, he feels the job should be his. At a time when the currency of command was wartime experience he’s less than pleased when he loses out to Col. Barrow (John Mills) who spent most of the war as a Japanese POW.

It doesn’t help that they are complete opposites. Sinclair is a tough, hard-drinking, attention-seeking Scotsman who enlisted as an ordinary soldier and rose through the ranks winning two medals for courage during the conflict. Barrow is Oxford-educated English upper-class, a lecturer at Sandhurst Military Academy, and recalls his war experience with terror rather than the braggadocio of Sinclair. Worse, he doesn’t drink.

It doesn’t take long for the pair to clash. Sinclair, who has ruled as much by preying on weakness as force of personality, is quick to start to look for flaws in his opponent’s make-up. Barrow feels discipline has been slipping and enforces tougher measures. That might make him unpopular but an army is built on discipline so soldiers can hardly complain.

But Barrow slips up by misreading the men. He chooses the worst of all issues to make a stand. For the first post-war official barracks party, Barrow insists the soldiers embark on traditional Highland dancing in regulation fashion rather than in their normal exuberant, not to say rowdy, manner. The soldiers are infuriated when Barrow insists they take lessons.

He has just lit the fuse. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. Barrow is humiliated, Sinclair triumphant. But victory does not turn out the way Sinclair expected.

Somewhat cynical rebranding of the film in Italy as “Whisky and Glory,” possibly trying to cash in on the success of “Whisky Galore” and also misleading in suggesting actual conflict with the fighting in the background.

The main thrust of the narrative, as you might expect, is the stand-off between Sinclair and Barrow and the tensions felt all round, as would be the case in any business (Succession, now, of course the classic example) when a new boss takes control. While everyone might expect, and perhaps fear, change, in the military (as in the navy) there is always the danger, should the new broom try to sweep too clean, of mutiny.

This might not amount to a raising of arms. But there are other effective methods of mounting opposition – laxity, questioning or outright refusal to obey orders – or giving the new chief the cold shoulder. Here, in the background, are other simmering tensions. Not everyone is comfortable with Sinclair’s very laddish approach to command, the back-stabbing and double-dealing Major Charles Scott (Dennis Price) ready to pounce at any opportunity.

Sinclair is also having to deal with his daughter Morag (Susannah York) asserting her independence, having the temerity not just to take a boyfriend, Corporal Fraser (John Fraser), but one from the ranks rather than the officer class. And he feels the harsh tongue of his own paramour Mary (Kay Walsh).

Emotional isolation is rarely commented upon in matters of the armed forces and yet it is so much a driving force. If not adequately compensated by camaraderie, a man at the top can be very lonely indeed, and prone to the most vicious self-torment.

Director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) superbly invokes an army atmosphere away from the more usual battleground backdrop. The picture is anchored by brilliant performances all round and a roll-call of strong supporting characters. An unflinching look at power, especially leadership and the personal toll it takes. And it was astonishing that the movie could hit the target so well without relying on the usual round of sex, violence or that old stand-by the comic subordinate. It also probes the issues of what happens – in any industry – when the wrong person is put in charge. No less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock called it “one of the best films ever made.”

The sparring between Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1966), who won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for this role, is of the highest quality. Dennis Price (The Comedy Man, 1964) is the pick of the support while Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) makes an auspicious debut.

Few films could boast a better supporting cast: former British leading lady Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), Gordon Jackson (The Ipcress File, 1965), Duncan Macrae (Best of Enemies, 1961), John Fraser (Tamahine, 1963), Gerard Harper (Adam Adamant Lives!, 1966-1967, TV series) and Peter McEnery (The Moon-Spinners, 1964).

James Kennaway (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.

Africa – Texas Style (1967) ***

Falling into the unusual category of Saturday afternoon matinee with a message, American cowboy Jim Sinclair (Hugh O’Brian) and sidekick Jim Henry (Tom Nardini) hightail it across the Atlantic to help the wildlife conservation efforts of game rancher Wing Commander Hayes (John Mills) who faces sabotage at every turn by another rancher Karl Bekker (Nigel Green). It combines Hatari!-style action and interesting storylines with Disney-animal-cuteness (a domesticated zebra called Pyjama Tops).

To get the conservation element out of the way – Hayes is concerned that letting animals roam free will result in overgrazing, turning the countryside into a dustbowl and endangering a variety of species. That Hayes is already talking about animals becoming extinct is way ahead of the common perception of Africa at the time. His plan is to round up the wild animals and fence them in, this kind of ranching preventing foodstocks becoming depleted. Bekker’s objection is that wild animals carry infections such as East Coast Fever that will endanger his herd.  

Romantic interest is supplied by the already-engaged nurse Fay Carter (Adrienne Corri) while orphan Sampson (Charles Malinda) tugs at the heart strings. There is a fair measure of authenticity, glorious aerial shots of elephants and buffalo and other species, tribal dances by the Masai while the Sinclair/Henry rodeo-style method of catching wild animals, with lasso rather than giants nets as in Hatari!, ramps up the excitement quotient, not least when Sinclair goes one-on-one with an enraged rhino. As you might expect, there is also ample opportunity for Sinclair to encounter a deadly snake and crocodile and it wouldn’t be an African picture without a stampede.  

Although villainous, Bekker is not without logical argument, not just the fear of infection which would decimate wildlife as much as soil erosion, but his own concerns that taming wild animals would upset the balance of nature, and, on a personal level, the lack of respect for territorial rights. Of course, when push comes to shove, he resorts to rifle and fist to settle  arguments.

Atmospheric, well-made, engaging and at times exciting, there is enough going on here to keep the picture ticking along – a hunt for a lost and bewildered Sinclair, questions about home, and the spectacular wildlife rodeo show. Unlike Born Free (1966) and any other animal picture for that matter although wildlife takes narrative center stage we are not subjected to countless cute four-legged specimens.

Hugh O’Brian (Ambush Bay, 1966) could be a latter-day Tarzan (or more correctly Jungle Jim since he is never in loincloth) but Scottish actress Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967) is less jungle adventuress more principled counter to his easy manner. With every chance to rely on the stiff-upper-lip of an English war hero, John Mills (The Family Way, 1966) does anything but and turns in another engaging performance and if you are looking for a decent chap to deliver a conservation message he is definitely your man without being obsessively annoying. Nigel Green (The Skull, 1965) adds to his portfolio of interesting characters as a smooth-talking rough-edged bad guy while Tom Nardini (Cat Ballou, 1965) impresses. Look out for a fleeting glimpse of Hayley Mills  at the start.

Director Andrew Marton, who had been involved in helming The Longest Day (1962) and second unit director of Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), was something of a wild animal specialist with Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965) in the kitty as well as a dozen episodes in total of television series Flipper (1965) and Daktari (1966). But he is at home as much with the human aspects of the story as with the animal. Producer Ivan Tors was a sometime rival to Walt Disney in the family film market with Flipper (1963) and Zebra in the Kitchen (1965) as well as small-screen Flipper and Daktari.

Mistakenly described on imdb as a TV pilot, this was a genuine feature film that happened to produce a television spin-off series Cowboy in Africa. It was screened for the trade in the U.S. on May 5, 1967, reviewed in the feature film section of Variety on May 17, and its U.S. box office figures can be tracked through Variety – opening in 1967 in San Francisco and Kansas City in June, for example, Baltimore in July, Detroit in August and Boston and Louisville in September. In some situations it was double-billed with El Dorado (1967).

CATCH-UP:  John Mills’ versatility can be seen from movies already reviewed in the Blog: The Truth About Spring (1965), Operation Crossbow (1965), The Wrong Box (1966) and The Family Way (1966).

Sky West and Crooked / Gypsy Girl (1966) ***

These days troubled teens are likely to turn into monsters or superheroes, but such cinematic opportunities did not exist in the 1960s. The exploration of teenage angst – Rebel without a Cause (1954) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) belonged to a separate compartment although the treatment of mental disorder found outlet in David and Lisa (1962) and Lilith (1964).

But Sky West and Crooked occupies different territory. Hayley Mills does not rail against society and she has found companionship among the younger children. Although the adults want to see her treated in some way, she is not yet an outcast. And it takes an outsider to see her as herself.

Oddly enough, although the original title came from an American expression that title was ditched for the Stateside release. There it went under the name of Gypsy Girl.

Immediately preceding The Trouble with Angels (1966) and The Family Way (1966), this is the first real attempt to move Hayley Mills from cute Disney child star to grown-up. The only problem is that she is both older and younger, older by age (17) but much younger in emotional development. Her main entertainment is burying animals, which becomes something of an obsession. There are hints of sexuality, mild compared to the bolder The Family Way, but a romance with a gypsy when it develops is rather more innocent.

It’s a family affair, marking the directorial debut by her father John Mills and written by her mother Mary Hayley Bell (helped by John Prebble). In part the direction is clean and bold, the trigger for the girl’s ongoing trauma established in the opening scene. But in other parts the movie becomes too bogged down by subsidiary characters determined to form a cabal to contain what they see as her bad influence among younger children. They could almost be kin to the more sinister villagers of Straw Dogs (1971). 

Matters are not helped by her alcoholic mother (Annette Crosbie) who is even more unhinged. The vicar (Geoffrey Bayldon – later British television’s Catweazle) is Mills’ only ally until the arrival of a handsome gypsy Ian McShane in his sophomore movie role. McShane has no knowledge of her history and so not been conditioned to view her askance. In fact, he risks alienation among his own community for befriending her.

If Mills is already slightly off-beam (the title an American phrase for madness), then she is knocked completely off-kilter when reminded of the trigger incident which she has managed to keep buried. This is probably the best scene in the film. The teller of the story, clearly intending mischief, is overcome by his own emotions.

Mills was a cut above the normal child star. She had the requisite cuteness while demonstrating considerable acting skill and does herself no disservice here. McShane offers a strong hint of the brooding persona he has since perfected.

This is a well-done drama without being completely satisfying, in part because the fairytale ending jarred with what was otherwise an authentic observation piece. It would have been interesting to roll forward a couple of years to see if decisions taken worked out.

In fairness to the director, he knew he had his work cut out. In his memoir Still Memories he explained: “I have always believed in my career that you should never go on the floor without a totally tight script and, in this case, I was unable to do that. I was persuaded against my better judgement to start filming eight weeks before I was ready. And inevitably it showed in the finished picture. It wasn’t a very bad film, but it could have been a great deal better.” That about sums it up – it wasn’t in the “very bad” class at all but certainly could have been improved.

The Wrong Box (1966)***

Somewhere between SBIG (So Bad It’s Good) and WAL (Worth a Look), The Wrong Box is a black comedy in the wrong directorial hands.

Better known for thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and POW drama King Rat (1965) Bryan Forbes struggles to bring enough comedy into the proceedings or to wring sufficient laughs out of what he has. Neither the wit nor the slapstick is sharp enough. But it does exhibit a certain charm.

Essentially an inheritance story, it pivots on the notion that the two potential inheritors are on their last legs and putting one (Ralph Richardson) out of action will benefit the dastardly nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) of the sole survivor (John Mills). It turns out Richardson is not dead. That does not cue as much hilarity as it should.

Surprisingly, the film relies on affecting performances from Michael Caine, playing against type as a gentle soul, and Nanette Newman as a young woman terrified of being murdered, who enjoy a very innocent romance. Hitherto, I had been rather sniffy about Ms Newman, but here she is delightful. Ralph Richardson steals the movie as a dotty pedant, weighted down with erudition and a knack, equally, for boring the pants off anyone within earshot and for escaping from the jaws of death including a massive train pile-up and several murderous attempts by Mills.

Cook and Moore let the show down by being so obviously just themselves but there is a nice cameo from Peter Sellers as an inebriated doctor.

Michael Caine got it spot-on when pointing out in his autobiography that it was a “gentle success in most places except Britain” precisely because to foreigners it represented an acceptably stereotypical view of a country full of eccentrics while to Brits it was all too stereotypical. So if you’re from America or other points global you might like it and if you are British you might not. On the other hand, the score by John Barry is one of his best with a wonderful theme tune.

POSTCRIPT. Just to back up Caine’s assertion, I pulled out the Pressbook from my stack and it goes heavy on critical praise. Newsweek said: “As funny and sunny a movie as any audience could ask for.” From the New York Times came: “so fantastic and explosive it virtually pops right out of the screen! A crazy, merry tale that tumbles somewhere between black humor and elegant, uninhibited camp.” The New York Post thought it was “a beautifully designed elaborate spoof,” while as far as the New York Daily Post was concerned it was “a laugh a minute.”

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