“Wake me up when it’s time to die.”

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My mention the other day in a post about siege movies of the forgotten 1967 western CHUKA prompted some interesting inquiries from readers who had never heard of the movie but were intrigued by my comparison of it to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) – and this prompted me to go back and have a fresh look at the Gordon Douglas production after about thirty years.  I’ll warn you right now, spoilers galore follow for both films and my concluding remarks are going to be anything but conclusive… but if you love NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and are interested in CHUKA as a possible influence on it, then I promise at the very least to leave you with a little something to chew on.

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First, a little background:  CHUKA was adapted by Richard Jessup (1925-`1982)  from his 1961 novel of the same name.  Jessup is perhaps best known as the author of the novel that served as the basis for THE CINCINNATI KID (1965), which was adapted by Ring Lardner, Jr., and Terry Southern.  Although Jessup crafted his own tale for the big screen, he took significant liberties with the text, which has a considerably different feel – downbeat, defeatist and unapolegetically grim.  The Paramount production was the maiden voyage of Rodlor Productions – the personal production company of actor Rod Taylor.  By December of 1966 (when CHUKA went “before the Technicolor cameras,” as as Boxoffice put it), Taylor had established himself as a marketable Hollywood star, with memorable, popular (and still classic) leading roles in George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE (1960), Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (1962), Frank Tashlin’s THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966) with Doris Day and at the head of Richard Quine’s trashy ensemble piece HOTEL (1967).  The Australian native (formerly known as Kit Taylor) had a winning combination of toughness and elegance but given this choice and Taylor’s roles from the late 60s through the mid-70s  (DARK OF THE SUN, DARKER THAN AMBER, THE DEADLY TRACKERS) he was eager to tackle something grittier1.   Or perhaps the better word would be meatier.

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In many ways, Taylor’s “strange, lone man” who rides down from the snow-capped north is typical of a Hollywood vanity project: Chuka is etched as mysterious (comparing favorably to the silent gunman hero of Sergio Corbucci’s THE GRAND SILENCE, released the following year), elemental (attuned to changes in the wind and the prophetic quality of distant thunder), capable (“He’s fast… awful fast…”) and irresistible to women… perhaps even to men.  (“He intrigues me,” murmurs John Mills’ alcoholic has-been of a military martinet – and he says that a lot).  Chuka has the grizzled, bearded look of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964, released in the US in 1967) but he cleans up nice.  Invited to dine in the company of Mills’ effete Colonel Valois, his adjutant Major Benson (veteran Hollywood leading man Louis Hayward2), a handful of lesser officers and traveling lovelies Veronica Kleitz (THUNDERBALL‘s Luciana Paluzzi3) and her niece Helena Chavez (Victoria Vetri, billed as Angela Dorian), Chuka shaves his dimples clean as a whistle, dons a John Wayne shirt and one of those gay little Audie Murphy neckerchiefs that come off more like a cravat than a bandanna.  Western antiheroes who dared audiences to like them despite their moral inconsistencies and appalling inattention to personal hygiene were still a season or two away from the general population and for the duration of CHUKA the pink-cheeked Taylor communicates his outsider status with an ever-present cigar (one of those long, thin ones Fred Williamson used as a signature in his 70s vehicles) and a jaw-clenching indignation. This was, after all, filmed on the Paramount lot.

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So much of CHUKA is distressingly Old School, from Leith Stevens’ syrupy score to the patently obvious soundstage sets and the matte shot cutaways to Fort Clendennon.  The local Arapaho Indians are played for the most part by the usual Latino actors in buckskin leisure suits and the film’s supporting cast is a bit geriatric – besides Mills and Hayward we have Ernest Borgnine as a German-American drill sergeant (“The best perfessional soldier in the whole world”) and James Whitmore as an Army scout, plus Joe Sirola (the one-eyed owlhoot from HANG ‘EM HIGH) in an unusually vocal role as a stagecoach driver.  Among the Cavalry “foul-ups” is baby-faced Michael Cole, who would go from this to a leading role on the TV series THE MOD SQUAD. Exteriors were filmed out in the desert somewhere, yet longshots of the massing Arapaho tribes looks to have been borrowed from another, more expensive movie.  And yet despite all about CHUKA that is over-familiar, banal and downright cliche, there remains something unsettlingly off about the whole thing… and that feeling settles in as early as the first frames.

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CHUKA begins at the end, which means we see the ruins of Fort Clendennon before we see the way it was.  Black clouds of smoke drift up from the charred shell of the stronghold and as we cut in closer…

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… the bodies of the dead are being trucked out for burial.  The pigpile of human corpses is enough of a shocker (especially for matinee audiences – picture a movie house full of 8 year-olds like me getting an eye full of this and in the first five minutes of the movie!) but laid on top of the image is the sound effect of buzzing flies – meaning these remains have been baking a while in the cruel desert sun.  Inside the breached fortress, a Cavalry officer (an unbilled Ford Rainey) is trying to make sense of the desolation within and has no living witnesses (save for the Chief of the Arapaho cut-throats and he isn’t talking) to fill in the blanks.  With this curtain warmer, CHUKA proceeds not so much as the expected prairie adventure it in so many ways appears to be but as a tale of something more like forensic detection.  And the only fact we have going into this mystery is that everybody dies.

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Or maybe not.  We know that everybody who remained at Fort Clendennon at the time of the Arapaho massacre dies… but, we think, maybe somebody got out.  Maybe Chuka got out.  Maybe he took with him Veronica Kleitz (who, it turns out, loved Chuka when he was young but gave him up for a man of wealth and means) and the virginal Helena Chavez (who would give it up for Chuka if only he asked).  We hold on to these hopes through the mid-section of CHUKA but it eventually becomes obvious that no one is getting out of Fort Clendennon during “a strange night on the American desert” because the hostile aboriginals will kill (and have) anyone who tries and because everyone inside the fortress walls is too busy fighting with one another.  While Valois’ men, the scum of the American military and every man Jack of them cashiered into service there because of some sin from their past, are on the verge of mutiny, Valois is drinking himself silly on brandy, ignoring the problem, and locking antlers with Chuka, whose prowess with the six-gun and the ladies he resents.  This internal struggle in the face of a clear and present danger from without is where CHUKA resembles NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD the most – that and the sickening feeling that nothing will be set to rights by the final fade-out.  Chuka and Borgnine’s hulking Sgt.  Hahnsbach even even resort to a fistfight, which certainly brings to mind the gnawing rancor and physical explosion shared between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD protagonists Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman).

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While Chuka and Hansbach do, through their physical test of one another, arrive at a level of mutual respect bordering on bromance, they do (like Ben and Harry in the George Romero film) lose valuable time to this testing, this posturing, this squaring off and in-fighting and are made, by the final frames, to pay dearly for it.  Key to the tragedy of CHUKA and the parallels to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is that the indigenous hostiles are starving.  It is November, winter is setting in over the desert, and the Arapahos are disinclined to move south as directed by the United States government – perhaps because they lack the provisions for such a journey to be tenable.  When we meet them immediately after the film’s title sequence, they are burying their dead…

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… and Chuka, taking pity on them, leaves the funeral party with a bit of dried beef from his saddlebag.  The theme of hunger is carried through the whole of the film, with Valois savoring throwing an elegant dinner party for his guests because “It would be wonderful to dine… instead of feed.”  Here, Valois refers to thinking, reasoning, modern men reduced by circumstance to their baser qualities, to crude first principles, which is exactly what becomes of the recently deceased in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, in which the word “feed” pops up quite a bit.  (“I ought to drag you out there and feed you to those things,” Ben threatens Harry at one point.)  Later, Valois attempts to order Chuka to do a bit of reconnaissance for him and when the pistolero refuses, Valois is forced to accept the terms of a cash pay-out for the service.  “Your pound of flesh,” the Colonel mutters as Chuka collects his $200 reward.  The funereal allusions begin to pile up as the film pushes towards its climactic siege.  “I’ve seen too many dead men,” Chuka tells Valois, by this point deep in his cups and getting all too used to the likelihood that “This place will stink of death tomorrow.”

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Meanwhile, the disharmony among Fort Clendennon’s non-coms erupts into a full-scale mutiny, which Valois is able to quell by shooting instigator Spivey (Michael Cole, who has our sympathy early on when we see him flogged for attempted desertion but who reveals himself to be a slimy little shitter of the first water) between the eyes.  (When characters in CHUKA have the misfortune to take a bullet, it is invariably taken in the face.)  While Spivey had it coming, and while this killing is more justifiable than Ben’s grudge murder of Harry in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, both acts communicate something to the audience, signaling a collective moral failure and marking a point of no return.  Once Harry is dead in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it’s over for everybody – not enough men alive at that point to man the fort, so to speak, and the same is true in CHUKA.  While the natives attack head-on, the battle is already being lost inside.

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The rot within is telegraphed in a short scene in which Louis Hayward’s character, Major Benson, revisits an Arapaho concubine he is hiding away from Valois in a small, back room of Fort Clendennon.  Introduced in an early scene, the woman (Herlinda del Carmen) is being used by Benson as a sex slave, whom he no doubt repays with some small amount of food (a plot point left vague and in fact forgotten until she is reintroduced during the fort attack).  Yet as Fort Clendennon goes up in flames and its men fall at their posts, Benson rushes to the girl and tells her to save herself.  Silently she embraces Benson and…

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… stabs him repeatedly with a concealed knife.  Benson’s death wasn’t among my vivid memories of the film and yet watching it again brought me right to the scene in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in which Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) follows her mortally wounded husband into the cellar of the besieged farmhouse to find Harry not only dead but being devoured by their young daughter (Kyra Schon).  Forgotten amidst all the drama upstairs, the girl has died down there and been reborn as a flesh-eating ghoul.  And like Benson, it is Helen’s fate to be stabbed repeatedly by someone from whom she has come to expect (and naturally so) affection and devotion.  We don’t feel the same sympathy for Benson, despite his seeming eleventh hour act of altruism, and yet both killings walk the same weird, thin line between tenderness and slaughter.

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CHUKA ends with Fort Clendennon overrun with hungry savages and Chuka ultimately failing his desired station as a savior.  He sees good men fall and his loved one die in front of him before he, too, has a taste of angry Arapaho flint.  The film’s denouement is a bit enigmatic, dissolving from Chuka’s injury (a Christ-like spear wound that anticipates Charlton Heston’s death in THE OMEGA MAN, a 1971 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, which was a direct inspiration for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) to the present time of the film’s opening, with the fort cleared of its flyblown dead and the sole reminder of the sum of human loss being a fresh grave marked by a fire-blackened wooden cross.  As a kid, I always assumed this was Chuka’s grave, dug for him by Victoria Vetri’s rather anemic and forgettable ingenue; now I suspect the grave is meant to be that of Luciana Paluzzi’s Veronica Kleitz and the reference to it as “a very small grave” supports that hypothesis.  And yet if we accept this, that Chuka and Helena buried Veronica and then rode out, I still think Chuka is doomed – sixty miles from any sort of civilization and suffering from a grave injury, he can’t survive and I don’t think he’s meant to.  As in George Stevens’ SHANE (1953), the hero may be allowed to ride off into the sunset of his own self reliance but he is coded as done for, finished – an anachronism, a throwback to a nobility and decency that was considered passe on the modernizing American frontier of the late 19th centuries and which probably looked positively antique in 1967, with America divided against itself and embroiled in a costly military involvement in Southeast Asia.

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“Unless you stick together and stop killing each other off, none of us has got a chance.” – Chuka

Somebody in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD should have said that, too, but it’s likely he or she would have been ignored, just as Chuka was.  I can’t say definitively that CHUKA had an influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  George Romero and John Russo (who is credited with NOTLD‘s script, although this was largely a collective effort) have cited other films as touchstones, from Edward L. Cahn’s INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959) – whose legion of shuffling, business suit-wearing zombies has earned the cult film the alternative title NIGHT OF THE LIVING DADS – to Sidney Salkow’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) – the first adaptation of I Am Legend – and have never once, to my knowledge, name-checked CHUKA anywhere in the mix.  And yet the parallels I have mentioned do make me wonder.  CHUKA was released by Paramount in July of 1967, a few months before cameras rolled on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, meaning Romero, Russo et. al. could have seen it and could have been influenced in some small way by its structure.  A group of disparate people, a hungering horde of predators, infighting as a karmic double of the threat from without, desperate measures, tragic betrayals, heroic failure and the omnipresent stench of death… these two seemingly dissimiliar movies could have a shared bloodline in there somewhere.  Stranger things have happened.

Notes:
1. Taylor quoted in the CHUKA pressbook:  “Another good thing… is that I get to play a part that’s the complete antithesis of the leading man types I’ve been doing. It turns me into a character star and it ought to open up an entrely new range of parts for me to play.”
2.  In this context, Louis Hayward’s participation is especially interesting as he was the star of Rene Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), a lighthearted adaptation of the surprisingly savage whodunit by Agatha Christie.
3.  Taylor slaved away on the adaptation and preproduction of CHUKA while shooting HOTEL.  Early casting announcements named Ingrid Bergman, Trevor Howard, Rory Calhoun and Akim Tamiroff among those approached to sign on.

0 Response “Wake me up when it’s time to die.”
Posted By Kimberly : March 13, 2009 6:01 pm

Really enjoyed this! Now I must see CHUKA.

Posted By Kimberly : March 13, 2009 6:01 pm

Really enjoyed this! Now I must see CHUKA.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 13, 2009 6:04 pm

Thanks, Kimberly. Ernie Borgnine was on ER last night and I felt such a wave of affection for him – which is pretty funny, as he so often played jerks. But here he’s outlined as a bastard and slowly reveals his humanity through the duration of the film. Not that it helps him any in the long run.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 13, 2009 6:04 pm

Thanks, Kimberly. Ernie Borgnine was on ER last night and I felt such a wave of affection for him – which is pretty funny, as he so often played jerks. But here he’s outlined as a bastard and slowly reveals his humanity through the duration of the film. Not that it helps him any in the long run.

Posted By BillA : March 14, 2009 12:42 am

Thank you so much for writing about this film. This is one of those I saw on a uhf broadcast as a kid, long before I registered star or director names, and it’s been kicking around deep in the back of my head ever since. One of the movies that started my love of siege films- along with “Sahara” w/Bogart.

And I was JUST ABOUT to mention a French Foreign legion film that had had a huge impact on me in similar circumstances until I followed the link back to your first post and saw the writeup on the “Beau Geste” remake! “Viking funeral” sealed the deal- one of the sequences I’ve been recounting to people forever. That has literally bugged me for over 20 years. I always enjoy this blog but this takes the cake.

Posted By BillA : March 14, 2009 12:42 am

Thank you so much for writing about this film. This is one of those I saw on a uhf broadcast as a kid, long before I registered star or director names, and it’s been kicking around deep in the back of my head ever since. One of the movies that started my love of siege films- along with “Sahara” w/Bogart.

And I was JUST ABOUT to mention a French Foreign legion film that had had a huge impact on me in similar circumstances until I followed the link back to your first post and saw the writeup on the “Beau Geste” remake! “Viking funeral” sealed the deal- one of the sequences I’ve been recounting to people forever. That has literally bugged me for over 20 years. I always enjoy this blog but this takes the cake.

Posted By Keith : March 15, 2009 1:53 am

I saw Chucka in the theater at age of 12. Being a sensitive and perceptive child, it affected me quite a lot. Rod Taylor’s character also taught me that a man can be tough and sensitive as well. I remember crying several times during the film.

Naturally, I was thrilled when the DVD was released. It’s a really nice transfer, and has some good bonus features.

Posted By Keith : March 15, 2009 1:53 am

I saw Chucka in the theater at age of 12. Being a sensitive and perceptive child, it affected me quite a lot. Rod Taylor’s character also taught me that a man can be tough and sensitive as well. I remember crying several times during the film.

Naturally, I was thrilled when the DVD was released. It’s a really nice transfer, and has some good bonus features.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : March 15, 2009 10:24 am

A tip of the proverbial cap for your analysis. I also liked Chuka enough to write about it coinciding with Gordon Douglas’s 100th birthday.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : March 15, 2009 10:24 am

A tip of the proverbial cap for your analysis. I also liked Chuka enough to write about it coinciding with Gordon Douglas’s 100th birthday.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 15, 2009 10:30 am

While searching for images for my paragraph on CHUKA last week, I found your site and your insightful review, Peter. And I even borrowed one of your images for the purposes of illustration – so few are pictures of CHUKA on the web – but I have since replaced it. An intriguing, somewhat frustrating but certainly interesting “tweener” of a revisionist western… with a few breaks for coffee.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 15, 2009 10:30 am

While searching for images for my paragraph on CHUKA last week, I found your site and your insightful review, Peter. And I even borrowed one of your images for the purposes of illustration – so few are pictures of CHUKA on the web – but I have since replaced it. An intriguing, somewhat frustrating but certainly interesting “tweener” of a revisionist western… with a few breaks for coffee.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 15, 2009 10:41 am

I saw Chucka in the theater at age of 12. Being a sensitive and perceptive child, it affected me quite a lot. Rod Taylor’s character also taught me that a man can be tough and sensitive as well. I remember crying several times during the film.

Speaking of crying, I was surprised to see Taylor’s character with tear-streaked eyes during his love scene with Luciana Paluzzi. It added a surprisingly tender bit of layering to a somewhat cliched scene.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 15, 2009 10:41 am

I saw Chucka in the theater at age of 12. Being a sensitive and perceptive child, it affected me quite a lot. Rod Taylor’s character also taught me that a man can be tough and sensitive as well. I remember crying several times during the film.

Speaking of crying, I was surprised to see Taylor’s character with tear-streaked eyes during his love scene with Luciana Paluzzi. It added a surprisingly tender bit of layering to a somewhat cliched scene.

Posted By Ben Martin : March 16, 2009 11:19 pm

Seige films can make for great entertainment. I wonder if Rod Taylor chose a “seige” story (for his first film of his new production compnay) at least patrtially becasue one of his most popular films up to that time was also one of the greatest seige films ever made, The Birds. The ’63 Hitchcock masterpiece (in my opinion, at least) also happens to be a film that shows off Mr. Taylor’s leading man talents at their very best. (He also has to use his calming authority to difuse tensions within the household while preparing for the inevitable attack from the flying marauders. Another influence of Night of the Living Dead? Perhaps. )

Posted By Ben Martin : March 16, 2009 11:19 pm

Seige films can make for great entertainment. I wonder if Rod Taylor chose a “seige” story (for his first film of his new production compnay) at least patrtially becasue one of his most popular films up to that time was also one of the greatest seige films ever made, The Birds. The ’63 Hitchcock masterpiece (in my opinion, at least) also happens to be a film that shows off Mr. Taylor’s leading man talents at their very best. (He also has to use his calming authority to difuse tensions within the household while preparing for the inevitable attack from the flying marauders. Another influence of Night of the Living Dead? Perhaps. )

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : May 7, 2010 11:01 am

[...] crossed the boundary between frontier adventure and full-on horror.  In Gordan Doulgas’ CHUKA (1967), starving Arapahos descend from the snow-capped mountains to lay siege to a cavalry outpost [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : May 7, 2010 11:01 am

[...] crossed the boundary between frontier adventure and full-on horror.  In Gordan Doulgas’ CHUKA (1967), starving Arapahos descend from the snow-capped mountains to lay siege to a cavalry outpost [...]

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