The Last Frontier (1955) - Dir.: Anthony Mann
Chuka (1967) - Dir.: Gordon Douglas
The dark side of the legend of George Armstrong Custer has been brought to the screen at least as often as its more adulatory aspect, although in the former Custer himself usually appears under another name. John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) is, if not the template, than the apogee of this approach, with Henry Fonda playing the brave-but-foolish Lt. Col. Owen Thursday who leads his men into a pointless and foreseeable massacre.
After making seven movies in a row (and eight overall) with Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Mann took up the story with The Last Frontier (1955), starring Victor Mature as Jed Cooper, a simultaneously naïve and brutal mountain man. The movie puts its Custer stand-in, Col. Frank Marston (Robert Preston), a little off to the side, not even bringing him onto the screen until nearly a third of its running time has passed. But when he does make an appearance, he immediately begins to set to his own self-destruction, an end so obvious that most of the characters have to devote all their energies to stopping him lest he bring them down with him.
If there’s any doubt that, despite the absence of one of Mann’s classically embittered heroes, the director has put his stamp on the material (the screenplay is credited to Philip Yordan and Russell S. Hughes) it’s put to rest by the director’s introduction of Marston. Cooper has left the fort where he’s been working as a cavalry scout in order to rescue his two fellow trappers, Gus (James Whitmore) and Mungo (Pat Hogan), who are also currently employed as scouts. Cooper had been infuriated when he found out that his friends had been sent out to locate and help Marston’s unit, since he believes that the string of recently built military outposts under Marston’s command has unnecessarily provoked the local Indians into an uprising. Marston’s own fort has just been destroyed in an attack, and Cooper believes the officer should have been left to suffer for his own foolhardiness.
When Cooper discovers the escaping unit hunkered down on a mountainside forest, he pals around with his two buddies until he reluctantly answers an order to report to Marston. He finds him in a pose frequently assumed by Mann’s psychologically distorted antagonists, coolly leaning against a tree on higher ground than Cooper, uncaring of the surrounding threat, and not condescending to look Cooper in the eyes. His calm voice superficially reflects this seeming nonchalance, but it’s easy to pick up on the undertones of tension and suppressed violence. Marston is intelligent and logical, but those gifts are maniacally focused on forcing and winning a battle against the Indians that will be so noteworthy that he’ll be reinstated to the regular army now engaged in the Civil War.
The Last Frontier was Mann’s second film in CinemaScope, and he makes fine use of the format’s potential. Essentially, Mann restricts himself to the use of long lenses, but not so long that they radically shrink the size of the focal field. By using them, Mann is able to insinuate seemingly contradictory suggestions of confinement and isolation into the movie. Cooper, the socially unencumbered trapper, has unknowingly trapped himself by moving into the fort and signing up with the army. For him, the move represents a heretofore unimagined chance for social status and enough standing to land himself a wife (he’d like to get the colonel’s wife, played by Anne Bancroft, to run away with him, so he’s not that into status). But to do so he has to wage what he regards (correctly) as a stupid campaign against Indians.
So when Cooper, Gus and Mungo first enter the fort, Mann follows them with a rising crane shot that looks down into the good-sized fort from above. We can tell they’re entering a large space, but the camera lens subtly flattens the vista so that the walls seem to crowd in. Meanwhile, the mountains in the distant background seem to hang in some vague middle ground, close but unreachable. This is the continuation of a process that began with the movie’s opening four or five shots, which follow the three mountain men descending towards the plains over open ground, then through narrowing trees, and finally into a plot of brush and rock from which Indians mysteriously materialize.
This flattening effect draws characters into a crowded dramatic field, but they can’t mingle there. The idea of a group, of solidarity, is undermined because people can’t really mingle when there’s no ground on which to do it. The most poignant example of how these traits work together comes when Cooper, still in the first flush of his enthusiasm, climbs over the fort’s wall, leaps from parapet to ground and runs across the drill field, first flat against the wall and then obliquely towards the camera. No matter where he is, everything he sees is just out of reach, its proximity illusory.
The Last Frontier is ultimately not among the best of Mann’s work, but it is certainly an auteur’s film.
Is Gordon Douglas an auteur? The consensus seems to be that he’s a superior metteur-en-scene, but that’s it. I suppose it’s true, but it’s hard to say. Even though a surprisingly large number of his nearly 100 films are available for viewing, a lot of them aren’t. Douglas made Chuka in 1967, in between the comic spy thriller In Like Flint and the self-consciously cynical private eye movie, Tony Rome. In other words, Douglas was at the top of the commercial ladder, yet he decided to direct a medium-budget Western just as they were going out of style. Sounds like a second look is in order.
Chuka is a good example of a movie where you can take any considerations of screenwriting or acting and throw them out the window. This is a work of style, the kind of style that exceeds mere technique and relies on camera movement (the cinematographer was Harold E. Stine), editing (Bob Wyman), and production design (Tambi Larsen) to produce an emotionally vivid and action-filled 100 minutes of dramatic pleasure.
The movie is bookended with scenes that strongly suggest that everyone we’re going to meet is going to die, violently and while we watch. The movie would be better, quicker and less morose without this structural ornamentation, but it’s not fatal.
Again, an intruder enters a confined military space, only instead of an socially-backward mountain man, it’s a positively anti-social gunfighter, Chuka (Rod Taylor). Chuka (pronounced with the same “u” sound as in luck), has just passed through Indian territory, where he has learned that the local tribes are literally starving in the winter cold. In a beautifully rendered, almost silent, scene Chuka runs across a shivering war party burying a warrior who has died from either the cold or hunger. Chuka leaves the Indians with some meat he’s been carrying, a good deed that saves lives in the next scene, when he comes across a stage coach headed for Fort McClendon. The sole passengers are two gorgeous, wealthy Mexican women, Veronica (played by former Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi) and her niece Helena (Angela Dorian, aka Victoria Vetri, September 1967’s Playmate of the Month). As Chuka and Veronica clearly have some sort of unspoken past between them, Chuka goes along for the ride, hoping to put up for a quiet night at the fort.
Instead, he finds himself in one of the most perverse circumstances possible. The fort’s commander who is having a soldier whipped as the stage coach enters the fort is Col. Stuart Valois (John Mills), a former officer in the British army who is beset by self-doubts, an impressive drinking problem, and, as we find out later, some very, very grievous wounds picked up back in the Sudan. His second-in-command, Major Benson (Louis Hayward), pays troopers to occasionally go out and kidnap him a young Indian woman, whom he then keeps locked away for his sexual pleasure. His top sergeant and career-long companion, Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine), is neurotically hostile and violent. And the chief scout, Lou (James Whitmore) is so appalled by the whole mess that he stays drunk most of the time. Under the circumstances, the resentments between Chuka and Veronica are mercifully “normal.”
Douglas takes all this material in stride, neither sensationalizing it nor mocking it. Rather, working on a soundstage set on which a few walls and roofs stand in for a full-fledged fort complete with outdoor drill yard, Douglas sets his camera tracking back and forth, reframing the action or drawing our attention to previously unnoticed details. It’s as if he’s tracing a cobweb that both connects and traps these profoundly troubled allies. For some scenes, Douglas sets aside his tracking and constructs conversations and arguments out of intelligently selected and cut-together camera set-ups. He even surmounts budgetary restrictions, as when he stages the climactic Indian assault on the fort, cutting together shots of the Indians taken on actual exteriors with shots of soldiers defending their soundstage fort. Clever lighting, as well as cutting, goes into this triumphal montage.
The mood is impressively downbeat. Even without the bookend scenes (which is really why they should have been dropped), we would see disaster overtaking everyone in the fort. Chuka keeps arguing that if everyone just rode out of the fort and left food, rifles and ammunition behind, the Indians would be satisfied with being able to eat and hunt.
But Valois, compelled by his perversity and wrongheaded dedication to duty, insists on staying put and repelling any attack by the much, much larger Indian forces. Unlike The Last Frontier, though, where nearly everyone is ready to cut out on screwy Col. Marston, Valois exerts considerable moral authority. Even Chuka is impressed when the increasingly deranged Englishman faces down a mutiny and the movie’s moral center begins, not so much to shift, as to wobble and shake.
Thanks to Douglas’s straightforward technical eloquence, the ambiguities of character and morals don’t get submerged by the plot’s extravagances. It would be interesting to see this same material directed by a Spaghetti Western veteran. The resulting movie could be good or bad, but it would almost certainly be more baroque. Finally it’s Douglas who makes Chuka the movie it is.