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The Deserter
(a.k.a. The Devil's Backbone & Ride To Glory)

(1971)

Director: Burt Kennedy   
Cast:
Bekim Fehmiu, Richard Crenna, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban


You've got to hand it not only to Hollywood filmmakers, but also to foreign filmmakers who get it in their head to compete with Hollywood filmmakers -  they know how to squeeze every last drop out of a basic idea. Go to your neighborhood video store, and in your first few seconds there you'll see what I mean. I bet that when you go to your neighborhood video store's action section, you'll see several movies where the DVD cover has a close-up of the primary actor's face, and the actor is brandishing a silver-plated gun at a forty-five degree angle next to his face. Obviously, the advertising departments at movie studios all over the world are running low on new ideas for packaging, or are too lazy to think of new ideas. But this low imagination infesting these movie studios does not just infect the advertising departments. If you watch enough movies as I have, you will start to see that many once fresh ideas concerning plots for movies have been beaten to death. One such example I have illustrated several times on this web site is ripping off the Richard Connell short story The Most Dangerous Game. Although there is occasionally a decent retelling of this story (like with Raw Courage), for the most part this formula has been retold in a way that has no surprises or twists. A big budget and plenty of planning does not always mean a fresh story; take Avatar, for example. Sure, the action was good and the visuals were impressive. But hadn't you seen the feisty girl of the tribe falling in love with the civilized hero subplot before? Or the hot-headed male member of the tribe who is against the civilized hero right from the start subplot before?

One other action formula that has been used quite frequently over the decades is the "team" formula. The story of this formula is that there is a big job to be done, a job that involves wiping out a bunch of bad guys either as a goal or something that has to be done before reaching the goal. Since one person couldn't do this task alone, several people - usually a colorful bunch of people - are chosen to team up to do the job. Once they are teamed up, there's usually a bunch of training or planning the team does before executing the actual task. Probably the first movie that follows this formula that comes to mind is The Dirty Dozen, which is one of the few decent followers of this formula. Since The Dirty Dozen was released in 1967, there have been countless B movies that have been inspired by this movie. Possibly the lowest point was with the direct-to-video Michael Dudikoff movie Soldier Boyz, a ludicrous movie that tried to get us believe that a millionaire whose child was kidnapped by rebels would hire a team of rebellious teenagers with no combat experience, instead of hiring professional mercenaries. Though The Dirty Dozen influenced this and many other movies, it wasn't the first movie to follow this formula. Three years before The Dirty Dozen, the Roger Corman movie The Secret Invasion had been released, with a plot that in many ways was similar. And three years before The Secret Invasion was made and released, the western The Magnificent Seven hit movie screens. And that wasn't the beginning of the formula, since The Magnificent Seven was in fact a remake of the 1954 Japanese Akira Kurosawa movie The Seven Samurai.

The genesis of this formula goes even further in the past than The Seven Samurai. It at least goes back to World War II, where there was a real-life combat troop called "The Filthy Thirteen" (you can read about them here) that had many similarities to the individuals in The Dirty Dozen. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if a deeper examination of the past The Deserterwould reveal bands of fighters - real or imagined - that had similarities to any of those movies I discussed. Including in the era of the cowboy. The wild west setting of The Deserter was what attracted me in seeing another rendition of the formula. There have been several westerns that have used this formula, though all I can immediately recall are The Magnificent Seven and its sequels, the Lee Marvin movie The Professionals, and the spaghetti westerns The Five Man Army and Massacre At Fort Holman. The Deserter is also a spaghetti western, though one peppered with American stars. Appearing in the movie are Richard Crenna, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban, Brandon De Wilde (Shane), Slim Pickens, Woody Strode, Albert Salmi, Patrick Wayne (son of John), Ian Bannen, and John Huston - whew! The cast also includes Yugoslavian actor Bekim Fehmiu (The Adventurers). In the movie, he plays Victor Kaleb, a cavalry captain in the American southwest. Returning from a two week desert patrol, he finds that the mission his wife was staying at was attacked by Apaches, with his wife given a fatal wound. Believing that it was the army's fault for not protecting his wife, he shoots and wounds his commanding officer (played by Crenna), and deserts the army, dedicating his life to wipe out any Apache he comes across. Two years pass, and one day the fort is visited by General Miles (Huston). General Miles has found out that south of the border, a large Apache force has been gathered and is planning to attack. Miles gets word to the renegade Kaleb that he will be pardoned and reinstated if he organizes and leads a small force of soldiers to infiltrate Mexico and wipe out the Apache threat.

As you've probably guessed, Kaleb eventually agrees to the deal, and shortly afterwards picks out a number of soldiers at the fort to accompany him. He picks out more than a dirty dozen, definitely more than a magnificent seven. And there is a variety to the group of people he picks out. Among others, he picks out out an army chaplain (Connors), a doctor, an African-American (Strode), a visiting British army officer, a Native American (Montalban), and an Irishman. It sounds like this is a group full of color, but as it turns out, the movie doesn't seem to know much as to what to do with these characters. You might think, for example, that the chaplain's religious perspective might clash with what Kaleb plans during the mission, or that the Native American soldier might have cause to pause along the way with the fact that members of his race are being targeted for killing. But the screenplay does absolutely nothing along these lines. The chaplain happens to know about the art of using dynamite, and that's all we learn about him. And like all the other members of this group of soldiers, the Native American doesn't seem to have any problem being a part of a squad killing other Native Americans. All of these particular men seem to have the same basic mentality, with only factors like their race and ethnic backgrounds differentiating themselves from each other instead of factors like beliefs and experience. That by itself is disappointing, but what makes it even worse is that unlike The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven, there are members of this group who never get to speak a word or even reveal what their names are. This movie had a chance of making some real colorful characters and play around with them in many different ways, but it doesn't take that many opportunities to do so.

It's not just these supporting players that have been given disappointing writing, but also with Kaleb, the main character. It seems that the intent was to make him some kind of anti-hero, a kind of character which was popular around the time this movie was made, but the "anti" part of his character far outweighs the "hero" portion. To be quite frank, Kaleb often comes across as a kind of a jerk. For example, when he confronts his commanding officer shortly after the death of his wife, he shoots the guy twice despite hearing a reasonable sounding explanation (there was no apparent danger.) Granted, he shoots only to wound this commanding officer of his, but this still sours him in front of our eyes. Later, when several people under his command die during training or when the mission actually starts, his reaction to these deaths is not much more than a shrug. To make matters worse, the performance of this character by lead actor Bekim Fehmiu leaves a lot to be desired. From watching his performance, I have no idea why Hollywood was (briefly) in love with him and tried to make him a star in America. Fehmiu's underwhelming performance may have come from having to speak a language (English) that was not his native tongue. Whatever the case, his unemotional acting here is the kind that was later made famous by people like Chuck Norris. Actually, the general quality of the acting in the movie is salvaged by the performance by the rest of the cast. Everyone else in the cast is at least competent in their performance, even if their roles give them not much to do. The best acting among the cast comes from John Huston. He puts a lot of color into his role, making his character humorous, wise, and a little crafty. It's too bad that his appearances in the movie all put together total only a few minutes of the running time.

At this point of the review, you are probably thinking that I'm giving this movie a negative review, because of the stuff I have discussed up to this point, the bad stuff outweighs the good stuff. Actually, I am giving The Deserter a recommendation. A cautionary recommendation, but an approval all the same. I admit that part of this comes from the movie being a western - as a big fan of westerns, I am more tolerant of any shortcomings coming from them. If you like westerns, and especially if you are the fan of the Dirty Dozen genre, then you'll definitely enjoy this, warts and all. The movie, flawed as it is, still has enought of the stuff that will please western fans. The movie has the required bleak and rugged terrain (shot in Spain) that you'd expect for a gritty and somewhat downbeat western to play in. Director Burt Kennedy (best known for his comic westerns like Support Your Local Gunfighter) plays it straight here, giving the movie a very serious feel; the grim feeling of some moments is quite striking at times. He also does well filming the action - there's one great action scene where he illustrates how life in the wild west could turn from quietness and order into utter chaos and bloodshed in just a couple of seconds. The climatic action sequence is also well done and is a satisfying payoff, though it could have been a little longer. But most importantly, what really makes me decide to give this movie a thumbs up, is that for all its flaws - like the lack of character development and a sour main character - I never could at any time truthfully say the movie was boring. The movie may take its sweet time (it takes more than half an hour before the main character selects the members of the infiltration group, for example), but there is always at least a kernel of interest at any moment that doesn't make the movie drag on and on. Like that cast - just how the heck did they gather that once-in-a-lifetime group of actors? That's fun to think about and watch in action, and so is a lot of the rest of the movie. Especially if you're as big a western addict as I am.

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See also: The Annihilators, The Five Man Army, The Hunting Party

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