Western, Action, Adventure | 100 Mins | Released: 1971
Director: Burt Kennedy
Starring: Bekim Fehmiu, Richard Crenna, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Mantalban, Patrick Wayne, John Huston, Slim Pickens
Our Rating: 6
In The Deserter, a US Army cavalry unit returns from a 2-week patrol to find the inhabitants of an outpost near its home fort have been killed by Apache Indians. Among the victims is the savagely tortured wife of the patrol’s leader, Capt. Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu).
Kaleb believes part of the fault lies with the passive fort commander, Major Wade Brown (Richard Crenna). Kaleb shoots and wounds Brown, and deserts the army. He disappears into the southwestern frontier to wage a private war of revenge against Apaches.
Two years later General Miles (John Huston) arrives at the fort with an offer for Kaleb. The scouts Natchai (Ricardo Montalban) and Tatting (Slim Pickens), old friends of Kaleb, are sent out to entice him back to the fort. With a bit of trickery they succeed.
General Miles tells Kaleb Apaches led by Chief Mangus Durango have gathered in Mexico, intending to cross the border and attack at any time. The General, over Brown’s objections, promises Kaleb amnesty in exchange for leading a select band of soldiers across the border to wipe out the Apache stronghold known as “La Spina Dorsale Del Diavolo”, the Devil’s Backbone.
Kaleb has his pick of the men at the fort. They include dynamite expert Reynolds (Chuck Conners), who also is a priest; knife-fighting expert Jackson (Woody Strode); and grizzled veteran Schmidt (Albert Salmi). Most of the men hate Kaleb. A blustery Englishman Crawford (Ian Bannen) sent by the British Army to study frontier tactics, and young army Lt. Ferguson (Brandon De Wilde), volunteer to go along.
Kaleb leads them into the desert to train them for the mission. It is severe, and result in some deaths. The band also encounters Apaches, who they kill. On their return to the fort, Major Brown reveals that, despite the general’s amnesty offer, he intends to arrest Kaleb for having shot him two years ago. In response the general orders Brown to accompany Kaleb on the mission. Brown cannot disobey. Natchai and Tattinger go along as well.
They cross the border. After smaller skirmishes there is a fierce battle with the main body of the Apache troops. Kaleb’s elite force wins, in large part due to the advantages proffered by dynamite and machine gun fire. The victorious survivors return to the fort, where an embarrassed General Miles explains that despite his amnesty offer he has been ordered to arrest Kaleb. Colonel Brown suggests the resolution: they will all say Kaleb was killed in action at the Devil’s Backbone. Kaleb mounts up and rides away from the fort back into the desert.
Scripted in the style of The Dirty Dozen (1967), and designed as a vehicle for Yugoslavian theater and film matinee idol Bekim Fehmiu, The Deserter featured an ensemble cast of well-known American actors. Noted as the boy in Shane (1953), actor Brandon deWilde appears in his last Western film before his death the following year.
The Deserter was shot largely on location in Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia. Many exterior scenes were filmed at the Fort Bowie set built in the Province of Almería, Spain, where the desert landscape and climate that characterizes part of the province have made it a much utilized setting for Western films, among those A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and later 800 Bullets (2002). This same set was also used in the films Blindman (1971) with Ringo Starr and A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972).