Part spaghetti Western and part Dirty Dozen ripoff, this Italy/US/Yugoslavia coproduction has a serviceable premise, then loses its way thanks to a forgettable leading performance and an overly mechanical plot. Along the way, several colorful actors are subsumed by the overall mediocrity of the piece, delivering half-hearted interpretations of underdeveloped roles. Even the action highlights are ho-hum. Those who want nothing more from adventure pictures than a steady flow of death-defying bravery and tight-lipped macho posturing will be able to consume the picture like a serving of empty calories, but those who expect anything more will get bored fairly quickly. In the Wild West, U.S. Cavalry soldier Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) completes a fortnight-long patrol and discovers that while he was away, Apaches raided the outpost where he lives and killed his wife. Kaleb blames the death on his superior officer, Colonel Brown (Richard Crenna), so Kaleb tries to quit the service and devote his life to killing Apaches. When Brown refuses Kaleb’s resignation, Kaleb shoots the colonel and becomes a fugitive from military justice. Two years later, blustery General Miles (John Huston) arrives on the scene, demanding that Brown illegally cross the Mexican border to slaughter a band of Apache raiders. What’s more, Miles demands that Brown’s men bring Kaleb in from the wilderness, because during the intervening period, Kaleb has made good on his vengeance pledge by slaughtering Apaches heedlessly, thereby becoming the ideal man to lead the mission into Mexico.
Once all the narrative pieces are in place, Kaleb finds himself supervising a band of soldiers, including Kaleb, who would just as soon kill the notorious deserter as kill Apaches. Among those playing soldiers are Ian Bannen, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban, Slim Pickens, and Woody Strode. (Naturally, Crenna’s character is along for the ride, too.) With this much talent at their disposal, producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Burt Kennedy should have been able to come up with something much more interesting than The Deserter, which is sometimes known as The Devil’s Backbone. Alas, the script is unrelentingly clichéd, predictable, and superficial, and the filmmakers miscalculated, badly, by casting Yugoslavian stud Fehmiu in the leading role. Just one year previous, Paramount tried to make Fehmiu into an international star by toplining him in the epic melodrama The Adventurers (1970), so this picture presumably represented the completion of a two-picture deal. A European equivalent to, say, James Franciscus, Fehmiu is suitably brooding and athletic, but he’s got the depth and range of a statue. With his performance creating a vacuum at the center of The Deserter, the movie is doomed to disappoint from its very first frames.
The Deserter: FUNKY