Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Deserter

aka Devil’s Backbone

aka Ride to Glory

When US cavalry captain Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) loses his wife in an Apache attack on a catholic mission, he holds his superior Major Brown (Richard Crenna) just as responsible for her death as the people who killed her. So, after an altercation with Brown that just barely ends with Kaleb deciding not to kill his superior, he deserts, going native in the desert bordering Mexico.

There he probably would have stayed, if not for the arrival of General Miles (John Huston) at Brown’s fort. Miles is convinced that the apache war chief Durango (Mimmo Palmara) is staying in the border countries of Mexico preparing an attack that would drench the whole Southwest of the US in blood – Native American and white alike. Of course, Miles can’t just waltz an army over the border of Mexico to try and stop Durango, and has decided on an alternative plan of attack. To fetch Kaleb – a man made for guerrilla war – give him a handful of men, and use him and these men to scout out and perhaps resolve the situation.

So Kaleb soon finds himself working for the US cavalry again, turning the obligatory rag-tag bunch of fighting men – among them his old Native American scout friend Natachai (Ricardo Montalban), British import Crawford (Ian Bannen), explosives-loving chaplain Reynolds (Chuck Connors), big angry black man Jackson (Woody Strode) and professional asshole Schmidt (Albert Salmi) – into an effective guerrilla force. Afterwards, the bloodshed starts.

Burt Kennedy’s The Deserter (going by the IMDB with directorial contributions of Yugoslavian Niksa Fulgosi, but I wouldn’t know) is yet another of those early 70s international co-productions – this time under the auspices of Dino de Laurentiis – that finds itself trying to mimic many elements of the Spaghetti Western, probably on a budget much superior to most anything Italian and Spanish productions companies who didn’t have a leg in Hollywood like Dino did could come up with. At the very least, there was enough money involved to lavish it on quite a cast of actors who mostly never quite made the big time but are – at least in my home – always a pleasure to watch. Bekim Fehmiu was quite the star in his native Yugoslavia and across Eastern Europe, though, and this film was a fruitless attempt to give him a foothold in Hollywood or at least Western Europe.

Of course, this being a de Laurentiis film, it then goes and doesn’t really do much with these actors, using a script that is decidedly one-note in characterisation, with the little character development that is there so underwritten it’s often difficult to make out why the film thinks the characters act like they act, or change when they do. Fortunately, the ensemble consists of men (and this is as much of a sausage assembly as you’ll ever find) quite used to, if they aren’t given much to work with, at least making the little they have count, always giving the impression the viewer is watching quite interesting people, even if there’s never anything visible on screen that would actually make them interesting.

Characterisation really is the weakest point of The Deserter’s script, though it is generally more serviceable than strong, providing a Man’s Adventure style men on a mission western. From time to time, writer Clair Huffaker – who was responsible for quite a few better scripts for westerns – does add some interesting flourishes to the proceedings, though. While the Apaches are the enemy of the day, and not given luxuries like characterisation or names, the film does more than once suggest that their grievances are very much justified. The film even, as much as a film very much in love with its own violence can, the way the conflict between Apache and post-settlers is fought: full of atrocities committed by both sides, one cruelty always leading to the next, with no side seeing itself in the position to ever stop escalating. Men of peace aren’t to be found on both sides anyhow, so the only thing they’ll use to resolve their conflict will be violence. Moral right and wrong don’t ever come into play. In the film’s world, a morally decent action can lead to as horrible consequences as a morally abhorrent one. In the very end, after quite a bit of slaughter, the film does suddenly start to argue doing “the right thing” might be important and worthwhile in itself even when the consequences are dire, but then it’s a bit too underwritten to really convince me of anything more than its good intentions. Which, come to think of it, is more than a lot of films bother with showing, so it’s still a point in The Deserter’s favour.

If you take the film for what it is, though, you can have a good time with it. Even though Kennedy is the archetype of a hired gun director never bringing any visible personal touches to anything he’s working on, he does his job well enough here, pacing things well, often letting the actors’ faces and the impressive landscape of Arispainia speak for themselves, getting the action done in professionally exciting manner. The resulting film is not exactly one of the greatest pseudo-Spaghetti Westerns ever made but it’s an entertaining time, if you can cope with a lot of unpleasant violence in your entertainment.

No comments: