The Deserter (1971)

the-deserterAs a freshman in college, I stumbled across the cast listing. That jumped to Amazon to see if the movie was available. Sure enough, a beat-up VHS tape was there and fairly cheap. Fast forward a couple weeks to Thanksgiving break — when I got home and a VHS player was available — and I got to sit down with a movie and cast that just sounded too good to be true. Verdict on 1971’s The Deserter? Brutally underrated, a ton of fun and deserves far more of a reputation.

After his wife is brutally murdered by Apaches, Captain Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) shoots and wounds his commanding officer and deserts, going on a rampage killing Apaches. Two years later, the cavalry needs him and comes calling. An Apache chief is assembling a huge raiding party of Apache warriors below the border in Mexico with his attack looming, an assault that could wipe out hundreds. Kaleb’s mission is simple. He must recruit a small squad of men — specialists and troublemakers alike — and train them to fight like an Apache before leading them into Mexico to attack the Apache camp before it’s too late. Can Kaleb pull off the mission? Will anyone even get out alive?

For me, westerns with this formula don’t get much better than this. A western version of The Dirty Dozen, ‘Deserter’ is simply a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is crazy, especially when you assemble all those stars and recognizable faces for a men-on-a-mission flick. The formula is as straightforward as they get. Establish the mission, assemble a team, can the team pull off the suicidal mission and get out? Filmed in Spain and Italy (even Yugoslavia), ‘Deserter’ isn’t quite a spaghetti western, but it certainly has the feel of it. If you’re even a remote fan of the western genre, I guarantee you’ll get at least some entertainment value here. If not, I’ve got nothing for you…

A Yugoslavian actor who never quite made it big in the U.S., Fehmiu is an unlikely choice for the lead role as the vengeful anti-hero. Still, I come away impressed each time I watch the movie from director Burt Kennedy. Fehmiu is cold, harsh and brutally efficient at getting the job done. In undertaking the mission, he’s getting revenge hopefully. Nothing more, nothing less. Somewhat wooden at times, Fehmiu benefits from a script dripping with memorable one-liners, a script from western regular and always reliable Clair Huffaker. As for the rest of the cast….oh my. Just oh my.

What follows isn’t necessarily A-list stars, but instead, recognizable genre stars, character actors, and an all-around energy to fill out Kaleb’s death squad. There’s Richard Crenna as Brown, Kaleb’s former commander and rival, Chuck Connors as Reynolds, the bible-thumping Chaplain and dynamite expert, Ricardo Montalban as Natchai, the Indian scout, Slim Pickens as Tattinger, the wily veteran scout, Ian Bannen as Crawford, the British officer scouting the Southwest, Brandon de Wilde as Ferguson, the inexperienced young officer, Woody Strode as Jackson, the troublesome strongman, Patrick Wayne as Robinson, the Gatling Gun specialist, Albert Salmi as Schmidt, the vengeful sergeant, Fausto Tozzi as Orozco, the knife fighter, Doc Greaves as Scott, the sergeant, John Alderson as O’Toole, the fiesty Irishman, and Larry Stewart as the younger of the 2 Robinson brothers.

Other than some quick Kaleb exposition — he’s a dynamite man, a knife fighter, a Gatling gun specialist — we’re given little information about these men. We don’t need it though. It’s a specialist movie on an impossible mission. Who’s gonna make it? Who’s not? There’s some impressive star power so the guessing game will keep you guessing until the end. It did for me! Oh, and John Huston has a memorable turn as General Miles, the new cavalry commander who has to send Kaleb and his squad on the suicide mission. Under-utilized? Too much going on? Maybe, but it is F-U-N.

What are spaghetti westerns usually synonymous with? Their musical scores. No Ennio Morricone here, but composer Piero Piccioni brings his A-game in an often odd/bizarre score that resonates each time I check ‘Deserter’ out. Check out an extended sample HERE. The jazzy, playful theme is catchy as hell, but I love its quieter moments with an orchestra playing a soft, moving, mournful theme. Like I said, an odd combination but one that works.

So what else? The action isn’t overdone here with a couple little fights sprinkled here and there early. The extended training sequence has some fun surprises in store with the action — and mounting casualty report — kicking in over the last 30 minutes as the mission gets underway. Loud, chaotic and bullet-dynamite-knife-Gatling Gun riddled finale that does not disappoint. As I mentioned, the script is a gem of memorable one-liners (check some out HERE) in a story with dark undertones but some lighter, clever moments too along the way.

A hidden gem for me, and one of my favorites. I would love to see a widescreen print of the movie, having only seen pan-n-scan VHS copies and a public domain DVD that cut about 6 minutes off the finale run-time I saw on the VHS. If you can track a copy down, I highly recommend it. As far as entertainment value goes, this one is hard to beat.

The Deserter (1971): ***/****

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High Noon

high-noonAs a diehard fan of the western genre, I have one glaring omission that I not so proudly reveal today. Though I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years, I have never sat down and watched 1952’s High Noon from beginning to end. I know…crazy, right? Well, here we are. I can officially check it off the list. Put your pitchforks and torches away.

In the town of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly) and is retiring as the town marshal. He’s minutes away from leaving town on his honeymoon when three gunfighters ride through town. The telegraph office begins clicking away with a message too, notorious killer Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), has been paroled after receiving a life sentence, members of his gang waiting at the train station. The marshal who put him away who he swore revenge against? Will Kane. Now, Kane must decide what to do. With everyone telling him to hightail it out town before Miller arrives on the noon train, Kane decides to make his stand. Will Hadleyville support him though or will he be on his own?

From director Fred Zinnemann, ‘Noon’ is consistently ranked as one of the all-time great westerns. I never actively avoided it, just never actively sought it out either! I liked the idea of the movie more than the final product to cut to the chase. It’s good — really good — but not great for me. The story unfolds basically in real-time (clocking in at 85 minutes) from the moment Kane finds out Miller is coming to the time the killer and his gang descend on the town. Filmed in black and white, the stark western town feels very isolated to the world, removed from any civilization.

So that Gary Cooper, man, he’s always good. When I review his movies, I often find myself typing ‘one of his best roles.’ Playing Marshal Will Kane, Cooper earns the description again. Along with Sergeant York, this is probably his most famous, iconic role. Bigger picture? It’s one of the most iconic roles ever in the western genre. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than a man — a lone man — deciding to make a decision that he believes is right, potentially dangerous consequences be damned. Everything screams ‘RUN’ and everyone around him echoes the sentiment. He’s married, he’s retiring and he has a whole new (hopefully peaceful) life ahead of him. He should run for the hills. He doesn’t though. Cooper’s Kane makes his stand because he believes he’s right, even when the entire town abandons him.

Cooper was perfect at that Everyman role. He’s not a super marshal, not a gun-slinging gunfighter. He’s just a man. Few characters in a western resonate as much as him. Alan Ladd’s Shane, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, William Holden’s Pike Bishop, maybe a few others I’m missing, but Kane is right in that western hierarchy.

This is Cooper’s movie, but the supporting cast is nothing to shake your head at. Kelly is the newlywed bride, a Quaker who sees a future with Kane. Katy Jurado is a scene-stealer as Helen Ramirez, a Mexican woman with power, albeit hidden power, who has a past with Cooper’s Kane. I would love to see what a movie not limited by 1950s standards would do with this character. Just the same, an excellent part. Also look for Lloyd Bridges as Harvey, the angry deputy, Thomas Mitchell as the Mayor, and Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr., and Otto Kruger as some of the key townspeople. Miller’s gang includes Robert J. Wilke, Lee Van Cleef and Sheb Wooley. Also look for small parts for western regulars Jack Elam and John Doucette.

One of many claims to fame this western has is the famous criticism it received from….the Duke himself, John Wayne. Wayne objected to the townspeople’s response to Kane’s desperate plea for help. He even made Rio Bravo with director Howard Hawkes as a direct counter to ‘Noon.’ I tend to agree. Human nature kicks in, but it is a tad heavy-handed at times. Naturally no one wants to die going up against four hardened gunfighters, so Kane finds himself fighting a battle on his own. The negative is that it goes a little slow in getting to the showdown, a little repetitive. Minor complaint, but I did lose some interest along the way.

The tension is palpable though as the showdown looms. As noon approaches, the tension and anxiety kick in in crazy doses. ‘Noon’ has one of my favorite single shots in film history, a pan on a dolly that shows a nervous Kane, completely alone on a vacant street waiting to do what he believes is right. Cooper nails this scene, some nervous twitches, touching his hat, his gun as the train whistle blows in the background. No nonsense finale, just what we’ve been waiting for. Glad I finally caught up with this and officially checked it off my list.

High Noon (1952): *** 1/2 /****

Red River (1988)

redriverSo what’s more unnecessary than a remake of a classic? A TV movie remake of a classic! Released in 1948 and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift from director Howard Hawkes, the original Red River is a classic western that’s undone by one of the worst endings in the western genre. So some 40 years later, the TV remake hit TV screens on CBS. Here’s 1988’s Red River.

It’s 1865 in the months following the Civil War, and the cattle market has dried out in Texas. A cattle rancher for 15 years, Thomas Dunson (James Arness) has decided the only way to save his ranch and his cattle is to drive an immense herd north to a railroad and sell the herd for a pretty penny. It’s never been done before though, and the dangers are everywhere from Indians to bandits to weather and nasty trail. With his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Bruce Boxleitner), an ex-Confederate soldier, his longtime right-hand man, Groot (Ray Walston), and a crew of cowboys, Dunson sets off north for Missouri. His ranch and well-being are at stake, and he pushes his men and the herd to the absolute limit. His intentions are genuine, but the means are less than pleasant, pushing Garth to make a decision that could tear the whole thing apart.

So for starters, there’s no real reason to remake the ’48 Hawks version. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way…the ’88 version is pretty good. It’s limited by an obvious TV budget at times with stock and insert footage filling in for the bigger shots of the herd moving north, but the quality is pretty decent. Some fun was spent, and that’s all a TV movie really needs. The Borden Chase story is there with a decent cast. It’s hard to mess that up other than that ending. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll get some enjoyment out of the remake.

It’s hard to step into the shoes of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, but Arness and Boxleitner make a willing go of it! Arness certainly had the presence and attitude for the part. Years earlier, it was Wayne who recommended Arness play Marshal Matt Dillon TV’s Gunsmoke, and that worked out for everyone. Boxleitner — a reliable actor who never quite became a star — delivers the movie’s best performance as Garth, capable, well-meaning and loyal but only when right is on the line. The chemistry is solid between Arness and Boxleitner, and throw in an underused but always welcome Walston for good measure.

The ’48 version is infamous for some of its latent homosexual tendencies between Clift’s Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance, another young gunfighter. Gregory Harrison steps in here as Valance, and the dynamic is better. We have 2 young gunfighters, two type-A personalities, and let’s face it…there’s only room for ONE. The tension is solid, and the resolution is better than the original. The doomsday moment is the unnecessary addition of a female character, widowed Kate (Laura Johnson), for the two to fight over in predictable fashion.

Who else? The depth of the cast might not blow you away, but there’s some good stock characters here. A black cowboy, Jack Byrd (Stan Shaw), is added to the mix, injecting some life into the story. There’s also the troublemakers, L.Q. Jones and Jerry Potter, the youngster, Zachary Ansley, and the reliable cowboy, Burton Gilliam, who many will recognize from his key part in Blazing Saddles. Western fans should also keep their eye out for a quartet of cameos — blink and you’ll miss them — including Guy Madison, Ty Hardin, John Lupton and Robert Horton. Definitely cool to see some familiar western faces pop up, even if it’s only for a scene.

The cattle drive western is one of the archetypal genre set pieces. Including its predecessor, Lonesome Dove, one of the best segments from Centennial, The Cowboys, and plenty of others, it helps average stories rise above to something better. Familiar? Even repetitive? At times, but they’re always entertaining. This ’88 remake is a tad rushed in spots at just 94 minutes — comparing to the original’s 133 minutes — but it is never dull. If it is too familiar, so be it. I liked it. A solid, if unnecessary remake.

Red River (1988): ** 1/2 /****

Apache Uprising

220px-apache_uprising_posterIs the name A.C. Lyles familiar, western fans? It might ring a bell if you watch enough of the genre. A producer who dealt with typically low budget B-westerns, Lyle isn’t exactly a household name. Some of those efforts — there’s 12 by my count — are pretty decent, like 1965’s Black Spurs, and then…well there’s the not so good efforts, like 1965’s Apache Uprising.

Riding to the town of Lordsburg, drifter Jim Walker (Rory Calhoun) and frontiersman Bill Gibson (Arthur Hunnicutt) barely make it out of a gun battle with Apache warriors. They join up with a cavalry patrol in the area and make it to Lordsburg with the news of the Apache uprising. No one quite believes them, leaving the duo high and dry. They find themselves on an outgoing stagecoach headed for Apache Wells. If Apache warriors are on the warpath, they will no doubt run into some trouble along the way. Jim, Bill and Co. can’t know what’s coming though as a gentlemanly gambler, Vance Buckner (John Russell), intends to rob the stage of its hidden, important treasure.

Seems innocent enough, right? These A.C. Lyles-produced westerns used the same sets, familiar storylines (some would say copied) and the same cast members popping up in multiple movies. Nothing wrong with low budget B-movies, but this was simply not very good. At 90ish minutes, it creaks along without any real regard for the script that was supposedly out there. The high point unfortunately was actually the musical score from composer Jimmie Haskell which seems really familiar, but I can’t place from where.

Well, the cast has some fun with it. Calhoun does a part he could do with his eyes closed, a roguish anti-hero who actually isn’t such a bad guy. His partnership/friendship with Hunnicutt’s Bill, a hard-drinking frontiersman who’s lived with Indians for years, is also pretty solid in typical buddy dynamics. Russell (TV’s Lawman) is also having some fun as Vance, the duded-up gentleman gambler with a mean streak who has a plan to rob the coach. His henchmen are Star Trek’s DeForest Kelly as the unhinged gunhand, Toby Joe (a bad guy because his name is Toby Joe), and dimwitted horndog, Jesse (Gene Evans).

Also look for horror fixture Lon Chaney Jr. as another hard-drinking stagecoach driver, Corinne Calvet for a scandalous woman with a past –an overdone, monologue-driven past — who just might have feelings for Walker, Richard Arlen and Roy Jenson as cavalry troopers, and Robert H. Harris as the director of the stagecoach line who’s got a bug up his butt.

Just too disjointed to be good. Touches of countless westerns — most noticeably Stagecoach — are on display, but never in an interesting or even unique way. The story bounces from scene to scene with little to no unifying link. As for the action, what’s there is okay, but there isn’t enough. The ending limps to the finish, wrapping up a disappointing western.

Apache Uprising (1965): */****