Young Guns (1988)

Young GunsOne of the most iconic (maybe infamous is more apt a description), Billy the Kid is synonymous with the American west. His bloody, bullet-shattered life has been a frequent source for films, not too many of them actually any good. The odd exception? A 1988 western starring several up-and-coming stars and several established genre stars, it’s Young Guns.

A young gunfighter with a growing reputation, William H. Bonney (Emilio Estevez) is drifting along and on the run when he’s taken in by an English rancher, John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) in New Mexico. Tunstall has taken in a handful of young drifters who work his ranch and protect his cattle, but he finds himself facing the Santa Fe Ring, a group of cattle ranchers and businessmen trying to control the territory, including their leader, a cattleman named L.G. Murphy (Jack Palance). Things finally come to a head when Murphy-backed gunfighters callously gun down Tunstall. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, and Tunstall’s other men, the Regulators, are deputized to bring the men to justice. The Santa Fe Ring will not go quietly though, forcing Billy to take drastic action.

From The Left-Handed Gun to Chisum, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to The Outlaw, Billy the Kid has been the leading character in one western after another. The craziest thing? The 1980s western aimed at a younger audience…is one of the best! It’s probably right behind the 1970 John Wayne western Chisum. The history actually sticks pretty close to the facts of the Lincoln County War with only a few departures here and there. The look of the film feels spot-on (from the wardrobe to the New Mexico shooting locations), and the story doesn’t pull any punches, sticking to the dark, bloody source material.

Playing one of the American’s west most notable figures, Estevez is a scene-stealer as Billy the Kid. Past portrayals of Billy range from raging psychopath to petulant teenager, but Estevez finds a niche somewhere in between. His Billy is lightning quick with a gun, intelligent and always thinking…but he’s a little crazy, a little unhinged with an ever-growing ego. Estevez’s crazy, cackling laugh when Billy’s truly enjoying himself (usually after shooting someone) is downright creepy. But like so many western characters (anti-heroes or otherwise), Billy has a code he lives by, sticking with his fellow Regulators (his ‘Pals’) through — mostly — thick and thin. A solid, scene-stealing lead role.

The other Young Guns, the Regulators include Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen), Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko). We get little snippets of background as the story develops, but not much (Scurlock’s relationship with a young Chinese woman flops), so it would have been nice to learn a little more about the characters, all of them actual historical characters. With a touch of a younger, hipper Magnificent Seven though, the chemistry among Billy and the Regulators carries the movie as the Lincoln County War develops and grows bloodier and bloodier.

Hamming it up like only he can, Palance looks to be enjoying himself as the villainous Murphy. He’s not a developed, deep character. He’s just a sneering, intimidating villain so there’s that! Terry O’Quinn is excellent as Alex McSween, a lawyer who sides with the Regulators against the Santa Fe Ring. Western fans should also get a kick out of small parts for Brian Keith as a weathered bounty hunter and Patrick Wayne as Pat Garrett.

Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Guns’ follows an episodic story, bouncing along from one real-life incident to another. It makes for a somewhat slow, sometimes disjointed feel, but a quick gunfight always helps to get the blood and adrenaline flowing! Billy usually instigates the gunplay, all building to an impressive final shootout as the Regulators show down with the Santa Fe Ring and some Gatling Gun-toting cavalry. It’s a fun western with a cool cast and some always interesting history. It also produced an equally worthwhile sequel two years later. A surprisingly positive western that is definitely worth a watch.

Young Guns (1988): ***/****

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Big Jake (1971)

big_jake_ver2Over the last decade of his career — the late 1960s and into the 1970s — John Wayne was wary of following along with the Hollywood trend of ultra-violent movies. He even turned down the Dirty Harry role, later doing 2 pretty mediocre cop movies. It’s oddly appropriate then that over the span one of his best movies (and a fan favorite) is one that embraces some bloody violence. Here’s 1971’s Big Jake.

It’s 1909 along the Texas/Mexico border when an outlaw, John Fain (Richard Boone), leads his gang of murderers and cutthroats in a vicious attack on the expansive McCandles Ranch. Ten people are killed, and ranch owner Martha (Maureen O’Hara) sees her grandson kidnapped. Fain demands a ransom of $1 million, leaving a note that says simply “Follow the map.” Knowing her grandson could be killed no matter what she decides, Martha seeks out her estranged husband, Jacob (Wayne), to take the ransom money into Mexico and get his grandson (who he didn’t know) back. With help from his two sons, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), and an old friend, Apache Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), Jacob agrees, setting off to bring his grandson back alive or his captors dead.

I’ve long been a John Wayne fan, and this 1971 western from director George Sherman (although it is reported Wayne helped direct with an ailing Sherman) has long been a personal favorite. I watched TV edited versions for years, so it’s always fun to pop in the DVD and see the full 110-minute movie! With its surprising violence and even some uses of blood squibs, ‘Jake’ is obviously a departure for Wayne. It’s balanced out though with some odd comedy (mostly works), a familiar, deep cast, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico — a favorite spot of Wayne to make movies; The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated. This isn’t a western that rewrites the genre and is far from its revisionist peers of the time, but it’s damn entertaining from beginning to end.

By this point in his career, Wayne could have done a part like this with his eyes closed. To his credit, he never did. He brings a certain energy to the part, a rough edge as we learn about his Jacob McCandles and his past. This is easily one of his most quotable parts, the Duke delivering one crackling one-liner after another. It never feels forced, Wayne’s gruff delivery bringing it all together. His chemistry with his supporting cast is impeccable, especially his early (and too short) scenes with frequent co-star Maureen O’Hara. On the tough guy angle, his dialogue scenes with Richard Boone are pppppperfect, especially the build-up to the final showdown. Throw in the estranged father scenes as he reunites with his sons, Patrick Wayne’s James and Mitchum’s Michael, and you’ve got a bunch of positives in an at-times eccentric western.

The cast is far from done there, especially an underused Richard Boone as the calculating, brutal John Fain. Most villains cower in Wayne’s shadow, but not Boone. Watch THIS scene for an example (apologies for the low quality). Fain’s gang includes O’Brien (Glenn Corbett), a half-breed gunslinger, Pop Dawson (an unrecognizable Harry Carey Jr.), Kid Duffy (stuntman Dean Smith), a deadshot with a rifle, John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer), a machete-wielding psycho, Trooper (Jim Burk), an Army deserter, and Will Fain (Robert Warner), John’s brother who favors a shotgun. Singer Bobby Vinton makes a brief appearance as Jake’s third son. Also look for recognizable western faces John DoucetteJohn AgarJim DavisHank WordenChuck Roberson (Wayne’s stunt double), and Roy Jenson. Wayne’s real-life son, Ethan Wayne, plays the kidnapped Little Jake.

After the opening narration and bloody and bullet-riddled raid, things settle in at a decent pace. Wayne’s introduction off a memorable line from O’Hara is a gem. From there, it’s a story on the trail as Jacob, his sons and Sam, and Jacob’s dog…Dog, trail Fain and the gang into Mexico, finally catching up in a boom town named Escandero. The final shootout and hostage exchange is a gem and the obvious highlight of the movie. It takes place in a walled-off Mexican compound — historically a key location in the Mexican Revolution — in the dead of night. Some great dialogue, a couple genuine twists and plenty of bullets flying.

One of my favorites, and a John Wayne gem. Highly recommended.

Big Jake (1971): ****/****

Shenandoah (1965)

As far as directing powerhouses of the 1960s, Andrew V. McLaglen will never be remembered as one of the greats. He started off in television before making the jump to feature film, teaming several times with John Wayne while also specializing in audience friendly “guy movies.” Good guys versus bad guys, lots of familiar faces and situations, you know the formula. One of his best? An underrated Civil War drama, 1965’s Shenandoah.

It’s 1864 in Virginia, and the tide of the Civil War has turned as the Union forces are slowly beating down the Confederate armies. Doing his best to remain free of the bloody fighting, farmer and patriarch Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) wants nothing to do with the war. Both for himself and his family — seven kids, one daughter-in-law — Anderson simply wants to keep working his 500-acre farm and get through the war unscathed. Fight for Virginia? Fight for slaves he doesn’t have? He fights for what he believes in, his family and his farm. Well, that’s what he’d like to do. While the fighting rages on, Charlie is stunned when he finds out his youngest son (Phillip Alford) has been confused as a Confederate soldier and captured by nearby Union forces. Now the war and the fighting that Anderson has done so well to steer clear of has landed square on his front porch. Can he find his son amidst the hell of war?

This was a movie I watched often growing up when my sister and I had sleepovers with my Grandma. It made an excellent Civil War double feature with Friendly Persuasion, and let me tell ya, they both hold up! I watched this McLaglen-directed Civil War drama for the first time in years, and it resonated just as much now as an adult as it did when I was a kid, if not more. McLaglen had some excellent movies to his name — The Wild Geese is a favorite, Hondo, McLintock are also excellent — but this is his best movie overall. The story is a series of very effective, often moving and often disturbing vignettes, all held together by the Anderson family. Filmed on-location in Oregon and California, ‘Shenandoah’ is an underrated visual film, and the musical score from composer Frank Skinner is a gem. So what stands out viewing this one as a 32-year old, not a 13-year old kid?

That would be James Stewart, one of my favorites in just about any movie he’s in. This doesn’t get the attention or notoriety as one of Stewart’s best performances, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. I love what he does with the part of Charlie Anderson, a stubborn, feisty Virginia farmer and widower looking out for the best intentions of his family. He doesn’t care about the war, about slavery, about Union and Confederate. He will do anything, ANYTHING, to protect his family. Stewart has some great scenes with the younger supporting cast, especially Alford’s youngest son, only called ‘Boy,’ with his daughter, Jenny (Rosemary Forsyth), daughter-in-law, Anne (Katharine Ross), and his sons. There are too many memorable, emotional scenes to mention, but my favorites are the most simple. Minutes before the Andersons go to church each Sunday, Charlie visits his wife’s grave and just talks to her. Simple perfection, Stewart absolutely nailing the underplayed but charged scenes.

Stewart is the unquestioned star of McLaglen’s film, but ‘Shenandoah’ offers quite the ensemble of recognizable faces. Glenn Corbett and Patrick Wayne play Jacob and James, the two oldest brothers. Corbett especially stands out as Jacob who’s beginning to question if their choice to stay out of the war is the right decision. Wayne is solid too, especially in his scenes with Ross. In her film debut, Forsyth is excellent, a subtle scene-stealer as innocent, tough and thoughtful Jenny who’s also interested in a young Confederate soldier, Sam (Doug McClure). The other Anderson boys include Charles RobinsonJim McMullan and Tim McIntire. Maybe the best thing you can say about the story is that the family dynamic, it just works. You believe them as one cohesive unit, one that stands together through thick and thin.

But wait, there’s more! Also look for George Kennedy as a sympathetic Union officer, Gene Jackson as Gabriel, a friend of Boy’s, a slave, Paul Fix as the local doctor, Denver Pyle as the pastor, James Best as Carter, a fellow prisoner who takes Boy under his wing, Harry Carey Jr. as another Confederate prisoner, Tom Simcox as Lt. Johnson, a Confederate officer, with Kevin HagenDabbs Greer and Strother Martin also playing small but memorable parts.

So 32-year old me certainly picked up some new things, or at least was able to process things differently. This is one hell of an anti-war flick. The portrayal of the latter stages of the Civil War is unsettling and often times, disturbing. Death awaits around every corner, hiding behind every tree. The lines are up in the air as the war takes a turn toward its ultimate conclusion. A late battle between a small Confederate camp and a larger Union force with heavy artillery is quick and awful and uncomfortable, one of the more underrated battle sequences I can think of. The last half hour especially features one kick in the gut after another that truly hammers home the anti-war message. And that last scene? Pretty perfect, the possibility of hope lingering in the air amongst all this pain and suffering and death. One of my favorite movies.

Shenandoah (1965): ****/****

Mister Roberts (1955)

mister_roberts_281955_movie_poster29By 1955, Henry Fonda had been away from major film roles for going on 8 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fonda worked in film for several years before returning to the stage, specifically in a role he would play for 8 years. Naturally, when the film rights were purchased, Fonda wasn’t originally considered. Makes sense, right? Thankfully, the powers that be made the right decision, ultimately casting Fonda in the titular role in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

It’s spring 1945 and Allied forces are pushing Japanese forces back across the Pacific with victory seemingly in reach. Thousands of miles back across the Pacific on a securely head island, Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda) is the cargo officer on a cargo ship that helps supplies the nearby island and passing ships heading toward the fighting. After 2-plus years on the ship, Roberts feels he’s not doing enough to help the war effort, and he would like nothing more than to serve on a destroyer in the fighting. The ship’s commander, Capt. Morton (James Cagney), knows his value to the ship and its efforts though, so he won’t approve Roberts’ transfer. In the meantime, Roberts continues to keep working hard, all the while working as a buffer, a go-between between the much-maligned crew and the crazy captain.

A huge hit for many years on Broadway with Fonda in the starring role, ‘Roberts’ made the inevitable jump to the big screen with classic results. Impressive considering the production was less than smooth, director John Ford clashing with Fonda and Cagney to epic proportions (Fonda supposedly punched him square in the face) to the point Ford eventually left the production. Mervyn Leroy took over with Broadway director Joshua Logan also helping with reshoots. It’s debatable which director shot what footage — some Ford footage with some broad humor seems to stand out — and at times, the first 45 minutes are a little slow, but the end result is a highly memorable flick that deserves its classic status (or at least its mostly classic status).

You take for granted sometimes how good an actor can be. Henry Fonda was never a flashy actor, always stealing scenes in subtle, underdone fashion. Then, you finish the movie and realize how good he was. His part as Lt. Roberts belongs with his best roles, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Once Upon a Time in the West, and who knows? It might be his best. Fonda specialized in a long distinguished career at playing the everyman, Joe Normal who’s thrust into an unpleasant situation. As Roberts, it’s dramatic, there is some comedy, and a genuine humanness that plays incredibly sympathetic on the screen. He wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, but he should have been.

Fonda not surprisingly steals the movie, impressive considering the cast around him. Cagney hams it up in a big way (even for him), overdoing it as the narcissistic, egomaniacal Capt. Morton. You need a bad guy though to counter Fonda’s Roberts, and you get it with Cagney. William Powell is perfectly cast as Doc, the ship surgeon who’s good friends with Roberts. Their dialogue-heavy scenes together are a gem, just 2 guys talking, not 2 guys acting. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as Ensign Pulver, the young officer with some issues who clearly looks up to Roberts and is trying to impress him while dealing with his own shy, nervous, lazy demons.

Because that quartet clearly isn’t enough, the crew of the USS Reluctant (the cargo ship) features Ward Bond as the ship chief, Dowdy, with Ken Curtis, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne rounding out the cast. Also look for small parts for Martin Milner, Gregory Walcott and Ford favorite Jack Pennick.

The 1950’s were an especially popular time for navy stories, especially World War II navy stories set in the Pacific. ‘Roberts’ would even inspire a sequel, 1964’s Ensign Pulver (not good). This is one of the prettiest, sunniest, most beautifully shot movies of the decade. I can’t recall a single scene that isn’t sun-drenched with cool blue waters in the background. The US Navy aided during filming, and it shows with an authentic military look and feel to the proceedings. Composer Franz Waxman turns in a solid score too, appropriately balancing the comedic and dramatic moments. Give it a listen HERE.

In my latest viewing, I struggled early on in a 121-minute movie. It’s slow — really slow — setting things up. Thankfully, when things up, they do in lightning-quick fashion. After a slow first 45 minutes, ‘Roberts’ hits its groove. It builds and builds, right up into a highly memorable final stretch. This is a movie that’s ready to punch you right in the stomach with a tragic final 15 minutes. It helps save the early portions and ends the movie on a great final scene. Excellent flick — flaws aside — with Fonda in one of his best performances in a long list of best performances.

Mister Roberts (1955): *** 1/2 /****

 

The Green Berets (1968)

green_berets_postOne of America’s most iconic and well-loved actors, John Wayne was never one to pull punches, especially when it came to his personal politics and beliefs. Nowhere was that more evident than his 1968 film The Green Berets, a film that earned a fair amount of money and has been ripped pretty uniformly in the almost 50 years since its release.

As the fighting intensifies in Vietnam, Colonel Mike Kirby (Wayne), a Green Beret officer, is prepping to go in-country with two A-Teams of Special Forces soldiers. Also along with the troops is an American journalist, George Beckworth (David Janssen), who questions why American troops are even involved in Vietnam to begin with. He tags along with Kirby and the Green Berets as they build a base camp near the border between North and South Vietnam. As the new arrivals help strengthen the camp, Beckworth is in for an eye-opening trip.

I wrote a review for this 1968 movie years ago on Amazon and struggled then with what to see about it. After watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about Vietnam these past few months, I’m struggling even more. I’ll watch any Wayne movie basically – and this one is entertaining – but it’s tough to watch. You don’t think a lot about propaganda movies from the 1960s, but this certainly qualifies. Its views on the war are uncomfortable and entirely one-sided, clearly an effort to convince American viewers what the fighting in Vietnam was really like. The results? Mixed to negative to hated depending on the reviews.

The only solution I can come up with? ‘Berets’ is more watchable if you look at it as an effort to highlight the ability of our Special Forces soldiers and their varying capabilities. It is a heck of a time capsule to the late 60s, dated and somewhat blind to just about anything going on in the world. Still, certain moments resonate, most of them having to do with the heroic actions of our soldiers. Heavy-handed? Obvious? Rigid? Yeah, ‘Berets’ bats 3-for-3 in those departments.

Some of the more superficial complaints about the movie are the ages of the cast. Wayne was almost 60 at the time, and yes, obviously a 59-year old man wouldn’t be leading a Green Beret team into combat. The same for the entire cast. If that’s your deal-breaker, you’re already in trouble here. Wayne is okay as Kirby, but it’s nothing flashy. Janssen is us, the viewer, questioning and struggling to grapple with any potential moral dilemmas. Wayne’s Kirby is telling us which way to think, detailing the horrors of war and the atrocities committed in a war unlike the world had ever seen.

The supporting cast has some interesting faces, but the movie isn’t really interested in hard-hitting, in-depth characterizations. Jim Hutton plays Sgt. Petersen, a scrounger attached to Kirby’s A-teams. Some lighter comedic moments, including one especially heavy-handed effort as Petersen quasi-adopts an orphaned Vietnamese boy (Craig Jue). Subtle it is not! Aldo Ray and Raymond St. Jacques play veteran Green Berets, Muldoon and Doc.

Plenty of other familiar faces rounding out the troops, including Bruce Cabot, George Takei, Patrick Wayne, Luke Askew, Edward Faulkner, Jason Evers, Mike Henry, Chuck Roberson and Rudy Robbins. Takei delivers an interesting part as a South Vietnamese officer with Askew also memorable as Sgt. Provo, a volunteer on the team with an interesting conundrum.

Watching ‘Berets’ is easier when you try and ignore the Vietnam War angle and just look at the story as a more traditional war story with plenty of stock characters, story conventions and genre features. An attack on the fire-base camp by thousands of VC and North Vietnamese troops highlights the middle of the movie, an extended sequence that runs about 25 minutes. Uncomfortable, violent and with some shocking moments to boot. A later mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general feels tacked on to end the story on a more pleasant note, featuring supporting parts for Jack Soo and Irene Tsu.

Also, worth mentioning is composer Miklos Rozsa’s score with some familiar notes from King of Kings and Ben-Hur (listen HERE). I’m not going to completely rip this movie. I’ve always found it entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way. It hasn’t aged well and was released at the height of the American involvement in Vietnam. In fact, it was filmed before the Tet offensive when American opinion truly started to shift against involvement in South Vietnam. Timing? She can be a bitch to deal with!

 The Green Berets (1968): ** ½ /****

An Eye for an Eye (1966)

An Eye for an EyeThe wild west gunslinger is one of the most iconic archetypes to come out of the western genre, right up there with the cowboy and the cavalry trooper. But how about a more specific gunfighter? I’m thinking the disabled gunfighter, undone by wounds, disease, and any number of other plights. With 1966’s An Eye for an Eye, we don’t get one…but two disabled gunfighters!

An infamous bounty hunter, Talion (Robert Lansing) has given up his career with guns and started a family. An enemy from his past though, bloodthirsty Ike Slant (Slim Pickens), isn’t having it though, raping Talion’s wife, then killing her and their son, burning the house down on the way out. Swearing revenge, Talion picks up the gunman’s trail, eventually meeting a younger bounty hunter, Benny Wallace (Patrick Wayne) along the way. They form an uneasy partnership to track down and kill Slant and the two gunfighters riding with him. Their plan goes awry though, forcing the two unlikely partners to depend on each other far more than they ever anticipated. Can they put their rivalry aside to get Slant?

An interesting little western. Definitely a B-western with a smaller budget and cast, ‘Eye’ is still an entertaining, different western entry. I first rented it on Netflix years ago and recently recorded an airing on TCM. It’s not a classic, but it holds up. A second unit director predominantly, director Michael Moore (not that Michael Moore) works off a script from Bing Russell, a familiar face western fans will have seen in The Horse Soldiers and countless other TV westerns. It’s pretty traditional overall but rises above with a nice twist delivered near the halfway point. Stop your reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.

That nice twist? In a showdown with Slant and two gunmen, Talion’s gun-hand is crippled and Benny is blinded by a wayward bullet. Slant escapes, only to find out later that the bounty hunter duo is basically helpless and would be easy targets. Needing each other more than ever, Talion and Benny devise a plan where the crippled gunman calls out where the target is as if that target was a specific time on a clock, Benny doing the shooting. Pretty cool, huh? I thought so. It’s unique and different from just about any other western I’ve seen. It gets definite points for originality. End of relative spoilers.

Neither Lansing or Wayne had huge star power, but we’re talking two very capable western/action actors. I like Lansing’s Talion and the edge he brings to the part. Wayne — often overshadowed by his Dad, the Duke, nicely holds his own here. He does very well physically as the blinded bounty hunter, but he gets to show off his acting chops a bit (if a little overdone with one unnecessary twist late). As for Pickens, he looks to be having a ball as the villain, hamming it up and enjoying his turn as a bad guy. You realize he often played likable sidekicks, not getting many villainous roles.

Also look for the always welcome Paul Fix as a store owner in an isolated mountain town, working with his daughter (Gloria Talbott) and precocious son (a young Clint Howard). Another recognizable face, Strother Martin, gets to work the middle as a greedy gunhand who works for whoever pays him. A little slow-going at times as Talion meets (and sorta woos) Talbott’s Bri, but it’s never too slow. It definitely builds up the tension to the inevitable showdowns.

Something likable about this little-known western. Doesn’t rewrite the genre, but seems to enjoy throwing a new wrench into a familiar formula. Snow-capped, windy filming locations in Lone Pine, California definitely add to the mood. Worth a watch for western fans. I’m seeing different running times listed — avoid the “full movie” on Youtube at 76 minutes — but both versions I saw clocked in at about 95 minutes. Just a hopefully helpful FYI!

An Eye for an Eye (1966): ** 1/2 /****

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): ***/****