Technically, THE DESERTER fits the mold of a spaghetti western(and is so listed on the Spaghetti Western Database). A Dino De Laurentis production, it was filmed in Spain, Italy, and Yukoslavia and starred, in the title role, and starred Yukoslavian theater and film matinee idol Bekim Fehmu. But everything else about it screamed Hollywood.
It was filmed in English, the director was American, as was the screenwriter, Clair Huffaker(who wrote western novels and screenplays that starred John Wayne, Elvis, Kirk Douglas among others), the music score had a jazz influence, and most of the actors were American.
The plot can be reduced to one simple phrase: Dirty Dozen in the West.
The title character, Victor Kaleb(Fehmu), is bitter on coming across a mission wiped out by the Apaches while returning from a two week patrol and finds his wife there, still alive, strung up, and partially skinned. He puts her out of her misery and pursues the Apache seen fleeing, wearing her dress.
Kaleb is incensed that a patrol wasn’t sent with her. The Fort Bowie commander, Major Wade Brown(Richard Crenna), insists he had no idea any Apache’s were in the area. Kaleb reply is “How would you know. You haven’t been outside that gate in a year!” He deserts and, when Brown tries to stop him, Kaleb shoots him in the leg and shoulder.
Two years later a new area commander arrives, General Miles(played by movie legend John Huston) and he wants Kaleb found and brought in for a conference. He has a plan and needs Kaleb. Any man that can kill Apaches and stay alive for two years is the man he wants. A patrol is sent out to bring him in, commanded by a wet behind the ears young lieutenant, Ferguson(Brandon deWilde). Though young, he admits finding him may be easy. Bringing him in will be different. And he’s right. They return severely chastened and beat up.
Miles has a different tactic now. He sends the only real friends Kaleb has: two scouts, an Indian named Natachai(Ricardo Montalban) and an old white man, Tattinger(Slim Pickens). to see what they can do. Kaleb refuses until the three are attacked by six Apaches, all dispatched, but not before one puts a knife in Tattinger’s back. The old scout plays it for all he’s worth to get Kaleb back to the fort before the main band gets there.
In his two years in the desert, Kaleb was court-martialed for desertion and attempted murder of a superior officer. The army had stopped looking for him and beleived him dead. Brown is a Colonel by now and seethes over Miles’ plan to pardon Kaleb for a special mission.
Apache chief Mangus Durango(Mimmo Palmara) had been conducting raids into the American southwest. He has a stronghold just across the border in Mexico known as the Devil’s Backbone. Miles’ plan is to send a small force of men, trained and led by Kaleb, into Mexico to wipe out the Apaches. Brown seethes because Kaleb is reinstated and has authority over him. “He shot me! Twice!” Miles points out that if Kaleb had wanted him dead, he would have been.
Kaleb puts together a small band made up of misfits and hard heads. Most hate him, a few want to kill him outright. Each has skills. Chuck Connors is Chaplain Reynolds, who has an affinity for dynamite. Patrick Wayne plays Captain Bill Robinson, an expert in the use of the Gatling gun. Woody Strode is Jackson, a troublemaker who also knows building suspension bridges. Captain Crawford(Ian Brennan), an Englishman who showed up with Miles, in America to learn fighting techniques to apply to Britain’s African campaign volunteers. Young lieutenant Ferguson also volunteers. Some of the other men picked are Schmidt(Albert Salmi), and O’Toole(John Alderson).
His task is to train them in fighting techniques, the use of tomahawks, survival in the desert, climbing in the mountains, and how to die quietly if necessary so as not to give away the rest.
There’s only one way into the Apache stronghold, so they have to make a new one. From the back. It will be hard to get the men through, let alone the horses and equipment. But they have to.
Liked this one a lot.