Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 161: The Deserter (1970)
Is it possible to make a really good movie without a strong lead? I would have thought it wasn’t until I watched Burt Kennedy’s The Deserter. It’s not that Bekim Fehmiu is a bad actor but he lacks the presence to carry a film. Nearly everyone in the cast is more interesting to watch, from Chuck Connors and Woody Strode, to Richard Crenna and Ian Bannen, to Slim Pickens and Ricardo Montalban. Fehmiu even makes Patrick Wayne look charismatic… and that’s saying something. The lead actor feels like he’s in a subpar Spaghetti Western, a variation on the genre that I’ve never warmed to. The rest of the ensemble feels like they’re in a classic Western and I credit that partially to Burt Kennedy’s direction.
However, Fehmiu’s limitations somehow do not ruin this well-written, exciting Western adventure. It’s really a Dirty Dozen-style men-on-a-mission movie and one of the best. It has distinct characters who behave in believable ways. Their conflicts and dynamics as they carry out a suicide mission make the movie an enjoyable watch. Kennedy stages some unique Western scenes I haven’t seen in any other film of the genre: the building and crossing the bridge, the effort of lifting their pack animal and getting approached by the enemy mid-process, and perhaps the most chaotic campfire fight in the genre’s history. The director’s ability to retain tension, especially in the second half of the film, is admirable.
And saving the best for last, this film features one of John Huston’s best performances. He has a lot of fun with the sharp dialog and steals every scene he’s in. Though it’s never mentioned in discussions of his acting work, it definitely should be talked about right alongside Chinatown.
Watched on YouTube.