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Film / The Deserter

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The Deserter (La Spina Dorsale Del Diavolo) is a 1971 Spaghetti Western film produced by Dino De Laurentiis. It was directed by Burt Kennedy.

Bitter over his wife's death due to what he believes was army negligence, Capt. Viktor Kaleb deserts the cavalry and disappears into the southwestern wasteland. But when marauding Apaches set up a stronghold just out of the cavalry's reach in Mexico, Kaleb is given amnesty in exchange for leading a small band of especially trained soldiers to wipe out the Indian stronghold.

Includes examples of:

  • Agent Peacock: Capt. Crawford starts the film dressed in a British uniform that is much more stylish than the US Cavalry ones. He describes himself to Kaleb as a "great big dandy", and when the squad changes into buckskins, his are better fitting than the rest, and he ties his neckerchief like it's a cravat. However, he also shows himself as one of the most capable fighters in the squad, and is one of the handful to survive the raid on the Apache camp.
  • Army Scout: The scouts Natchai and Tattinger (one Native American, one Anglo) are Kaleb's best friends in the service.
  • Badass Preacher: Chaplain Reynolds. Kaleb recruits him because he is the best dynamite man in the army.
  • Boxed Crook: Kaleb is offered a pardon, and his old rank back, if he leads the squad (although he does not want either). Jackson is released from the guardhouse to join the squad.
  • Child Soldiers: During the attack on the smaller Apache camp, the only Apache survivor is a young boy. Kaleb orders him killed, but none of the squad can bring themselves to do it. The boy breaks free, grabs a knife and stabs Tattinger before fleeing into the night. After the main battle, Natachai presents the captured boy to Kaleb and asks if he still wants to kill him. Kaleb stares at the boy but does nothing as the boy runs away.
  • Chromosome Casting: The film takes place among either US cavalry troops or Apache war bands and features almost no women. The only woman of any consequence is Kaleb's wife who is onscreen for only a couple of minutes and dies without saying anything comprehensible.
  • Cigar-Fuse Lighting: Despite being shot and fatally wounded, the Chaplain uses his dying strength to touch his cigar to the fuse to set off the dynamite to trigger the avalanche. He even enjoys one final puff on it before the explosion.
  • Dangerous Deserter: After deserting, Viktor Kaleb becomes a One-Man Army waging war against the Apache. Because he is so effective, General Miles has him dragged back and offers him a pardon if he leads a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits on an off-the-books mission into Mexico to wipe out an Apache stronghold.
  • Demolitions Expert: Chaplain Reynolds. Kaleb recruits him for the squad because he is the best dynamite man in the army.
  • Disposable Woman: Kaleb's wife only appears long enough to die at the hands of the Apache and trigger Kaleb's Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Capt. Kaleb is accompanied by a large wolf dog who has its own grudge against the Apache. Kaleb says his name is 'Dog'. He also claims the dog isn't his and just follows him around for the chance to kill Apaches.
  • Dungeon Bypass: Kaleb and his men enter the stronghold of the Devil's Backbone by scaling a mesa that stands fifty feet away from the rest of mountain range, and using a block and tackle to haul up their equipment and mounts. The Apache don't bother guarding the mesa as they don't think anyone could get from it to the range proper. Kaleb constructs a Rope Bridge from the mesa to the range, granting them a backdoor to the stronghold.
  • Eat the Dog: Kaleb claims that the reason Dog is following him is because an Apache once tried to eat him, and that Dog is looking for payback. It is unclear if he is joking or not.
  • Fighting Irish: Kaleb explains why to General Miles why he selected every member of his team, and what they're specific skills are. When Miles asks why he chose O'Toole, Kaleb simply responds "He's Irish".
  • Flaying Alive: Kaleb's wife is skinned alive by the Apache.
  • Gatling Good: The squad sets two Gatling guns on either side of the canyon to catch the Apache in a crossfire as they try to escape. This is correct usage of Gatling guns as artillery pieces.
  • Grave-Marking Scene: Kaleb stops to visit his wife's grave after he makes the first two kills of his Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Used to depict the squad constructing the rope bridge from the mesa.
  • Heroic Dog: Kaleb is accompanied by a nameless dog who is capable of taking down an Apache warrior on his own. He takes a particular liking to Crawford and selects him for the team.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The Apaches are holed in a stronghold in a virtually unassailable mountain range called "The Devil's Backbone".
  • The Lost Lenore: Every action on Captain Kaleb's Roaring Rampage of Revenge is inspired by the memory of his wife who died at the hands of the Apache.
  • Mercy Kill: After finding his wife mutilated by the Indians, Kaleb puts a bullet in her head.
  • One-Man Army: According to General Miles, Captain Kaleb has killed more Apaches single-handed in the two years since he deserted than Colonel Brown's entire brigade.
  • The Place: The film's alternative title (The Devil's Backbone) refers to the mountain range where the Apache have their stronghold.
  • Plausible Deniability: General Miles cannot send US troops across the Mexican border to strike at the Apache stronghold without sparking an international incident, so he instead assembles a small squad that will be sent out in mufti to make a surgical strike, and who can be denied if caught.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Given his choice of any men in the fort for his squad, Kaleb assembles a strange team including the surgeon, the chaplain, a green lieutenant, a dandyish British captain, and three men who want to kill him.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: It's The Dirty Dozen in The Wild West!
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: After his wife is raped and killed by the Apache, Kaleb shoots his commanding officer, deserts the US Army, and starts a one man war against the Apache.
  • Rope Bridge: Jackson constructs a rope bridge from the mesa to the mountain range to allow the squad to cross over undetected.
  • The Savage Indian: The Apache are not shown in a positive light. They seem to have no motivation other than to attack and massacre white folk. Kaleb admires some of their characteristics—their hardiness, ferocity, and willingness to die silently so as to not betray their position—but otherwise holds the entire race in contempt.
  • Shirtless Scene: All of the squad expect Kaleb are shown shirtless when Kaleb orders them to strip so they can experience the direct heat of the desert sun.
  • The Spartan Way: Kaleb subjects the squad to some brutal training methods while teaching to think and act like Apaches. He makes them strip off and train under the full heat of the desert sun so they will understand just how hot it gets, and appreciate the luxury of wearing clothes. When Fighting Irishman O'Toole falls to his death during a climbing exercise, Kaleb complains that he screamed while he fell instead of remaining silent.
  • The Squad: Kaleb assembles a handpicked team to make the assault on the Apache stronghold.
  • Take My Hand!: When Jackson is collapsing the Rope Bridge, one of the ropes wraps about him and yanks him off the top of the mesa. Schmidt reaches out and grabs Jackson's hand despite Jackson's protestations to let him fall. Jackson finally grabs Schmidt's hand with both of his and Schmidt starts hauling. However, both of them end up falling to their deaths.
  • Thirsty Desert: Captain Kaleb takes The Squad into the desert and forces them to train naked and without water beneath the blazing sun to accustom them to what they will encounter when going up against the Apache. The training is severe, and results in some deaths.