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For the second half of the 1960s the formidable star Burt Lancaster seemed determined to prove himself more virile and physically fit than men half his age. Easing into his fifth decade of life, Lancaster wow'ed us with his strength and stamina in The Train and would continue to perform like a young gymnast in the action pictures The Professionals, The Swimmer, Castle Keep, The Gypsy Moths and even into the 1970s with Ulzana's Raid.
1968's The Scalphunters is one of Lancaster's most enjoyable ego-driven entertainments. He shares the limelight with good supporting players and has great fun with race-related comedy material that plays like The Defiant Ones with a sense of humor. As Lancaster's foil across the racial barrier is the great actor Ossie Davis, I give the show applause for its clarity. By this time in his career Mr. Davis had no need to kowtow to anybody. He seems to be enjoying his role immensely. I imagine that the PC plusses and minuses of The Scalphunters will always be open to debate, but I think that the script by William W. Norton is more daring and less "cute" than Peter Stone's for the equally risk-taking comedy-drama Skin Game from a few seasons later.
Set in the "rollicking western adventure" country of 1860, The Scalphunters is as violent as a Spaghetti western but less cynical. Trapper and mountain man Sam Bass (Lancaster) admits that he was trespassing on Kiowa land, but cries foul when the enterprising Chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre) forcibly exchanges swipes the furs Bass has taken for Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), an escaped slave who until recently was a contented member of another Indian tribe. Bass forces Lee to help him steal back the furs, but before they can most of the Kiowas are wiped out by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) and his band of piratical scalphunters -- murderers that kill Indians of any stripe for the $25 per-head bounty offered by the territory. Bass is just as determined to get his furs back from Howie, and begins dogging the band of killers. That's when Howie's men capture Lee. Well-schooled and given the gift of a fast tongue, Lee talks himself into a more comfortable roost with the scalphunters and attaches himself to Kate (Shelley Winters), Howie's unhappy woman. Thus begins a multi-sided effort by all concerned to get what they want. Bass wants his furs, Howie wants to sell Lee in Galveston and Lee tries to decide which side to choose. He wants to get to Mexico -- where slavery is outlawed.
Burt Lancaster leaps across rocks, rolls up and down mountains, causes an impressive rockslide and pulls off various tricks with his trained horse, giving us a full measure of a daredevil who can't help but show off. And that's how we like him. Equal to the task is a literate script that has Joe Bass and Joseph Lee engaged in a constant battle of wills. Bass wants Lee kept in his place, while Lee is eager to be treated as a man, with a measure of respect. It's a dignified evolution of attitudes on both sides: Bass eventually appreciates Lee as an equal, while Lee finds out that tangling with whites on their own terms means taking responsibility for killings of his own. The fact that they're both fair-minded softies at heart doesn't hurt, even after seven or eight rounds of rough Sergio Leone- like betrayals and reversals of power.
Telly Savalas is a sleazy killer but also a henpecked clown regularly given the works by the whiny, somewhat bloated Shelley Winters. For her part Kate yearns for respectability in a real house with tablecloths, and regrets ever going on the trail with Howie. Probably the film's most subversive scene shows Kate captured by the handsome Indian chief, who wears a decidedly lustful look on his face. Forget everything westerns have preached about Fates Worse than Death -- Kate's response to becoming the woman of a savage is a resigned, "what the hell." Make that resigned, and perhaps curious, too.
The Scalphunters has plenty of broad comedy, with a horse trained to throw its rider, more horses driven insane by loco weed and Bass & Lee capping their 'bonding period' with a ridiculously protracted donnybrook in a mud hole. A four-year-old will get the gag about race differences disappearing when both men are caked in thick gooey mud. Elmer Bernstein's music score runs the usual orchestral power themes, but also stops for a silly whistle noise when Lancaster falls backward in the mud, clobbered by a blow from a large rock. All I can say is that The Scalphunters at least goes somewhere with its comedy fisticuffs, unlike later John Ford movies.
The picture is "full of Eppers", as we used to say when we realized that the extended Epper family of stuntmen were involved. Lancaster pal Nick Cravat is present, as is actor-stuntman Chuck Roberson, a Savant favorite. Fairly unrecognizable are the bigger names Dabney Coleman and Paul Picerni. One of the scalphunters ("Yuma') is played by Dan Vadis, former Italo sword 'n' sandal clodhopper who came in from the cold and eventually found a home in a string of movies by Clint Eastwood. The two expatriates surely met while filming in Italy or Spain.
The only possible fault with The Scalphunters is the fact that almost every scene takes place in a sunlight desert setting - it could really use some variety of locale. That said, I imagine that the only thing preventing the show from becoming a big hit was the general decline of westerns in the late 1960s. The Levy-Gardner-Laven production team had much less clout than Mr. Lancaster, so I wouldn't be surprised if Lancaster's preferred director Sidney Pollack was imposed on the production. If so all the better, for The Scalphunters is one of Pollack's more cheerful pictures. 1
The Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Scalphunters comes straight from an MGM HD master that looks very good and clean throughout. I wouldn't say that the color has faded, only that the sameness of scenery offers a limited range of hues and densities. And that mud looks good and muddy -- we get a definite "Laurel and Hardy" effect, imagining how difficult it must have been to clean the muck away!
An original trailer is included. The graphic title treatment on the trailer has a "slice" going through the "s" of the word Scalphunter, suggesting the top of a head being bisected. The Scalphunters is pretty charming considering the nastiness of what goes on in many of its scenes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Scalphunters Blu-ray rates:
Glenn, You wrote about The Scalphunters on Blu-ray:
"I imagine that the only thing preventing the show from becoming a big hit was the general decline of westerns in the late 1960s."
It didn't help that the movie opened on the same day, April 3, 1968, that Planet of the Apes opened wide across the country (another desert picture that dealt with race in its own unique way), or that Martin Luther King was murdered the next day. Will Penny was another fine western released around the same time, and it failed at the box office too. It's also ironic and even bizarre that when the Blu-ray of The Scalphunters is released in 2014 there's still a Planet of the Apes movie playing in theatres across the country. -- Rory Monteith
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T'was Ever Thus.