In a legendary career that spanned parts of 6 different decades, Burt Lancaster was always at home in the western genre. There are more than a few classics in the bunch — The Professionals, Vera Cruz, Ulzana’s Raid — but one that always seems to slip through the cracks is 1968’s The Scalphunters. Not a classic but a highly entertaining venture with a fun cast.
After a busy season trapping and with a pack horse full of pelts and furs, fur trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) is heading to the nearest town to sell his haul. Well, that’s the plan anyways. He’s stopped by a Kiowa war party who “trade” him for the furs, giving him a captured slave, Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), for his season’s work. Joseph Lee had previously been a captive of Comanches. Now, Joe Bass is on the trail to get his furs back, but there are more problems. The Kiowas are attacked by a gang of scalphunters led by outlaw Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who in the process also captures Joseph Lee. Howie’s gang is on the run and heading for Mexico, now with Joseph Lee in tow. Trailing not too far behind is Bass, just waiting for his chance to strike.
The first of three efforts Lancaster and director Sydney Pollack did together, ‘Scalphunters’ is an interesting western. Reading the plot synopsis, you wouldn’t think it had some heavy comedic — even slapstick — undertones. They are there though, giving the final product a kind of helter-skelter feel. Oh, Bass and Lee comedically beating the crap out of each other? Ah, a massacre of Indians! The tonal shifts provide some odd moments for sure, but the movie is still entertaining. When everything about westerns was changing in the late 1960’s, Pollack’s western seems like a bit of a throwback…that still’s trying to be violent and dark and unsettling at times.
What holds things together despite the oddness? I’d give you two guesses, but you’ll only need one. Lancaster, Davis, Savalas and Shelley Winters. There are other speaking parts, but this movie rides (or derails) on the shoulders of this quartet. It is definitely an ensemble too with each cast member given their chance to star. Lancaster is off-screen for large stretches of the 102-minute running time. When he’s on-screen, he’s a scene-stealer. It’s a bigger, showier performance but he doesn’t chew the scenery like several of his most iconic parts.
Sometimes chemistry is just spot-on, and that’s the case with Lancaster’s Bass and Davis’ Lee. Bass is the grizzled fur trapper, uneducated but not dumb, able to survive in the wilderness while quoting the Bible. Lee is an educated, intelligent slave who can talk his way in and out of plenty of uncomfortable situations. Throw them together, and you’ve got some great dialogue and a great back and forth dynamic. The story pulls the duo apart, but what’s there is excellent. Savalas gets to ham it up a bit as outlaw Jim Howie with Winters playing Kate, a prostitute and Jim’s woman who’s apparently also on the run for some past misdeeds.
As for the gang of scalphunters, look for Dabney Coleman, Paul Picerni, Nick Cravat, Dan Vadis and Chuck Roberson (John Wayne’s stunt double and a familiar face). Armando Silvestre plays Two Crows, a Kiowa chief who gets along with Joe Bass but always seems to come out with the upper hand.
Nothing groundbreaking here, but an enjoyable western. ‘Scalphunters’ was filmed on location in Durango, Mexico in similar locales as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, The Sons of Katie Elder and others, but it’s definitely a good-looking western. Composer Elmer Bernstein is on-hand to provide the score, and even if it’s not a hugely memorable score, a Bernstein score isn’t something to shake your head at. A good western with some excellent lead performances, especially Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.
The Scalphunters (1968): ***/****