The Scalphunters

the_scalphunters_posterIn 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): ***/****

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The Guns of Navarone

gunsofnavaroneI love westerns, I love war movies, and throw in some heist flick, sci-fi epics and secret agent movies, and I’m a happy camper. But let’s get a little more specific with my favorite sub-genre across all movies. We’re talking of course of Men on a Mission movies. One of the first and still the best, here’s 1962’s The Guns of Navarone.

It’s 1943 in the Aegean Sea and some 2,000 British soldiers are trapped on the small island of Kheros. The only option to save them is to send six destroyers in the dead of night to rescue them, but there’s a problem. The only route through the sea is defended by two immense, radar-controlled super-guns that are protected in a seemingly impregnable cave on the island of Navarone. With so much on the line, a commando team is sent in to destroy the guns, including Mallory (Gregory Peck), a commando/spy and former mountain climber, Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), a former Greek officer and Mallory’s partner, and Miller (David Niven), an explosives expert. Time is running out though, and the odds are stacked against the team. Can they somehow pull off the suicide mission and save the men on Kheros?

The late 1950s and much of the entire 1960s were packed with epic WWII movies, and ‘Guns’ belongs in that conversation right up at the top. From director J. Lee Thompson and based off a novel by Alistair MacLean, this men-on-a-mission epic has definitely stood the test of time. There are flaws (more later), but as a pure popcorn film full of excitement and adventure, it is hard to beat. Filmed on location in Rhodes and Gozo, it is a beautiful film, fully taking advantage of the widescreen format. The look of a WWII epic can get overshadowed, but it adds an element here. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin turns in an Oscar-nominated score as well, a memorable score with a good theme and familiar notes.

But how about a team of specialists on an impossible mission?!? ‘Guns’ was one of the first films to use that basic premise to its full potential. Countless others followed in the 1960s and have ever since. The formula is simple. Assemble your team of specialists, all with their unique skillset, and give them something highly dangerous and likely deadly to perform. Who makes it out? Will the job get done? There’s nothing too crazy with the premise, but when handled correctly, it’s a gem. It belongs up there with The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare (another MacLean novel) as one of the sub-genre’s best.

This effort succeeds so well because of the casting. On my recent viewing, I came away impressed with Peck’s Mallory more than previous viewings. A capable officer, he’s thrust into an unlikely leadership role that forces him to make some incredibly uncomfortable decisions. An interesting part, and a solid character arc. Quinn is at his understated, scene-stealing best as Andrea Stavrou, a steely-eyed killer who hates the Germans. The Mallory/Stavrou history adds an excellent, mysterious edge to the story as well. And rounding out the lead trio, Niven lends some comedic effort as Miller, the explosives expert who has no real interest in war. Three Hollywood legends, and wouldn’t you know it? They all deliver.

The team also includes Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanical expert and knife fighter, Pappadimos (James Darren), the born killer, and Franklin (Anthony Quayle), the team leader. They’re joined on Navarone by two resistance fighters, Maria (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala). Not enough for you? Plenty of familiar British faces lend supporting parts, including James Robertson Justice, Richard Harris, Percy Herbert, Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and Walter Gotell.

It’s easy to take for granted what an impact ‘Guns’ has had on the action/adventure genre since its release in 1962. The men-on-a-mission angle especially is the key, but it laid the groundwork for so many like-minded movies in the years to come. There are flaws — a touch slow at times, especially the cliff-scaling scene; the Germans seem too stupid for their own good at times — but there are few movies that are as exciting, as fun, and simply put, well-made, as this flick from Thompson and a talented crew.

A classic for a reason. If you haven’t seen it by now, make a point of seeking it out. Hopefully you’ll like it just as much as I did!

The Guns of Navarone (1962): ****/****