Judge Patrick Naugle finds scalp hunting high-larious!
"Better beans and freedom than cake and slavery."
Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster, Tough Guys) is a rough and tumble American fur trapper who finds himself on the bad end of a raw deal when Kiowa Indians force him to trade his inventory for a an educated black slave named Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis, Grumpy Old Men). Lee hopes to get Bass to take him to Mexico, but soon finds himself in the clutches of Jim Howie (Telly Savalas, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure) and his stogie loving girlfriend, Kate (Shelly Winters, Night of the Hunter). When the Indians are attacked by another band of outlaws, Joe and his leery companion have to band together to retrieve Joe's furs.
Burt Lancaster was a man's man. The actor's career in Hollywood spanned a little less than fifty years and spawned many classic films, among them the Oscar winning From Here to Eternity, the dramatic classic Judgment at Nuremberg, and one of Lancaster's final films, the Kevin Costner baseball classic Field of Dreams. Although not as well regarded at some of his contemporaries (including Charlton Heston, who I always used to confuse Lancaster with), Lancaster left behind some towering entertainment before his passing in 1994.
1968 was a fascinating year for Burt Lancaster. The actor would star in two films that were seemingly polar opposites: director Ned Merill's adaptation of John Cheever's The Swimmer (one of the oddest films to come out of the 1960s), and director Sydney Pollack's western The Scalphunters. The Scalphunters was Pollack's third film and a departure for the director: prior to helming The Scalphunters Pollack had directed two contemporary dramas (1966's This Property is Condemned and 1965's The Slender Thread). This foray into the western genre would prove to be a fascinating if somewhat insubstantial movie event.
The Scalphunters doesn't reinvent the wheel so much as keep it spinning on some of the same clichés movie audiences had become accustomed to. Pollack's film sometimes teeters precariously between action, drama, and slapstick comedy. When Lancaster's character gets a gun pointed at him during a night raid, he clunks his captor over the head with a thump. The victim falls to the ground, cross-eyed and about two frames away from having cartoon stars float around his head. The various tones sometimes coincide uneasily, and not always very successfully. The Scalphunters is at its best when we see Lancaster and Davis bantering back and fourth. Lancaster's Joe Bass is an ignorant white man while Davis' Joseph Lee is an educated black man, both of them under the assumption that the other is an inferior savage. It's these sequences (including a short but pointed argument about Biblical slavery) that give The Scalphunters a leg up over other western films.
Lancaster's talent is on full display here; he's an actor that still comes off as affable even when he's acting like an absolute ass. Davis shows off his dramatic and comedic talents as a slave who has more brains and brawn than most cowboys, and can also read and write. The supporting cast is also a lot of fun, including chrome domed Telly Savalas and a cigar chomping Shelly Winters as scalp hunters who have as good of a sense of humor as they do a mean streak (watching Winters yell "Ya ever kiss someone who chews tobacco?" is priceless). I hence to say that Winters and Savalas almost walk away with the film—their characters are that entertaining to watch.
The Scalphunters (Blu-ray) is presented in an attractive looking 2.35:1/1080p HD widescreen transfer. Kino has done a very fine job on making sure this image looks crystal clear without any major defects or imperfections marring the image. The film is nearly fifty years old, but the way this picture looks you'd think it was half that age. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD 1.0 Mono in English. Not surprisingly, this is a fairly front heavy mix without any directional effects or surround sounds. Even with its limitations, the soundtrack for The Scalphunters works in the context of the film. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
Fans of The Scalphunters will be disappointed to learn the only extra on this disc is a trailer for the film.
The Scalphunters is a movie that has a little bit of everything: the film features comedic moments of farce and wit, gunfights between cowboys and Indians, a bit of romance and drama, a whooping and hollering dance sequence around a campfire, and a lot of beautiful scenery in the old west. I'm not sure if The Scalphunters is what I'd consider a true cinema classic, but it certainly does its best to entertain. And on that level, it succeeds.
Far from the best western ever made, but passable Friday night fare.
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