The Scalphunters (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Don’t steal his furs.

Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is a trapper who has all of his furs stolen from him by a group of Indians. In return they give him Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) a very educated black slave. The two do not hit it off right away and Joe becomes determined at getting his property back by following the Indians and waiting for them to get drunk off the liquor that he had hidden with the hides that they took. Just as he is ready to make a move the Indians are attacked and killed by a group of scalphunters led by Howie (Telly Savalas) who take Joe’s pelts for themselves. Joe chases after them determined to get back what he feels is rightfully his and plays a crafty game of cat-and-mouse with Howie and his group. Joseph Lee on the other hand decides to travel with the group and become the personal servant to Howie’s grouchy wife Kate (Shelly Winters) as they plan on going to Mexico where slavery is outlawed.

This is a highly engaging and amiable comedy/western. It is hard to dislike this movie, or not to be entertained by it. The performers play their parts to the hilt. Lancaster is perfect as the not-so-bright, but highly resourceful trapper who has the perseverance you gotta love. Savalas has always done well in villainous roles and the fact that he adds some comic touches to it as he consistently finds himself outsmarted by Joe and nagged by his wife is funny. Winters always shines in caricatures of desperate and pathetic people and this one proves no exception. However, it is Davis that really makes the film work. This is probably the best role of his career. The amusing way he deals with everyone who are all quite convinced that they are smarter than he is, but aren’t is what really makes the movie fun. His bantering and arguing with Joe is good as well.

The comedy is nicely balanced as it stays consistently humorous, but manages to avoid becoming farcical. There are still enough gritty elements to call it a true western, which is good. Some of the best moments though are Joe’s ongoing ‘negotiations’ with Howie as well as an avalanche of rocks that Joe creates on Howie’s caravan when he refuses to give him his furs. I also enjoyed the long and stretched out fist fight between Joe and Joseph at the end that continues even as a bloody Indian attack occurs all around them. The two end-up tumbling through a muddy lake and seeing their bodies and faces covered in thick, caked-on mud is a hilarious sight.

Director Sydney Pollock is in fine form. I loved the way he captures the surrounding landscape, which is lushly photographed with a wide lens. It was filmed on-location in Mexico and a wide variety of picturesque locales were chosen.  The DVD version is an especially clear transfer with bright, vivid colors that make you feel you are right there alongside the characters.

Although I found this enjoyable I still felt that the script by William Norton seemed to be missing something. The scenario is a little too simple and one-dimensional and I was hoping for something more maybe even a side-story, or added twist. The movie is sufficient for entertainment, but lacks the added element to make it a classic. There was potential, but it’s kept it at a mild level making it fun, but not memorable.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 2, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour, 42Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Sydney Pollock

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming

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