By Linc Leifeste | July 20, 2014
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writer: William W. Norton
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Shelley Winters, Telly Savalas, Dabney Coleman, Paul Picerni, Dan Vadis, Armando Silvestre
Yeah, sure, Criterion reigns…but thank God for Kino Lorber. They may not primarily be putting all-time classic cinematic masterpieces back in print but with the launch of their “Kino Lorber Studio Classics” label, they’re doing the next best thing, putting out a series of really great, largely forgotten classic films on Blu-ray, films that even if not masterpieces are worth seeing. Case in point: directory Sydney Pollack’s 1968 Western The Scalphunters, starring Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Shelley Winters and Telly Savalas. Masterpiece? Probably not. But this film is every bit as good as the talent behind it would suggest and it’s quite simply (and sadly) a kind of film that you just don’t see being made anymore. Shot in Panavision in Mexico, this is an expertly crafted big Western with gunfights, knife fights, fistfights, marauding Indian bands, rockslides, wagon crashes and cringe-worthy stunts involving men being shot off and dragged behind horses. But beyond all that, this is a film that deftly blends humor, social commentary and violence in a way that most Westerns of it’s time did not.
Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is a fur trapper, a hard, tough man who makes his living in the wilderness. Returning from a successful season of trapping, he’s set upon by a band of Kiowa Indians led by formerly friendly Two Crows (Armando Silvestre), who has decided he wants Bass’s furs and horse for his own. In exchange, he “offers” runaway slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis). Of course, Bass has no interest in taking on a runaway slave, especially in exchange for his source of income, but he really has no choice in the matter. He decides to follow the Indians so he can steal his furs back and reluctantly brings Joseph along. The dynamic between the two men has the feel of something of an odd couple scenario, Joseph a highly educated and mannered black man who is trying to make his way to Mexico in order to gain his freedom and Bass a white uneducated, acrimonious tough guy who has little interest in verbal debates or social progress. But the two actors evince a real regard for one another and exhibit a great on-screen chemistry.
About the time the two men encounter the now ensconced and inebriated Kiowas and are going to move to steal back Bass’s furs, a band of scalphunters ride in and attack the Indians. Led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas), these are the lowest of low, men who hunt, kill and scalp other men just to make a little money and before long they have not only Bass’s furs in their possession but also Joseph Lee. Of course Bass, while he doesn’t care much about the fate of Joseph, isn’t going to let his furs go without a fight so he tracks along behind them looking for an opportunity to steal back what once belonged to him. Savalas, about five years before becoming a lollipop-wielding private eye, is great as the villainous Howie. No, he’s not someone I would think of as a cowboy but he makes a hell of a villain. Ultimately, of course, there’s a final showdown in which Joseph Lee has to embrace the reality of what it takes to survive in the time and place he finds himself in, Jim Howie learns that maybe he’s not quite as bad of a bad-ass as he’s led himself to believe and Joe Bass comes to realize that he’s not the natural superior to Joseph that he believes himself to be.
Expertly framed and shot, this film looks beautiful in the way of classic westerns, almost flawlessly so. And on the acting front, it’s pure joy to watch talented and assured actors such as Lancaster, Winters and Savalas ply their trade and I think it’s safe to say that Ossie Davis, while he might not have received top billing, is every bit the equal of Lancaster in this performance. And while the plot is improbable, the writing is admirably concise and the dialogue sharp and witty. The film, a Western film mind you, achieves the rare feat of effectively conveying a social message beneath layers of action, suspense and humor so that it never feels heavy-handed or preachy.