An excellent screenplay, brilliant actors, sharp dialogues: Sydney Pollack’s first and unrecognized Western movie The Scalphunters, released in 1968, should be considered as a major witty comedy addressing with verve the racial issues of the time.
Although there is no explicit indication of time and place, the story is set in the Old West in the 1850s (indeed do not pay attention to the anachronism about the discovery of Pluto or to the early use of Civil War weapons). The movie opens with Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster), an illiterate and fearless fur trapper who is encircled by a group of Kiowa Indians and forced to exchange his pelts for Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), a highly educated black slave on the run from Louisiana to Mexico. Constrained to team up, the duo (or duel?) decides to chase the tribe in order for Bass to get his merchandise back and Lee his freedom. However, things do not happen as expected: a group of scalphunters attack and kill the Indians, and take Lee hostage.
The comic aspect of this hybrid movie is mostly found in the numerous stereotypes – even caricatures sometimes – personified by first-rate actors. First, Lancaster perfectly plays the lead role of the loner and stubborn hero who is familiar with everything one needs to know in order to survive in the Wild West. During those adventures, the literate naïve black slave played by Davis discovers the brutal reality of the Frontier and wants to save his hide and break free in Mexico. This opposition between the two main characters is really interesting, and leads to very entertaining dialogues and situations. As for the leaders of the gang of scalphunters, the strongest character is undoubtedly Miss Kate (Shelley Winters), Jim Howie (Telly Savalas)’s wife. From the very first scene in which the group appears, the strong temper of this woman-of-easy-virtue-willing-to-become-a-lady often stands up to Jim’s authority as the chief of the villains. Even Bass’s horse should be recognized for its performance that creates several comic scenes.
On top of an excellent cast, the movie is characterized on one hand by the dynamic music of the multi-awarded Elmer Bernstein, which reinforces suspense, surprise or the comic effect of some situations. On the other hand, The Scalphunters enjoys the very beautiful scenery of Durango, a city in Mexico known as a “land of movies”. Thus, Pollack made the most of the immense desert basins that Bass qualifies as the “Garden of Eden”, an expression often used for the Western Country at the time. This movie also benefited from William W. Norton’s shrewd writing, including many well-phrased, pithy and funny dialogues. His screenplay presents a surprisingly unpredictable cat-and-mouse game, which manages to combine laughs and serious concern about racism and white men’s arrogance.
Indeed, with this third movie, the young director Sydney Pollack was already defining his hallmark, which was both an engaged and fine work (do not let the title mislead you). He openly exposed his unyielding standpoint towards status and racial dominance, at a time when racial issues were far from being solved. Unfortunately, this masterpiece went unnoticed when it was released and did not instantly turn into a classic, because the public was apparently not ready to laugh about such matters. Yet, some lines could have become famous quotes, such as when Miss Kate, talking about the Indians, exclaims, “What the hell, they’re only men!” Luckily, this movie has gained recognition over the years, and it is only fair because this gold nugget is worth it.
The Scalphunters (1968)
Joe Bass . . . . . Burt Lancaster
Joseph Winfield Lee . . . . . Ossie Davis
Jim Howie . . . . . . Telly Savalas
Kate . . . . . Shelley Winters
Two Crows . . . . . Armando Silverstre
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: William Norton
Producer: Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner and Arnold Laven
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Distribution: United Artists
Running time: 102 min.