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SCALPHUNTERS, THE (director: Sydney Pollack; screenwriter: William Norton; cinematographers: Duke Callaghan/Richard Moore; editor: John Woodcock; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Burt Lancaster (Joe Bass), Shelley Winters (Kate), Telly Savalas (Jim Howie), Ossie Davis (Joseph Winfield Lee), Armando Silvestre (Two Crows), Dabney Coleman (Jed), Nick Cravat (Yancy); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Arthur Gardner/Arnold Laven/Jules Levy; United Artists/MGM; 1968)
“… never funny enough or Western enough or politically incisive enough to impress.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In his third feature and first Western, Sydney Pollack (“The Slender Thread”/”This Property is Condemned”) directs a likable, heavy-handed, cornball, liberal comedy that revolves around an uneasy relationship between a cultured ex-slave Joseph Winfield Lee (Ossie Davis) and an illiterate frontier fur trapper named Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster). Davis plays his slave role with a 1960’s hipness, while Lancaster keeps to his usual hardnosed Western image. William Norton’s script fiddles around with trying to find some politically correct civil right’s message, which it comes to in the third act where the black man and the white man fight rolling around in the mud until their skin color differences disappear and in the end they ride off together in the sunset hopeful they can team up as equals.

Bass is forced at gunpoint to swap his pelts to Kiowa Indian chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre) for philosophizing runaway slave Joseph Winfield Lee. The pelts are then stolen by a notorious scalphunter Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) and his gang of cutthroats, who massacre the Indians and scalp ’em and also steal the slave from Bass. Only Two Crows escapes. The determined Bass aims to get his furs back and trails the gang picking them off one by one, while Lee doesn’t seem to mind being in Howie’s company as long as they’re heading to Mexico where there’s no slavery. Kate (Shelley Winters) is Howie’s spoiled squeeze who didn’t bargain for all the trail dust when she hooked up with her man and brings humor by always kvetching, and in the end calmly accepts her fate to be a Kiowa squaw. The Indians, who have regrouped under Two Crows, are on the gang’s trail; they plan to get back their pelts and settle the score with the white gang. In the end the story comes with a moral, as Bass and Lee are forced to work together to survive.

Played with mucho gusto by Lancaster and Davis, where brawling becomes part of the slapstick and where even the villainous Savalas character gets into the comedy act. But it’s never funny enough or Western enough or politically incisive enough to impress. It’s a “The Defiant Ones” with a sense of humor, but its aim is way off when it tries to be arty or ‘with it.’


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”