The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Scalphunters (Paramount, 1968)


Mildly amusing


 
 
The great film reviewer Roger Ebert
wrote in 1968, “
A lot of
people expect a masterpiece every time they go to the movies, and the other day
someone was complaining that Madigan
wasn’t a work of art. So what did he expect? It was a very good cop movie, and
Widmark and Fonda were fine. How many movies give you that much?”


He had a
point. The number of really good pictures released in ’68 could be counted on
the fingers of one hand. Ebert lists five. If you’re interested (for I know
Westernistas do sometimes watch
pictures in other genres) they were The
Battle of Algiers,
then Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, and The Graduate, as well as 2001: A Space
Odyssey
and The Producers. If Mr.
Ebert had been writing about our beloved genre, though, he would have had a
harder time finding five. Once Upon a Time in the West?
Hang ‘em High? Firecreek? Hardly.


But, if you
just liked going to the movies and weren’t expecting works of art, you did have
a goodly number to choose from. I liked The Stalking Moon, for example, with Gregory Peck. Shalako was better than many gave it credit for. Even Arizona Bushwhackers wasn’t that bad –
good old Lesley Selander.


And in the not
bad (but not all that terribly good either) column, we find The Scalphunters.

Trendy 60s titles


Burt Lancaster was another of those
Western actors whose CV is a bit, er, mixed. He could be superb, and in two
pictures particularly he was, for me, outstanding. I am thinking of Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957, for
John Sturges, when he was a splendid Wyatt Earp, and The Unforgiven for John Huston in 1960, in which he was magnificent
as paterfamilias homesteader Ben Zachary. Later in life he also did two very
fine movies, as Bob Valdez in the Elmore Leonard story Valdez is Coming and as the Al Sieber-ish scout McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid. On the basis of those four
Westerns alone Burt deserves a place on the Western Mount Olympus (somewhere up
in the Rockies).

Burt


But then he was also in some dreadful
clunkers. Difficult to find anything good to say about The Hallelujah Trail, even if it was Sturges again, and Burt spent
most of it overacting and mugging with that alligator grin, which he overused
also in Vera Cruz and The Professionals. He just loved playing the cheery rogue, and it did
get a bit tiresome. In the end he did have the grace to admit that he’d been completely
out-acted by the ultra-low-key performance of Gary Cooper on Vera Cruz. He ended his Western career in that semi-comic vein, as
Bill Doolin in Cattle Annie and Little Britches.

Like a smug alligator on his way home from the orthodontist


And then there were the Westerns in
between. He was very solid in his first Western, Vengeance Valley, from the Luke Short novel, and OK, I guess, if improbable, as
Broncho Apache in Apache (he worked
three times for Aldrich). Lawman was
a lousy film, badly directed and written, but he did his best in it and
convinced as the tough sheriff on a mission.


The
Scalphunters
is perfectly acceptable if you want a
night out at the movies, or, these days, if you want to bring it up on your
widescreen TV on Netflix (or was it Amazon Prime? I forget). Don’t expect
greatness. It’s a comedy Western, and those are very hard to get right. They
can fall flat on their face. But this one might bring a wry grin to your face.
Or, who knows, maybe even a slight chuckle in your throat. Burt was certainly on sparkling
form.

Quite fun, if you’e not too demanding


He plays Joe Bass, a coarse and salty fur trapper, who
meets up with a band of Kiowa led by Two Crows (Armando Silvestre) and they
force a trade on him, though he is most unwilling: they will give him a Negro
slave they captured from the Comanches and will take the mule loaded with furs
that it took Joe all winter to amass. He grumbles like anything, but has to
agree. He doesn’t give up on getting those furs back back, though.

Joe Bass is a rough diamond


The African-American gentleman in
question is Joseph Lee, played by fourth-billed Ossie Davis, and his developing
relationship with the trapper is at the heart of the movie. Mr. Davis is
probably known best for later pictures and was not a professional Westernist
but he did do another comedy oater the following year, Sam Whiskey with another Burt, Reynolds of that Ilk.

Joseph is the clever one


It was 1968, so they had to tread
carefully with the white/black thing, even if it was supposed to be the 1860s.
Joseph is intelligent, literate and erudite (he quotes Aesop in Latin),
while Joe Bass can’t read or write and wouldn’t know who Aesop was in any
language. He’s pretty well a slob. We sense that Joseph will win this encounter.
Actually, I think the rapport is done rather well, with gradually building
mutual respect between the two men – though with considerable resistance on the
part of Joe.

It takes time, but respect builds


Sydney Pollack directed. Not the first
name that would spring to mind if you were casting about for someone to make a Western, huh? When you think of pictures he directed, produced or acted in, you first come up with the likes of Tootsie, The Quiet American or Eyes Wide Shut. But he once said that one couldn’t claim to be a “real movie
director” without a Western under the belt, and he directed three – or
two-and-a-half. The Scalphunters, Jeremiah Johnson in 1972 and The Electric Horseman in 1979, both the
latter two with his favorite actor, Robert Redford. Pollack had met and been
impressed by Lancaster when on the set of The
Leopard
in 1953 (Pollack was a dialogue coach) and he later directed Lancaster in
Castle Keep and The Swimmer.

He didn’t get an Oscar for this one, though


A word for writer William W Norton. His
Western record is not of the best, I fear. He has the perfectly appalling The Hunting Party to his ‘credit’ and he
also co-wrote the extremely imperfect The
Man Who Loved Cat Dancing,
as well as that other Ossie Davis picture, Sam Whiskey. Not many plaudits here. But
he did a good job on The Scalphunters,
managing character development rather well.

Writer Norton


The
Scalphunters
isn’t just a Lancaster-Davis
two-hander. It’s more of a foursome. The other two major characters are
Jim Howie, the leader of an odious band of scalps-for-bounty thugs, and his
buxom mistress, Kate. These were played by two actors who aren’t really among my
all-time favorites in oaters, Telly Savalas and Shelley Winters. Doubtless Mr.
Savalas was very good as a tough cop or something, I wouldn’t really know, but his Western record was
verging on the dismal. Mackenna’s Gold
(ugh), Land Raiders, A Town Called
Bastard
(title sometimes bowdlerized to A Town Called Hell), 2 spaghettis and the perfectly dreadful Pancho Villa. Oh dear.

Who loves ya, baby?


As for Ms. Winters, she did eight Westerns.
After a small part as one of the saloon gals in Red River, she was in Winchester’73, although in that one the cowboy doesn’t love his horse or his woman; he
loves his gun. Winters said: “Here you’ve got all these men – Stewart, Duryea,
Hudson, McNally, Drake, the rest of them – all running around to get their
hands on this goddam rifle instead of going after a beautiful blonde like me.
What does that tell you about the values of that picture? If I hadn’t been in
it, would anyone have noticed?” Well, quite, Shelley, you have a point there. Also in 1950 she took the
lead as Frenchie in the color Destry remake. Untamed Frontier with Joseph Cotten, ho-hum, Saskatchewan with Alan Ladd, even ho-hummer, The Treasure of Pancho Villa with Rory Calhoun, whatever it was, she always looked
out of place in an oater – too, er, plump, too ‘brassy’ (is that the word?) and too urban. Oh well. She is quite
good in The Scalphunters, though, I
must say, and even Savalas isn’t bad. Of course they both play it up.

Shelley not really in her element in this genre

They mount up


It’s a good-looking picture. The DP was Duke Callaghan
(some attractive Westerns to his credit and he would later do the visually
superb Jeremiah Johnson for Pollack)
and he shot it in Color DeLuxe and Panavision in some lovely Arizona and Mexico
locations. The modern print is high quality, and it’s on BluRay if you want.

Nice scenery


There are some good stunts, though too many
horsefalls. Burt talks to his horse a lot and this verges on the silly but he
just about gets away with it. It’s one of those nags that comes when he whistles.
There’s a whole bit with locoweed that I didn’t find funny, and a whole lot of ‘chirpy’
(read, irritating) music to accompany it. Talking of the music, it’s by Elmer
Bernstein, so that’s a huge plus. His score was the only good thing about The Hallelujah Trail (it’s fab, almost Magnificent Seven quality), though as I
say, I could have done without the ‘comic’ parts. Otherwise, it’s very nice.

Actually, the rocks look very realistic in the landslide scene
(Alamy photo)


All in all, it’s entertaining, if light
material. Brian Garfield was a bit down on it, calling it “clumsy and unwieldy”
and suggesting that it only got good reviews because liberals liked the modish black-white
treatment and because there was no other Western that year to praise. He had a
point on that last suggestion.

He’ll get those furs back, whoever has ’em

 

 

6 Responses

  1. Jeff, Mount Olympus is the highest summit of the Olympic range in the Evergreen state, aka Washington, and the crown of the Olympic national park in the Olympic peninsula – well 2020 is an other olympic year maybe not for our genre… Not sure if Sydney Pollack would have loved to film Eyes Wide Shut but Stanley Kubrick did it and almost did One Eyed Jack – well an eye for an other… Thank you for having at last written about The Scalphunters even if we will always disagree on Lancaster and Vera Cruz even if I understand your point. JM

    1. The Mt Parnassus I was referring to was slightly more figurative.
      I expressed myself badly. Of course Pollack appeared in Eyes Wide Shut; he wasn't the director. I'll rephrase the text.
      I don't think there were any Western actors who had 100% record of superb pictures. They all did the odd dud. Burt Lancaster did enough really good ones to guarantee him a place in Valhalla (which you will probably tell me is somewhere in Washington State).
      Jeff

  2. Jeff, a good and fair write-up of an interesting, fun, and entertaining Western. I first saw THE SCALPHUNTERS(filmed 1967, released 1968) on the NBC MONDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES in 1974. I enjoyed it then and more so in viewing since. Fact is I appreciate it more now than I did then. There is a lot going on in this movie and screenwriter William Norton should be given a lot of credit for his original story and screenplay. Norton was writing scripts for THE BIG VALLEY television show and he had this original story and screenplay. THE BIG VALLEY producers Levy-Gardner-Laven sent the script to Burt Lancaster, who agreed to star and co-produce.

    This action packed revenge Western has biting wit, racial politics, and a mud soaked fist fight that's a classic in itself. Norton's screenplay gives us an unpredictable back and forth cat and mouse sport, which manages to blend laughs and serious concerns.

    Some tidbits here. Kate(Shelley Winters) was given to singing Mormon hymns on Sunday mornings. Writer Norton was born in Utah into a family of Mormon ranchers. Yes, in this pre-War of the Rebellion period of this movie, Joe Bass(Burt Lancaster) should have been using a Hawken rifle, instead of a repeater.

    All in all, THE SCALPHINTERS is worth watching and if you like it, check out SKIN GAME(1971) with James Garner, Louis Gossett, and Susan Clark.

  3. note the mention of Pluto in the astrology bit, decades before Pluto was discovered in 1930!

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