The Scalphunters Review
Great westerns have always contained an element of comedy and, indeed, an integral self-parody, so the concept of a comedy-western is, to a certain extent, self-defeating. It’s hard to effectively pastiche a genre which has been feeding off its own clichés for years and commenting on them with a good deal of dry wit. You only have to look at a film like Stagecoach to see how the stereotypes of the classic western can be used to comment both on the form and the history. When we watch that film and laugh at the pretensions of the self-important gambler Hatfield, or the ironic wit of Doc Boone, then we are laughing as much at our own knowledge of the stock characters as we are at the individual film. John Ford usually included comedy in his films, whether it be the stage-Irish knockabout of Victor MacLaglen or the satirical figure of John Carradine’s windy politician in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Howard Hawks went even further, to the point where a film like Rio Bravo is as effective as a dry comedy as it is as a thrilling suspense story. Comedies such as The Paleface are set in the West but are essentially vehicles for a strong leading comedian rather than comedy-westerns per se. Bob Hope’s character of the would-be romantic coward basically stays the same whether he’s in the Old West or in the midst of a haunted house. Certainly, films like Support Your Local Sheriff and Blazing Saddles are comedy-westerns in the sense of commenting explicitly on a shared knowledge of familiar western scenes but they’re not really doing anything which ‘straight’ westerns hadn’t already acknowledged.
The Scalphunters, made in 1968, is a comedy-western which avoids this problem by being more of a buddy movie romp than a comment on the genre itself. What makes it funny is the interplay between the characters and the spectacle of good comic actors having the time of their lives and, on this level, it’s very enjoyable. Burt Lancaster plays Joe Bass, a trapper who is taking some hides to town for sale when he is pressured by some Kiowa Indians to trade them for an escaped slave, Joseph Winfield Lee (Davis). An attempt to recover the hides is thwarted when the Kiowa camp is ambushed by a group of scalphunters, led by Jim Howie (Savalas) and his sweetheart Kate (Winters). Soon, Joseph has also been captured by Howie and Joe becomes involved in ever more convoluted attempts to retrieve both his slave and his furs.
There’s not a great deal to say about The Scalphunters, but it’s important to acknowledge that this is a good example of a film which is hugely entertaining without being particularly distinguished. Sydney Pollack’s direction is tentative and a little too ‘loose’. He doesn’t seem to have a talent for building suspense and there’s a sense of drifting from scene to scene which has been characteristic of his style ever since. Pollack isn’t a bad director however and he has a feeling for working with actors that frequently atones for his structural weaknesses. When you think of his best films - The Yakuza, Tootsie, Out of Africa, The Firm - it’s likely to be the actors that you recall and his ability to get the best out of a good cast that makes his films worth watching. Even his failures tend to be well acted failures. This pays dividends in The Scalphunters because Pollack has at his disposal some of the best comic actors of the American cinema. However, the drift which I’ve talked about still remains a problem and the ironic, circular plot isn’t pointed enough to be as funny in itself as it should be. He also has a tendency to spell out moral lessons which we’ve already gathered – here there’s a scene where Joseph says to Joe, “You wouldn’t last five minutes as a black man” which makes far too explicit the subtext of racial one-upmanship which has been so funny and understated for the previous hour. By 1968, it was becoming less rare for a black character to be seen as heroic and/or intelligent and Ossie Davis was one of the pioneers of the black filmmaking movement with his hugely popular Cotton Comes to Harlem. His very presence, his dignity and wry intelligence, gives us the anti-racist message and we don’t need it spelling out. Far more effective is the lengthy brawl for respect and status towards the end of the film between Davis and Lancaster, made even more comically piquant by the events from which they are being distracted.
However, the acting is all that it should be and more. Telly Savalas was always worth watching as the sweet-tongued Kojak and his film appearances were frequently amusing. He made a fine, menacing Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and he brought real tension to the knockabout heroics of The Dirty Dozen. As Jim Howie, he combines charm with an edge of danger and he is a comic villain who never quite loses his implicit threat. Shelley Winters is surprisingly good as well. She’s not an actress who has ever been satisfying in dramatic roles but she has often been remarkable in comedy, as her Charlotte in Lolita testifies. As Kate, she combines a tough blowsy quality with the aspirations of a lady and she’s often very funny, chomping on a cigar while weighing up her options. She’s more than a match for Howie and Winters plays very well with Savalas, creating one of the film’s two memorable double acts.
However, the film belongs to Ossie Davis and Burt Lancaster who play off each other with the kind of comic timing one usually finds in the great comedy duos. Ossie Davis’ fine voice is well utilised in the role of the liberally educated slave, fortunate enough to have been owned by an intelligent man, and a number of good laughs result from his use of Latin tags and historical references. There’s a joy in Davis’ acting as if its something that he does instinctively and he’s funny here without apparently trying. This sense of comedy as instinct is shared by Burt Lancaster, who has often been very entertaining in humorous roles. Lancaster has always been at his best being either funny or reflective and sometimes – as in Ulzana’s Raid - both at the same time. Joe Bass is a low, scheming bastard but he’s also got a sense of self-mockery which is very attractive and redeeming. Something wonderful happens whenever Lancaster shows those pearly whites – as he did in his irresistible comic turn in Vera Cruz - and his essential humour seems to light up the screen. He and Davis do memorable cross-talk routines and they seem to anticipate each other in the manner of traditional comedy double-acts. Even their brawl at the end is thoroughly good natured and capped by a lovely ironic coda that brings the plot full circle.
The Scalphunters is visually pleasant without being particularly impressive and Elmer Bernstein’s music score is irritatingly antic in a manner into which he was all too prone to relapse. Pollack’s pacing drags it out a little too long for comfort and potentially memorable scenes, such as an impromptu dance at the scalphunter camp, seem to be thrown away. But the quality of the performances and the occasional ingenuity of the script are enough to be going on with and it’s so much fun to watch actors having such a good time that it’s not hard to suspend one’s critical faculties.
A typical MGM back catalogue offering from their library of United Artists films, The Scalphunters arrives on DVD in a miserably undistinguished fashion. It’s not a film which is likely to need, or merit, a special edition but it would be nice if a little more loving care was lavished upon one of the best catalogues of films in the business.
The film is presented in anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1. It’s not a bad transfer but it’s somehow flat and uninteresting, coming across like a typical episode of “Bonanza”. Colours are washed out and lack vitality and there’s some ghosting present in places. Artefacting is also a problem. There’s a reasonable amount of detail but that’s the only really positive thing I can say.
The soundtrack is in the original Mono format and is better than the visual transfer. Dialogue is clear and the music, no matter how annoying, comes across with some force.
There are no extras at all. The film is divided into 16 chapters and the menus are those iconic things that MGM have become irrationally fond of. The film is fully subtitled, although be aware that the Kiowa language used by the Indians isn’t meant to be translated.
It’s a lot of fun to watch The Scalphunters even if you have doubts about the quality of the film as a whole. MGM’s DVD is a pretty poor specimen and I really can’t recommend it for any reason other than that it presents the film in its original aspect ratio.
Last updated: 13/06/2018 17:56:37