This is a film I really wanted to like. After all, some of the actors were very skilled and the characters they played had some wonderful qualities. Additionally, this movie would have been a great comedy or drama–too bad the writers and director had no sense about which they were going to make!
Burt Lancaster plays one of the less sympathetic roles of his career. Early on, his huge load of furs is stolen, of sorts, by a group of Indians. What actually occurred is that they took the furs and gave him an escaped Black slave–which Burt did NOT want nor need. He treated Davis mostly like a piece of property, not a man.
Ossie Davis was fun to watch as this well educated Black man, though this was certainly an anachronism–as in most of the South, a Black slave who could read and write would have been hung, as it was against the law to educate a Black person (lest they learn about the real world or the inequity of slavery). To make this situation less believable, Davis knew quite a bit of Latin and about the world–making him se time in history.
Speaking of time in history, it’s very hard to figure out when this film was to have occurred. You know it MUST be pre-Civil War since there is slavery and yet the guns are all repeating rifles and pistols–something you would have had a hard time finding even by the end of the Civil War. Some early cartridge guns had been developed by about 1860, but they were very rare and unreliable and would have almost never been seen in the West. Despite this, you don’t see any single-shot guns–only repeating rifles and pistols using cartridges that are circa 1870 and later. Plus, none of these repeaters seem to need reloading!
Despite all these logical errors and anachronisms, there is a lot to like in the film–and lots of wonderful scenes. Davis’ anachronistic character is very likable and he has many great lines. Lancaster, while a thoughtless jerk is also a pretty exciting action hero at times in the film.
I think the recent success of comedy-Westerns such as CAT BALLOU and THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL impacted this film–but these other BlackCrush films were consistent in their style, while THE SCALPHUNTERS sure wasn’t
Unfortunately, all the scenes, when placed together, are a mess and just don’t fit together well. Much of this is because the movie moves uncomfortably from action film to comedy–and it’s hard to laugh at a comedy about slavery or the massacre of Indians! The best example of this is the ending of the film. After suffering through tons of abuse and ambivalence by Lancaster, Davis has a wonderful scene where he is about to leave Lancaster in the desert and ride off to Mexico for a happy ending–a well-deserved and very rewarding ending I might add. However, oddly, the film did NOT end here but when one for about another ten minutes–and then tried to give a comedic style ending that just didn’t fit the film at all. Ending it with Lancaster tied up and Davis wandering off would have been perfect–dragging it on and having a macho mud fight for a laugh was just awful and totally destroyed the impact of the film as social commentary.
Plus I liked seeing the relationship between Telly Savalas and Shelley Winters–their dialog was pretty funny at times and how Winters ended the film was rather satisfying
The Scalphunters was the first of two films Sydney Pollack directed with Burt Lancaster. In fact according to a recent biography of Lancaster, Burt was literally trying Pollack out on this western before giving him an opportunity to direct the very expensive Castle Keep for him the following year. Personally I think The Scalphunters is a far better film.