Directing great Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor) delivers a rousing good show (The Film Daily) with this fast-paced western written by William Norton (White Lightning, Gator) with irresistible humor and delightful ironies (Motion Picture Herald). Starring screen legend Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) and Shelley Winters (Lolita) along with Telly Savalas (TV s Kojak) and Ossie Davis (Do the Right Thing). The Scalphunters is a lively, ribald and unpredictable pleasure which carries the western into new country (Los Angeles Times)! When trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) is bush-wacked by Indians who steal his furs and leave him a runaway slave (Davis) in exchange he s determined to get his property back. But when the Indians are attacked by outlaws, Joe and his unwanted companion must join forces to retrieve the furs in a startling, action-packed journey that concludes with one of the all-time cinematic comeuppances (Citizen News). Co-starring Dabney Coleman (9 to 5).
Directed by Sydney Pollack and featuring a strong cast led by Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, and Telly Savalas, one might expect 'The Scalphunters' to be a pretty strong Western. Much of it is, but much of it isn't as well. This is one of those movies where it appears that even the director himself wasn't sure of the tone the movie should take, and the result is a bit of a mess – although the movie still has some strong points.
'The Scalphunters' stars Burt Lancaster as fur trapper Joe Bass, who is making his way through the wilderness when he runs into an Indian tribe. Bass seems to know the leader of the tribe, but that does stop the Indians from taking all of Bass's hard-earned furs, and giving him runaway slave, Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), in return. Bass is less than happy with the exchange, nor is Lee – an educated man, despite his slave background – pleased with being dumped off with Bass.
Bass decides to go after the Indians to get back his furs, but winds up being witness to an attack on the tribe by a group of rustlers led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas), who are 'The Scalphunters' of the movie's title. While Lancaster and Davis go back and forth between scenes of seriousness and those of straight comedy – Savalas clearly goes for the latter (as does Shelly Winters, who plays Howie's girlfriend), hamming it up and mugging for the camera at every opportunity. Savalas' character may be way over the top, but it's pretty obvious that Telly is having a fun time playing him.
Joseph Lee winds up getting captured by Howie's men, who believe he'll provide them with a nice profit on the slave market. Lee, on the other hand, decides to stick with them – even after Bass tries to rescue him – because he has learned that they're heading to Mexico, and Lee knows there's no slavery there. Eventually, the film wraps up with a showdown between Howie and Bass, followed by a much more slapstick confrontation between Bass and Lee, where they work out their differences through some fisticuffs.
'The Scalphunters' is at its best when it's exploring the relationship between Bass and Lee. Lancaster and Davis (who is very much the star of this movie, even more so than Lancaster) have great chemistry together, and deal with some real race issues in their conversations (keep in mind this film came out in 1968, at the very peak of the Civil Rights movement). The movie does a fairly decent job of creating a 'Buddy Western', a full year before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would hit the screen. Sadly, and perhaps typically for the era, as enlightened as the film is dealing with race relations, the Indians in the film are still very much the Hollywood stereotype audiences had come to expect at that point in time.
For as good as some of the scenes between Lancaster and Davis are, the rest of the movie doesn't fare as well. Savalas' character is such a scenery-chewer, that he quickly outstays his welcome and seems as if he belongs in a much campier film than this one. While the movie has tinges of comedy throughout, the finale (featuring a fight sequence between Bass and Lee) heads straight into slapstick territory, which will no doubt cause many viewers to wonder if they're now watching an entirely different film.
So 'The Scalphunters' is a pretty uneven affair, but I won't go as far to call it completely dismissible. Ossie Davis, for one, is really good in this – while die-hard fans of Burt Lancaster should find plenty of things to enjoy about his performance. There's little here direction-wise from Sydney Pollack that would indicate the kind of talent he would develop into, but all in all 'The Scalphunters' is still worth at least one viewing, even if that's the total of times you'll ever see it.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Scalphunters' arrives on Blu-ray in a standard Elite keepcase, which houses the single-layer 25GB disc, with no inserts. Aside from a Keno Lorber logo, there are no front-loaded ads or trailers on the disc, whose main menu consists of a still photo matching the box cover design, with menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
This Blu-ray is Region A locked.
The video quality here is a rather mixed bag. While Kino Lorber has done a rather good job of transferring the film to 1080p without over-scrubbing (i.e., too much DNR) the picture, they haven't done much in terms of cleaning it up otherwise. Dirt, defects, and even noticeable vertical lines are obvious throughout the movie, particularly in scenes that have a stationary background – such as the opening credits or any shots set against a clear sky. Transitions between scenes also suffer, as viewers will notice either some imperfect flashes of white and/or a momentary change in color timing.
Not having seen 'The Scalphunters' in the theaters, nor any prior version of it on television or otherwise, it's impossible for me to judge just how consistent the look of the movie on Blu-ray is with the original version. However, I found myself wondering if the picture wasn't a little too bright and just slightly washed-out from its original intent. I didn't detract from my video score for this, since I have no idea if this release is an accurate rendering of how this film has always looked, but I couldn't help wondering if the film could use a little less brightness and a tad more color saturation.
Not the fault of this transfer, but also noticeable, are a handful of scenes where Director Sydney Pollack doesn't quite have the actors in focus – including one particularly blurry close-up of Lancaster during the movie's climax. Of course, there's not much to do about such shots, and seeing the film with all its technical bumps and bruises is, of course, part of the charm of watching an older film.
Given all of the above, this is still a rather solid transfer of an older and lesser-well-known movie. I don't think viewers will be too disappointed with what they get here.
The only available audio track on the Blu-ray is a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, providing a rather good listening experience, as stereo tracks go. That said, there's nothing particularly exciting about the audio – other than the fact that it's clear of any popping, hissing, muddy-sounding dialogue, or other defects. Despite the limitations of a 2.0 track, Composer Elmer Bernstein's score sounds nicely crisp here. Also, for a stereo track of an older movie, the lossless audio does a pretty good job of maintaining a distinctness between various sounds, with a nice balance as well.
Subtitles are available in English only.
Despite the fact that 'The Scalphunters' is directed by Sydney Pollack and features a pretty impressive cast, I find it more of a curiosity than anything else. The movie does a good job when it takes itself seriously, but is less than impressive when it switches gears toward comedy. Unless you're a Pollack completest or a big fan of one of the actors in this release, there's really no need to pick this one up – but it's still worth a viewing sometime if you're a huge Western fan or think this might be something you'd find entertaining. Rent It.