Monday, June 22, 2020

Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis Take on The Scalphunters

Burt Lanaster as Joe Bass.
When easygoing trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) takes a shortcut through Kiowa land, he is confronted by a party of Indians led by Two Crows. The Kiowa leader wants to trade a black slave for Bass's pelts. The trapper isn't interested in the deal--but he's really doesn't have a choice since he is vastly outnumbered.

The slave, Joseph Winfield Lee, is an educated man who wants to reach Mexico where slavery has been outlawed. Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) is eager to discuss his situation, but Joe Bass is focused solely on retrieving his pelts. His plan is to wait for the Indians to get drunk on stolen rum, then ride into their camp and nab the furs.

Ossie Davis as Joseph Lee.
However, before he can do that, Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) and his scalphunters attack the Indians and massacre all but one (who is assumed to be dead). They take Bass's pelts, too--and that makes him fighting mad. Plus, Joe Bass considers scalphunters--who sell the scalps of murdered Indians for $25 apiece--to be the lowest scum on Earth. He devises a second plan to retrieve his pelts, but things become a little more complicated when Joseph Lee gets captured by Howie's gang.

Made in 1968, The Scalphunters is a good example of Hollywood's attempt to reshape the Western genre in the late 1960s. It is part comedy, part violent Western, and part social satire. However, first and foremost, it's a showcase for African American actor Ossie Davis. Unlike his contemporary, Sidney Poitier, Davis rarely got starring roles. Although he's billed fourth in The Scalphunters, he dominates the screen with his portrayal of Joseph Lee, connecting the other characters played by Lancaster, Savalas, and Shelley Winters.

The film's best scenes are those shared by Davis and Lancaster. Joseph Lee (Davis) is the better educated of the two and lets Joe Bass (Lancaster) know it:

LEE:  I can read, write, and cypher.

BASS:  Don't brag on it.

Shelley Winters as Kate.
Lee also knows how to adapt his persona to the situation. When he learns that Howie plans to sell him to the highest bidder, Lee assumes the role of a caring servant to Howie's mistress Kate (Shelley Winter). She wants to live the high life and Lee wants to make himself invaluable. Remembering everything Bass has told him about his natural surroundings, he uses the juice from a cactus to wash Kate's hair.

In addition to Davis, the other stars make the most of their parts. Burt Lancaster exudes his usual charm as Bass, with his performance reminding me of his lead turn in The Kentuckian thirteen years earlier. Telly Savalas plays a less extreme version of the villainous roles in which he was typecast prior to Kojak. Still, his character's genuine affection for his mistress is a nice touch. And Shelley Winters deserves more scenes as the constantly-complaining, easily-manipulated former prostitute who dreams of a better life.

The influence of The Scalphunters can be seen in later lighthearted Westerns such as Skin Game (1971), which teamed up James Garner and Lou Gossett, Jr., and Buck and the Preacher (1972) with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The latter co-starred Ruby Dee--who just happened to be the real-life wife of Ossie Davis.


  1. We recently watched The Kentuckian. I found it better than I remembered. When you included that quote "Don't brag on it" I thought it sounded like something Big Eli would say.

    It sounds like I'll be able to talk my husband into another western with this one.

  2. I'll bet Shelley Winters is terrific in this film. A character like that always needs more scenes, in my opinion.