**/**** Image A- Sound B
starring Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Telly Savalas, Ossie Davis
screenplay by William Norton
directed by Sydney Pollack
by Alex Jackson In that glorious blow-job-thinly-disguised-as-a-documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, director Sydney Pollack claims to remember Pauline Kael's pan of 2001: A Space Odyssey "very well." A decade later, he says, the film was considered a classic--suggesting that Kael was seriously out of touch when she reviewed it, I guess. Pollack fails to mention the punch line, though: in the same piece, a notorious essay called "Trash, Art, and the Movies," Kael exalts Pollack's own The Scalphunters! 2001 is pretty lousy art, she decided, while The Scalphunters is pretty great trash. Between the two, she frankly prefers The Scalphunters.
Yeah, well, I disagree. Not about preferring great trash to bad art (although I admit I'm not really that comfortable drawing distinctions between the two), just in specifically labelling The Scalphunters great trash and 2001 bad art. The Scalphunters is pitched roughly on the same level as one of those live-action Disney pictures from the Sixties and Seventies, like The Cat from Outer Space or Blackbeard's Ghost--all Technicolor and slapstick and even, I shit you not, tweetie bird sounds whenever our heroes get conked on the head. This is a film for the whole family, by which I mean a film for nobody in the family.
I've been wary of watching Sydney Pollack films ever since awakening from that coma induced by his 1995 remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina.* Encouraged by film brat Paul Thomas Anderson's endorsement, I sought out Pollack's widely-praised 1969 drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They and came away with the more evolved opinion that the old man could at least shoot a mean picture once upon a time. Certainly, The Scalphunters is a well-made film, kinetic and cinematic. But man, is it hokey.
On his way back to town with the hides from the last winter, trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is accosted by a band of Indians. They take his furs and leave him runaway slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) in trade. Bass doesn't want a slave, he would rather have his furs back--and it goes without saying that Lee isn't very interested in being a slave. The two reluctantly tolerate one another's company while Bass tracks down the Indians. But before he can get his property back, another band of outlaws, led by bad guy Jim Howie (Telly Savalas), slaughters the Indians and takes the furs. Bass tries to send out Lee to reclaim them from Howie, who ends up capturing Lee. Though Howie is a considerably crueller master than Bass, when Lee finds out they're heading for Mexico--where slavery is outlawed--he abruptly changes allegiances.
Sergio Leone (whom Pollack purports to revere) famously forbid his heroes and villains to speak unless absolutely necessary, effectively liberating his characters from the realm of human concern. In contrast, the three principals in The Scalphunters chatter constantly, something that produces the exact opposite effect by pushing them beneath the realm of human concern. Both The Scalphunters and Leone's spaghetti westerns consist of one-dimensional characters; the difference between them is the difference between archetype and stereotype--between the elevation of the stock character into pop spiritual icon and the subjugation of the stock character into worn-out movie cliché.
Lancaster's Joe Bass is a talker. He carries on a conversation with his horse, going to so far as to call him a "knucklehead" at one point. Lancaster is rugged and handsome, but his inerrant movie-star diction is powerfully inauthentic, betraying the film's wilful artifice very early on. Meanwhile, Savalas's Jim Howie jumps, hoots, hollers, and all but stomps on his hat. I don't think Lancaster is a limited actor, per se, but I do think the Western anti-hero role represents a misuse of his talents. Lancaster seems too carefully-coifed and deliberate to ever embody the part without satirizing it, either consciously or unconsciously. Savalas, on the other hand, has an effortless machismo that could have easily been played straight. It's not a stretch to picture him in the Charles Bronson role in Once Upon a Time in the West or the Lee Van Cleef role in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. (Indeed, the Italians got a lot of mileage out him during the early-Seventies.) Watching him clown it up and dull his edge in The Scalphunters is powerfully frustrating. He gives the kind of performance that makes you wish you were watching him in a different movie.
The issue of Ossie Davis's Joseph Lee is considerably stickier. Revisionist opinion towards black caricaturist Stepin Fetchit argues that the lazy and dim-witted Fetchit persona was part of a centuries-old tradition among blacks whereby the servant pretends to be incapable of following simple directions in order to outsmart whites from bossing them around. Davis's performance is very much in the same key, only he has a few pronounced traits that help to make the subversive elements of the persona that much more visible. Lee is easily the most educated character in the film, and he isn't really afraid to show it off. But, as Bass never tires of telling him, he's still not a white man. Lee is a black slave and no amount of book learning is ever going to change that.
The filmmakers milk the dichotomy between Lee's education and his social status for laughs. Bass tells him about a certain desert plant that makes an excellent soap. Later, while Lee is riding with Howie's girlfriend Kate (the recently-deceased Shelley Winters), he offers to shampoo her hair with the soap, an attempt to butter her up and glean information about Mexico. She expresses concern that the stuff will bleach the blonde right out of her hair. Lee tells her not to worry, the Queen of Sheba used the shampoo regularly as it gave her blonde curls a beautiful lustre.
Ha ha, right? The Queen of Sheba is black, ya dope! Still, this is at best a hollow victory. Lee retains his dignity, but only by operating under the radar of the perpetually powerful whites. The fact that he shows he's smart and that all whites are stupid isn't at all comforting, as it simply underlines how arbitrary the distribution of power is. There's a moment near the end of the film where Lee looks Bass straight in the eye and tells him he wouldn't last a minute as a coloured man. I've seen one reviewer complain that this scene is needlessly preachy and obvious, that it spells things out already evident in Davis's performance. Though this is an understandable position, it's insensitive to the weight of the institutionalized racism that Davis is working through. The "wouldn't last a minute" line affords Lee a real dignity and autonomy: he's standing toe-to-toe with Bass and telling him he's lacking. Pollack shoots this scene with a real starkness, keeping it confrontational towards the film's white audience while shying away from deifying Lee.
Alas, the moment lasts a few minutes out of 103 and is marred in no small extent by Pollack's decision to repeatedly score cheap laughs by having Davis tumble, fall, and get thrown off horses throughout the picture. The film doesn't exactly believe in or sympathize with Bass's racist attitudes, yet they're too potent to square with the aggressively light tone of the rest of the film. Pollack appears to have put them in for no other reason than to refute them, making The Scalphunters paternalistically racist in addition to just racist-racist.
We can't excuse The Scalphunters for being a product of its times, not only because we aren't living in 1968 anymore and such arguments transform film criticism into archaeology, but also because there is an entire bushel of films from that same year that needn't any apology, including George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, another pulp action picture with racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Night of the Living Dead wasn't racist, but it wasn't anti-racist, either. The black hero is an absolute bastard whose actions could stem from the societal racism that keeps him down on the totem pole. (He's a truck driver seemingly overqualified for the position.) The film, which argues that we're all bastards anyway and that there aren't any heroes, is genuinely nihilistic, taking down its black character along with the rest of the human race, because, um, blacks are part of the human race, too, equally deserving of condemnation. However easy the Catholic self-loathing of Night of the Living Dead sounds, it is in fact considerably more complex and more truthful than anything found in The Scalphunters.
MGM issues The Scalphunters on DVD in a flipper containing the widescreen version on one side and a pan-and-scan alternative on the other. Detail is very sharp in the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, though colours are on the muted side and there's a big blotch of red during one dissolve that isn't endemic to either shot. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is clean, if not anything to shout about. Part of the problem may be that composer Elmer Bernstein's score is the audio equivalent of country gravy, drowning everything out in gooey fat. Not much you can do with that. There are no extras aside from the film's theatrical trailer, which is funnier than the actual film. "It was his hard luck to be an Indian when they freed the slaves," the narrator solemnly intones in regards to Davis, "and a slave when they freed the Indians." Originally published: January 17, 2006.
*Pollack's acting career is a whole different ball of wax. With his roles in Eyes Wide Shut, A Civil Action, and Tootsie (which he also directed), Pollack has cultivated a fascinating persona that effortlessly joins cuddly old man machismo with an unapologetic sliminess. I can't think of an actor so simultaneously charismatic and repulsive; Pollack in front of the camera is a vastly underrated pleasure. return