27 November 2002 | inframan
A magnificent achievement. One of the best westerns ever made.
This was the movie that made me throw away my Maltin Reviews.
I've always been a huge admirer of Burt Lancaster & his work & in my book this is one of his very best; it may just be his best, but how can you beat Crimson Pirate or Vera Cruz or Sweet Smell of Success or even his first - The Killers? The man was endowed with very high doses of intelligence, humor, humanity, physical presence & and a sort of 19th century stage hamminess. There used to be a saying that you could tell the type of film Lancaster was doing by his hairdo. When the hair was short, the movie was serious. When it was wavy, his tongue was filling up his cheek. It's quite wavy in Scalphunters. He's the epitome of the mountain man / trapper in this one: whiskey-drinking, bible-quoting highly-opionated & super-stubborn Joe Bass. Mark Twain would have loved this character, he's right out of Twain's imagination. It's hard to believe that Lancaster was in his mid-50's when he made this. He looks much younger & moves with the quickness & grace that made this ex-trapeze performer a legend.
Ossie Davis is a perfect match for Lancaster as the extraordinarily wise & well-educated but highly wary escaped slave Joseph Lee, who must continually rein in his instinct to trump the cruder but highly canny in his own way Joe Bass. The film is an almost Shakespearean interplay of their personalities - duel & duet . The viewer is able to observe the change they continually effect upon each other.
The Scalphunters themselves are a group of lowlifes led by Telly Savalas as Jim Howie (in the best role I ever saw him play in a movie), a nasty but not unwise lout who spends most of the day & night in his baggy long johns. They make their living robbing & killing & selling Indian scalps to the government. I found the portrayal (& dialog) of these bushwhackers as real & accurate in every detail as anything I've ever seen on the screen, right down to Howie's astrology ("star-gazin") ex-whore lady-friend Kate played by Shelly Winters in her least whiny role ever. There's plenty of tension & action in this film. It's cat vs. mice from start to finish: Lancaster vs. Indians, Lancaster vs. Scalphunters, Lancaster vs. Indians again.
The performances, Sidney Pollack's direction & William Norton's writing all serve to put this film in a class with The Searchers. I believe it is to Lancaster's career what The Searchers is to John Wayne's.
Definitely a magnificent achievement. A must for wide-screen DVD restoration.