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June 06, 2008

The Scalphunters

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Sydney Pollack - 1968
MGM Region 1 DVD

The Scalphunters was one of two credited films that Sydney Pollack shot with Burt Lancaster. As a directorial assignment, the film is still worth watching to pick up some of the themes that Pollack would explore in other films, especially those that he developed. In view of Pollack's filmography, The Scalphunters could also be viewed as a practice run before making one of the films that firmly established his career, Jeremiah Johnson. Not only did Pollack demonstrate his ability with wide screen compositions in largely desert settings, but The Scalphunters contains the theme Pollack frequently returned to of the loner who who is forced to take sides for a cause in spite of personal ambivalence.

The film takes place in an unspecified part of the west, prior to the Civil War. In this case, it is Burt Lancaster as the fur trapper who is forced to exchange his pelts for runaway slave Ossie Davis, by a band of Indians. Plans to snatch back his furs are undone when the Indians are slaughtered by Telly Savalas and his gang who make money selling scalps to the U.S. government. Traveling with Savalas is Shelley Winters and her rolling bordello. Davis stumbles into the camp of Savalas and company, and his held prisoner, to be sold back into slavery. Lancaster finds himself with the sometimes conflicting goals of regaining his pelts and rescuing Davis.

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The Scalphunters was the first of several films written by William Norton for the production team of Gardner-Levy-Laven. What the films have in common is the tweaking of genres, usually the western. Probably the best of their productions is The Mackenzie Break, a twist on on the World War II P.O.W. escape film, being about German soldiers in an American camp. The Scalphunters incorporates late Sixties zeitgeist in discussing racism and racial identity in the United States, as well as the notions of nature's bounty to be found in the desert's plant life. While Burt Lancaster's Joe Bass is not the enlightened hippie frontiersman of Robert Redford's Jeremiah Johnson, the similarities are easy to spot.

That The Scalphunters is more overtly political than other Gardner-Levy-Laven productions may also have to do with Burt Lancaster's control over the project. It would be interesting to know to what extent the film may have been re-written, and by whom. Lancaster was the one to choose Pollack to direct, and cast past collaborators Savalas and Winters. The Scalphunters was also consistent with the westerns Lancaster made in the Sixties and early Seventies that expressed his political beliefs. That The Scalphunters has several threads of authorship that can be discerned is in part the result of the collaborative nature of Hollywood filmmaking. In terms of Sydney Pollack's career, this may not be one of his better films, but in retrospect The Scalphunters yields clues about the types of characters and situations that would appear more clearly in future work.

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Posted by peter at June 6, 2008 12:15 AM