Trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is on his way to town with a bunch valuable hides to sell when he is ambushed by Indians. They take all his hides and by way of payment leave him runaway slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis). But Joe has no use for Joseph and, determined to get his property back, follows them. Before he can do anything, the Indians are attacked by murderous scalphunters led by ruthless Howie (Telly Savalas) who has long-suffering girlfriend Kate (Shelley Winters) in tow. When Joseph falls into their hands too, Joe reckons he has an inside advantage. But wily Joseph is not about to kow-tow to either side.
Critics and western aficionados such as Quentin Tarantino commonly cite the comedy westerns of the late Sixties as example of the genre's decline. However, some of these harboured ambitious social agendas sweetening their progressive ideas with crowd-pleasing comic antics. For example, Cat Ballou (1965), arguably the finest comic western of the period, successfully satirized double-standards in the depiction of feisty female gunslingers in-between hilarious scenes with Lee Marvin in fine Oscar-winning form and Jane Fonda looking especially adorable in skin-tight jeans. In the case of The Scalphunters screenwriter William Norton fused the comedy western with a race relations drama along the lines of The Defiant Ones (1958), wherein a racist but resourceful white man finds himself caught up with a smart, articulate African-American in a situation that forces them both to co-operate.
Opening with a rather charming animated credit sequence depicting Trapper Joe's past in the mountains, the film establishes him as an endearing nature lover which goes some way towards counterbalancing his racism later on. Norton sprinkles his script with wry asides satirizing racial and social attitudes in the old West. Significantly, Joseph Lee is far better educated than Joe. He can read and write, speaks Latin and has a knowledge of history and often uses these to his advantage against the illiterate mountain man. However, the white man knows the wilderness: what plants to eat and which have other uses, while Joseph Lee is comically inept in the wild. At first he ends up the butt of Joe's jokes but it is not long before the tables are turned. All too aware of his position as a commodity, Joseph plays both sides against each other, looking to improve his lot. The film clues the viewer in to the reality of Joseph's plight so that we come to understand his reasoning even though this has the regrettable side-effect of reinforcing Joe Bass' notion he is not to be entirely trusted. It boils down to Howie and Joe Bass representing two sides of the white establishment: one cruel and oppressive, the other paternal but patronizing. Ultimately Joseph must stand up to both in order to prove his independence as a man.
After a strong start the film lags in the middle, bogged down in tense stand-offs but also meandering waffle that does little to propel the plot. Also regrettable is that the film upholds the rights of one oppressed group at the expense of another, chiefly women. Lone female character Kate endures one indignity after another culminating in a darkly humorous yet still kind of grim punchline. Heavy-handed at times but with its heart in the right place, the action culminates in a none-too-subtly symbolic finale wherein both protagonists slug it out in the swamp and end up caked in mud, therefore the same colour. Lancaster is on fine ruggedly charismatic form while Ossie Davies gives a nuanced performance. He went on to be a significant figure in African-American cinema, both in front of and behind the camera notably directing Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970).