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Trapper Joe is on his way to the town with all of his gain of hides of the last winter. However a group of Indians stops him and takes all of his hides, leaving him the escaped slave Joseph instead. But Joe has no use for Joseph and is determined to get his property back and follows them. Before he can do anything, the Indians are raided themselves by a group of scalphunters under the greedy Howie. Not only the hides, but also Joseph falls into their hands. Now Joe follows them alone and tries to trick the numerical superior group out of his hides. Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
I first saw Scalphunters during its original release run in the spring of 1969. The audience' reaction to the scene at the waterhole, Bass and Lee indistinguishable in the mud, and the Indians laughing at them was one of the most raucous reactions I've ever heard at a movie; cheers, applause and much laughter. That is indicative of what makes the film so much better than its title leads one to think. It fairly consistently, and regularly, reverses the stereotypes we have come to expect of films with titles like "The Scalphunters." Bass, the white man, is completely at home in the wilderness, "an ill-mannered, unlettered oaf" to be sure, but highly skilled and fearless. Lee, a runaway slave, is articulate, literate, and completely out of place - not what we would expect of a plantation slave. The exchanges between Bass and Lee as they pursue the Kiowas and Bass's furs, particularly as they eat their first meal together, reveal's the film's real purpose. Bass says Lee ought to retail out for a number of bales of cotton in Saint Louis. Lee asks if Bass thinks it's right to sell a man like that. Bass responds, "Read your Bible." Lee's retort is that, "God didn't invent slavery. The Egyptians did." and "Julius Caesar made slaves out of all you Englishmen." This pointed banter carries on throughout the film, until Bass confronts Lee, who has asked for a drink of whiskey, with "Whiskey's a man's drink, and you ain't no man. You're a mealy-mouth, shuffle-butt slave, so don't be askin' to take no drink with a man." This all culminates finally in their last tit-for-tat struggle, that neither wins
or loses, either, completely unaware of their surroundings and imminent
jeopardy, until that last great reversal of stereotype when it's the Indians who ride to the rescue, not the cavalry. The closing image with Bass and Lee riding not only the same, but also the only (and very smart) horse they have, makes a powerful statement about what our common circumstances are, and how pointless racial strife truly is. The film came and went quietly in 1969, I think because the country was not ready to find anything funny about race relations. Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby aside, are we ready yet?
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