This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
"Rebellion is one thing," Ossie Davis said. "Rebellion works some times in some places. But year in and year out, you can get more mileage out of wisdom and cunning. If you can't outfight the man, outsmart him."
Davis could have been describing the character he plays in "The Scalphunters," an unusual Western he's just completed with Burt Lancaster. The opening 10 minutes show Davis, an escaped slave, stumbling along behind Lancaster's horse. "It's a pre-Civil War version of the back of the bus," Ossie grinned.
In the era of Sidney Poitier superheroes, however, it's not exactly the kind of role you'd expect a Negro to play.
"No, maybe not," Davis said. "But this is the way it is. Sometimes Burt Lancaster is on the horse, and sometimes you're on the horse, but there's only one horse."
In the film, Davis is a slave trying to get to Mexico and freedom. Lancaster is a poacher, Telly Savalas (as always) is a mean and ugly guy who steals Lancaster's beaver skins. Savalas also scalps Indians for a $25 bounty from the territorial government. His mistress (Shelley Winters) is no more virtuous than she ought to be.
"This is the first time in the movies, so far as I know, that a Negro character has been thrown into the cockpit of life on the American frontier and left to sink or swim," Davis said. "There was only one ethic then: Make it. Anything goes, as long as you survive.
"In this situation, the escaped slave has to hustle like everybody else. He's no hero with a Nobel Prize; he's a man fighting for his life. And this movie is not about the Unfinished Social Revolution, and how we are all guilty, and all that. It asks a simple question: What's in it for me?"
What's more, it's done with humor. Davis and Miss Winters play a hilarious scene in which he reads her fortune from the stars and predicts a dire outcome if Telly doesn't get rid of those beaver skins. The relationship between Davis and Lancaster is developed on several levels: They're not only unwitting partners in crime, but also one-up artists, jolly swagmen, fellow drunks, bitter enemies and loyal friends. All at once.
"Lord knows we could use a little humor at this point," Davis said.
"The character I play is a very important one in the movement to get realistic, three-dimensional Negroes onto the screen. In fact, it's so important that while we were making the movie I didn't want to tell anyone how important it was; I was afraid they'd decide it was a bad idea. Too risky, you know."
Davis has played a wide range of characters since he made his movie debut with his wife, Ruby Dee, and Poitier in "No Way Out" (1949). During the 1950s he appeared in a series of Broadway plays, including "The Wisteria Trees" with Helen Hayes, "No Time for Sergeants" and "A Raisin in the Sun." His movie credits include Sidney Lumet's "The Hill." And he starred in the stage and movie versions of his own successful play, "Purlie Victorious."
He describes himself as a militant on civil rights, "but with perhaps a little more tolerance and sense of humor than a lot of us these days."
"The black militants are expressing a sense of necessity and urgency," he said, "but in the end it is history that will tell the story. The history of the black man on the frontier - and, indeed, the history of the Indian - has never really been paid attention to in the movies. There is a lot of American history waiting to be rediscovered, once you get away from the official version.
"That's why it's good that the Negro character in 'The Scalphunters' is presented as he would have been in real life. He's got to tread softly, or he'll be back in slavery in a wink. He's got to smile, and make plans.
"So there is a scene in which Lancaster rides and I walk - so what? In the end I get what I'm after. And so does Lancaster.
"No matter how much suspicion we feel at the beginning of the picture, by the end we're brought together by sheer self interest. We're partners because it makes sense.
"And that," Ossie Davis said, "is what it's all about."
Footnote, 2005: This interview with Ossie Davis in March 1968 came just at the moment that the term "Negro" was being replaced by "Black." Davis himself shifts word choices -- Negro for the 19th century character he plays, Black for civil rights militants.
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