Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis did not receive Oscar nominations for portraying Joe Bass and Joseph Lee respectively in The Scalphunters.
What sets any film of this sort apart, and what often determines its success is the chemistry between the leads. This is established well to begin with, through the very differing styles of the characters which are properly realized by both Davis and Lancaster. Davis brings this consistent energy as Joseph Lee portraying him as a man with often a smile on his face, but this is not a simple sort that Davis makes. There is always this certain glint that Davis brings to his eye, though more on that later. Lancaster on the other hand is entertaining by his method of portraying Joe Bass as this "hard man". Although technically speaking Bass does have the requisite skills of a western hero Lancaster skews this to begin with by having this comedic element with the character perceived toughness. Lancaster is terrific in the way he portrays the character's constant fussy state that cleverly undercuts the usual western type. After all Lancaster does indeed stand tall, he's technically the right type to begin with yet Lancaster purposefully subverts that by showing those frustrations, that Bass has over losing his furs and most things for that matter, in this sort of childish manner.
The two of them are great fun together in their clashing styles of essentially comedy. Lancaster so intensely portraying Bass while Davis carrying such an easy going approach to Lee. The two of them strike up that right type of antagonist friendship through that conflicting approaches. Davis delivering his long eloquent statements by Lee showing off his considerable skill as a orator, while Lancaster depicts such pained reactions at being unable to compete at the same verbal level is a particular delight. The two though importantly, even initially as the two try to get up on the other in some way, portray this underlying warmth between the interactions even when they fight. This is something just small in their interactions though it properly plants the seeds of a real camaraderie once the plot gets started.The plot being when the group of scalp hunters, lead by Telly Savalas's Jim Howie, not only steal Bass's furs themselves but also capture Joseph Lee. Although this might seem a somewhat swift separation of our co-leads, they thankfully have many more moments together throughout, but also get their chances to shine on their own as well.
Davis fittingly for Joseph Lee gets the most to say as he tries his usual routine with the scalp hunters in order to gain some favor, even though they plan to sell him when given the chance. Davis though again gives such a charismatic portrayal that he makes it wholly believable he would sort of win his captors over. Again though Davis even as he charms with his elegant ability with words, which Davis grants such an innately pleasant quality to, there is that glint in his eye still. That glint though revealed to be a definite cunning by Davis in Joseph Lee who is never quite as carefree as he makes him out to be. Davis does this even when technically Joseph is playing the part of the likable companion, as he brings this certain incisiveness in even his kind words, and always that knowing quality beneath his delivery. Lancaster's scenes are technically a tad more limited given that all he can interact with is his loyal horse yet he still makes the most of these moments. Again Lancaster sort of charges his performance the right way as he is quite humorous while convincing in portraying the perhaps misplaced intensity in Bass as he strives to get his furs back no matter what in a sort of vengeance more fitting to familial loss than monetary loss.
Thankfully though we still get the two occasionally meet whenever they have the chance which generally results in some marvelous comedic moments as Lancaster and Davis know exactly how to play off each other to make their friendship just so endearing. They successfully earn the weight that is granted as the situation becomes more severe and they both start to get into life or death fights. Lancaster and Davis give such an honesty to portraying the concern the two have for each other in the end, though they do this so well by playing these moments so quietly, almost as though the men are hiding their concern yet absolutely earnest in it. The two naturally come together as a real duo even though their final act really is a extended fight scene between the two, but they even manage to create this sense of good nature within that despite their frequency of going for the dirty blows. The two of them capture that remarkable ease in creating the right dynamic that makes all their fighting almost a show of affection, though it just be a most curious show. Lancaster and Davis just exude that fun right in their performances which is infectious to watch as well. The two are a classic entertaining mismatched pair throughout the film, and really if the film chose to continue on their final quest I could have gone right along with them.