On DVD: The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday

The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday is an Only in the '70s kind of experience, from the elongated title down to the crappy film stock on which it was shot. A ribald, anarchic comedy that wants to be more edge and politically savvy than it actually is, the movie is ultimately let down by a lack of imagination at the conceptual level and the blind eye that director Don Taylor casts over matters visual.

The "great scout" of the title is Sam Longwood (Lee Marvin), a former Army scout and now a has-been frontiersman. He and his half-breed partner Joe Knox (Oliver Reed), are out to recover money stolen from them by former mining colleague (and current rail magnate and gubernatorial candidate) Jack Colby (Robert Culp). A chance encounter between the old partners spurs Longwood and Knox to chase Colby across the West as Colby stumps for presidential candidate William Howard Taft. Along for the ride are a disenchanted young prostitute known as Thursday (Kay Lenz) and filthy old souse Billy (Strother Martin).

Great Scout's screenplay, by Richard Shapiro, strives to embrace the radically shifting racial and sexual politics that were dominant in the 1970s, but can't quite keep up. Reed does manage to have a lot of fun with the character of the half-breed, Knox, handling him as a kind of split personality - an educated white man with traditional values that conflict with a delusional self-identification as a wild Indian given to scalping and rape - although he has never done either. It's a well-written role that addresses the schizophrenic, bifurcated white perception of Native Americans as exemplified by the idea of the "noble savage."

Beyond the character of Knox, the script stumbles on other important points, particularly in the areas of pacing and jokes. Great Scout is a slow film that resorts to truly ridiculous slapstick to get itself out of narrative jams. An early cameo appearance by a fire hose gives us a taste of things to come.

Sadly, the movie is unable to provide its terrific cast with enough to do. Marvin is wasted, reduced to pratfalls. Lenz looks cute but is forced to whine and flail helplessly about. Strother Martin plays a one-note lecher. There are "jokes" about rape (another Only in the '70s ingredient). There are "jokes" about scalping. There are "jokes" about lesbianism. They're not necessarily offensive - although some might say otherwise. Mainly, they just aren't funny.

On top of this mucky stew of undeveloped characters and situations is a dreary layer of visual gruel that reflects a total lack of interest in the western United States of the 1900s. The sets and costumes look like leftovers from Petticoat Junction. The buildings look like they could be easily collapsed at the end of the day and stored in a warehouse someplace. There's not a shot in the movie that looks like anyone made a single step toward any kind of authenticity - even if that authenticity is just based on visual cohesion. Visually, the movie is a zero. 

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