Grizzled frontiersman Sam Longwood (Lee Marvin) and his rowdy half-Indian friend Joe Knox (Oliver Reed?!!) are out for revenge on Jack Colby (Robert Culp), the former partner who stole their gold mine and set himself up as a wealthy and influential businessman. Their plans are complicated by a chance encounter with Thursday (Kay Lenz), a teenage prostitute looking to escape the brothel run by a ruthless madam (Sylvia Miles). Thursday's propensity for fast-talk and tall tales proves both hindrance and help as Sam's gang, including the cantankerous Billy (Strother Martin), bumble their way through one mess after another. Eventually they enact their scheme to abduct Colby's wife, Nancy Sue (Elizabeth Ashley), once Sam's great love, for ransom. Naturally nothing goes according to plan. Not least when Sam and Thursday develop feelings for each other.
The mere fact British hellraiser Oliver Reed appears here in brown-face playing a Native American should clue you in that this bawdy comic western is a work of unrepentant bad taste. Quite which bright spark thought it was a grand idea pairing two raging alcoholics in the same movie remains a mystery for the ages. Yet for better or worse (mostly worse), The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday gave us a bleary-eyed and blotto Lee Marvin and Oliver Reed, carousing together on-screen as only these two legendary booze-hounds could. Released by American International Pictures, at a time when the former drive-in kings were moving into A pictures (sort of), the film strives for the ribald hilarity that served Marvin so well in his Oscar-winning Cat Ballou (1965), not to mention Mel Brooks with his hit western spoof Blazing Saddles (1973). It also shares certain thematic concerns in common with other Seventies films that lament the passing of the old West like Sam Peckinpah's elegiac The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and William Fraker's underrated Monte Walsh (1970) featuring a far superior turn from Lee Marvin.
Released the year America celebrated its bicentennial, the film for all its faults does at least seem to be attempting to make some kind of scathing social statement. Rogues like Sam and Joe helped tame the West only to be screwed over and erased from history by the kind of corporate tycoons embodied by Jack Colby. Viewed in that context there is a case to be made that the film's rampant vulgarity, misogyny and racism stands as a middle fingered riposte to the mere concept of civilization. Of course none of that makes the near-constant parade of rape jokes any easier to stomach. From the opening scene where a bellowing Reed (doing a surprisingly decent accent) terrifies captive whores with his plan to infect them with venereal disease and spread it as revenge to the white men, to Thursday's dismay that nobody wants to rape her, to the wince-inducing use of terms like "bang tails" and "mattress backs", The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday is a queasy reminder that the Seventies were a very, very long time ago.
Just when it looks like the film cannot get anymore offensive Nancy Sue coerces a tearful Thursday to go out and bang as many men as she can to raise the money necessary to enact their revenge scheme. At least in this instance events take a pleasing twist underlining Thursday's guile. Likable Kay Lenz essays a spirited anti-heroine that emerges the smartest character with the biggest heart even though the film views her as little more than a nuisance. Although Sam and Thursday's May-December romance can't help but come across as icky, Lenz brings a certain sweetness to an otherwise grotesque farce. The plot meanders from one slapstick mishap to another including a lot of would-be uproarious chase sequences as director Don Taylor (who was probably prouder of Echoes of Summer, the Jodie Foster weepie he released the same year) bludgeons every gag. To its mild credit the film creates a believably gritty western milieu with content not dissimilar from the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood, albeit wildly different in tone. It is consistently ramshackle. Right to the finale that, for a comedy, ends on an oddly dejected and uncertain note.