The Kentuckian (1955)

Directed by Burt Lancaster
Written by A.B. Guthrie Jr.

My wife is a big fan of Hallmark Channel movies. Mostly the Christmas ones, but she’ll dabble in the other “genres” if it stars one of her favorites. And look, Hallmark movies are not good. They’re cheesy and predictable and often feature pretty poor acting, but I forgive her this guilty pleasure, as she readily admits these films faults. She’s instead attracted to the scenarios and the sense of storybook that they convey. She loves Christmas after all. I try to never criticize anyone for their tastes. I know I often fail, but finding a way to see it through another’s lens is key, which I suspect if often what she is doing with me as I watch all these westerns! We all have our own tastes (she does enjoy a lot of other movies that I also love, for the record). However, strange as it may sound, The Kentuckian managed to be a crossover sensation in some strange way. Unfortunately, I don’t really mean that in a very good way from either my or my wife’s perspective. It’s still a western, and it still has some pretty cheesy, predictable plotting with really bad acting. Not exactly what I had hoped for with the film.

Eli Wakefield (Burt Lancaster) and his son, little Eli (Donald MacDonald) have set out from their home in Kentucky to make a new life in Texas after the passing of the family matriarch. However, they get bogged down in a river town after rescuing indentured servant, Susie (Diana Lynn) with the money they had hoped to use to get to Texas. They are taken in by Eli’s family (John McIntire, Una Merkel), and they start to try to make money again in hopes of still moving on to Texas. In the process, Eli comes at odds with the local barman, Bodine (Walter Matthau), and falls for the local schoolteacher Hannah (Dianne Foster), who hopes to teach little Eli a little culture and manners that he seems to be lacking after roughing around with just his father. When a long-standing family feud with a neighboring family threatens the Wakefield’s plans once again, Eli must come to protect those he loves in hopes of keeping the promise of Texas to his little boy.

Comparing this to a Hallmark Channel movie is very harsh criticism indeed, but honestly I don’t regret it, I don’t hesitate, and I don’t disparage anyone who disagrees with me. This movie is rough at times. I think it has the best of intentions, but with Burt Lancaster in the director’s chair for his first official credit, it’s quite clear why he was regarded better as an actor, and only ever got one more shot at the director’s chair. It also makes me understand completely why Robert Aldrich ultimately directed Vera Cruz and not Lancaster. I can’t imagine the result of that film if Burt got his way. But I’ve also started to wonder how much I actually like Burt Lancaster altogether. Maybe seeing a few clunkers has be doubting his greatness, which is so readily on display in Field of Dreams and Sweet Smell of Success. Admittedly, I’ve not seen The Swimmer, and I did like him in Vera Cruz, but The Kentuckian does him no favors, not even as an actor. The finished product is just so hokey and predictable. It has the tone of a family film, but there is quite a disturbing scene with a whip that immediately makes it either a terrible family film, or a terrible family drama. Either way its terrible.

I think at its core, the story being told here is fine, and actually in the right hands could be delivered quite convincingly and entertaining. But that is not this film. It is nice to see Walter Matthau in his first feature film role. His performance certainly doesn’t show, as he’s right at home and gives a nice turn as the villain in the story. But most everyone else is not good. Child performances can always be tricky, and here Donald MacDonald as little Eli is as rough as they get, which makes it hard for the adults around him to not feel out of place and likewise bewildering. It does bring the film down a notch. But even then, I was largely disappointed by Lancaster’s turn here as the hero. The character leaves much to be desired, as he plays a confident and able father, but a fairly dimwitted one, which is none too charming. I think the business with the two women, two love interests is also bumbled. Susie gets no justice and is quickly cast aside, albeit for a better match in Hannah. There just isn’t nearly enough interesting or entertaining in this film to be able to forgive it its shortcomings, of which there are many. I really had hoped for a lot more from Burt Lancaster as the leading man and director. About the only thing that managed to work in the film was the incorporation of natural Kentucky landscapes, often shot beautifully in CinemaScope.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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