Like many stars experiencing their peak years at the box-office, Burt Lancaster felt the need to get behind the camera and direct himself. He chose to do so in the comfortable surroundings of an outdoor adventure and wisely hired a solid cast of character players to surround himself with. While the results are not in the class of some of his other fifties efforts like The Sweet Smell of Success or The Crimson Pirate, The Kentuckian makes for an enjoyable adventure with Burt front and center.
Burt and Donald MacDonald play widowed father and son. Big Eli and Little Eli. The duo are chasing their dreams while making their way across the wild frontier to Texas. Burt is a true outdoorsman and not exactly housebroken. When the pair come across a settlement, Lancaster quickly runs afoul of Sheriff Rhys Williams finding himself locked up. Enter Dianne Foster as a bound girl who looks after Little Eli. She soon learns that Rhys and her owner Will Wright have evil plans for Burt. Taking her chances she steals away in the night and helps Burt and his son make off in the wilderness.
Things don’t quite go as planned leading Burt to buy his way out of trouble and to pay off Foster’s debt to Wright. Thus he has given up his “Texas money” and perhaps his dream.
The film picks up when Burt and company arrive at the next town. He finds a home with his businessman brother played by John McIntire and his wife, Una Merkel. They want Burt to settle down and begin a new family. They even have a bride lined up played by the town school teacher, Diana Lynn. Little Eli has other ideas and wants to continue on the journey to Texas and bring along Miss Foster in the hopes that she will find romance with Burt.
More of a mountain village than a town, Burt quickly finds enemies with the likes of tavern owner Walter Matthau and the long, skinny John Carradine. They continually ride Burt for his backwoods education and ignorance of things common to most men. Things are bound to come to a head between Burt and Matthau, master of the bullwhip.
Walter Matthau made his film debut here as the heavy and looking at him in this, who would think that someday he’d excel as a light comedian when called upon. He carries within him a nasty streak and a foul sense of humor and fair play. Carradine plays his role of a travelling salesman as if he were performing Shakespeare, “Hitting a poor scholar isn’t going to cure your ignorance, my friend.” It’s always fun to watch John do his thing.
Amidst the romantic triangle, longing for the wilderness though losing his way and a backwoods family feud, Burt turns out an admirable adventure film though a might heavy at times on the family sentiment. Clearly present is the larger than life Lancaster smile and his dominating physical presence. This he puts to good use in the final on screen battle.
There won’t be any surprises for the viewer along the way but Lancaster gives us just what we would want to see when paying our entrance fee. An old fashioned popcorn adventure with the ending we expect befitting a star of Burt’s magnitude.
Though Burt’s character may be easily picked upon by city folk he isn’t entirely without street smarts and his scene on a riverboat where he is set upon by gamblers looking to take his bankroll is worth the effort to seek out this title that was produced by Burt’s long time business partner Harold Hecht. Burt also employed top notch cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and Bernard Herrmann for the musical score.
As for directing, Burt’s first go around wasn’t all that successful personally and it would be 1974 before he attempted double duty again with a rather rare title, The Midnight Man.
The Kentuckian, I like it. It may not be the best of his films but it gives us enough of the Lancaster strengths to make it an enjoyable old fashioned afternoon adventure.