The Kentuckian [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (26th February 2018).
The Film

"Directors are the most irresponsible people I've seen. They think they're supermen. Just try to show most of these directors where they may be wrong! They're afraid of being exposed." Burt Lancaster, The Los Angeles Times.

In 1954 Burt Lancaster, who was among the most powerful of Hollywood’s leading men, announced that he was planning on retiring from acting in order to pursue a career as a director. All I can say is that I am thankful that that did not happen. A legend of the screen, Lancaster consistently delivered jackpot performances no matter whether he was the hero or villain, and we all should be grateful that he learned the hard way that directing was a lot more complicated than it seemed. "The Kentuckian" was his directorial debut and then nothing until 1974 when he helped co-direct "The Midnight Man". Perhaps Lancaster was overstepping his bounds by badmouthing the importance of being a director, but I believe that he learned a tough lesson and returned to acting with a new found energy and dedication. There is much to appreciate and enjoy in this film, but it is overall not as effective as it could have been. Lancaster brilliantly surrounded himself with some first rate talent in the sourcing of his material and in the supporting cast, but the film failed to launch the star’s career behind the lens. The focus of the film is Lancaster’s character, but he gets lost in the threads of the plot amongst the other characters and their backstories.

The Kentuckian starts out with a very basic story: In the 1820’s, Big Elias Wakefield (Burt Lancaster) and his son little Eli (Donald MacDonald), are trying to flee their native state in order to make a stake in Texas, a place of mythical size and “where folks don’t crowd you” but also to flee from an ongoing family feud with another clan. Their plans include paying for passage on a steamship to Texas, but that strategy is mislaid when they met an indentured servant girl Hannah Bolen (Dianne Foster) and Eli ends up spending their hard earned money in freeing the girl from her cruel owner. Eli ends up jailed after an altercation with the sheriff on a trumped up charge, but Hannah breaks him out of jail by stealing the keys, and the trio are back in the woods again, trying to put some distance between themselves and the law. Heading into the town of Humility, the father and son are planning to stop in order to pay a visit to Eli’s prosperous brother Zack (John McIntire) and his wife Sophie (Una Merkel) who has plans of talking the wanderlust out of Eli. Zack is not exactly helpful in helping Eli regain his lost fortune and he sets him up doing odd jobs including fishing for freshwater mussels. One day the pair discovers a huge pearl and while talking to a travelling peddler Ziby Fletcher (John Carradine) who lays down a tall tale that involves President James Monroe as a collector of such pearls, the duo are duped into believing that they possess something of merit. All of the tavern’s inhabitants have a good laugh at the expense of the two rubes that have believed this nonsense, which includes Stan Bodine (Walter Matthau in his debut role) the villainous tavern owner. Later that night the two begin writing a letter to the president to tell him of their illustrious find, but are interrupted by the arrival of local school teacher Susie Spann (Diana Lynn) who Big Eli is instantly attracted to. This does not bode well for any chance of romance between Hannah and Eli, much to his son’s chagrin. The town people are hardly portrayed as being kindly to strangers, and this is one of the main story lines of A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s screenplay.

At school, Eli is teased for being the new kid in class and he is ridiculed by Luke Lester (Lee Erickson) when he excitedly bolts from the classroom when he hears the steamship whistle blowing. The rest of the townsfolk gather on the steamship for a minstrel show and an inspiring talk by Pleasant Tuesday Babson (John Litel), the head of the Texas expedition. Later that night, both father and son, catch hell from brother Zack for leaving work and school for such foolishness. Little Eli, obviously upset, yells that he hates living in Humility, and his father finally realizes that he has been ignoring his son’s needs. Big Eli promised to take his son on a hunting trip if he apologizes to Susie for disrupting class. The next day Big Eli is invited to dinner by Susie, but he forgets that when he and his son go hunting; they are joined by Hannah who tries to repay her debt to Eli by giving him the money she has earned by selling herself to Bodine, which means that she is no longer free to travel with the pair to Texas (if they ever decide to make trails). In the middle of this scene, Eli remembers that he promised Susie that he would attend dinner with her and so he awkwardly excuses himself. At times this film felt so much like a Disney film, with its concerns about family and fitting in that I had to pinch myself in order to stay alert and not doze off. Later in town when the mail is delivered, the townspeople are astonished to see that Eli has an actual letter from the President; unfortunately it is a polite letter of rejection from a secretary, and not a wad of money as they had hoped for. Zack comes to ask Eli if he would go upriver to invest in some tobacco stock; he agrees, but first they need to get Eli out of his buckskins and dressed like a businessman. Looking like a dandy, Eli and son show up on board the steamer with a large bag of gold coins. Winning at the roulette table, Eli cashes in extra-large. The gamblers realizing that their prey is going to escape make their move, but are outwitted by the athletic prowess of Eli. The townspeople gather on the shore and witness Eli and his son leaping from the boat; later that night, Eli and Zack are in Bodine’s tavern and Eli is buying the drinks. The townspeople are under the belief that Eli has made his fortune from the President’s correspondence and Bodine is sore about it.

Later on, Bodine is looking for revenge, so he instigates a fist fight between Luke Lester and Eli; when Big Eli shows up in time to stop the fight; Bodine intercedes and uses his bull whip to repeatedly lash Eli. Eli sustains plenty of injuries from Bodine until Hannah rolls a wagon wheel over the whip, thus evening the struggle. Eli soundly thrashes Bodine. That night Big Eli breaks the news to his son; Susie and he are planning to wed and live in Humility. Eli tells his son to buy the hunting horn that they have carried with them so far on their journey; little Eli is tearful and accuses his father of being a liar. Little Eli runs away but before disappearing into the woods, he manages to blow the horn, thus signalling his change from boy to man. Susie tells Eli that she is not the frontier type of woman that he deserves and with that, the romance is over.

Little Eli is searching for Hannah and he goes to Bodine’s still where he is held captive by the brooding Fromes brothers. The Fromes brothers, (Paul Wexler and Douglas Spencer), are appropriately evil in their portrayal of revenge seeking hillbillies, looking to settle a family score with the Wakefield’s. “We’re good at waiting.” the one brother, utters, the words filled with implied menace. Bodine shows his true colors and admits that he is a coward and that he refuses to take part in the killing of Eli. One of the brothers brutally bludgeons Bodine with his riffle stock and then says “He killed himself.” A real riot, those Fromes. Later as Eli and Babson walk about the town searching for his son and Hannah, they come upon a clearing where the brothers are waiting. Hannah in an empowering moment of pioneer spirit, shoots one of the brother’s dead, and then whilst the other attempts to reload his riffle, a flintlock loading powder rifle, Eli sprints across the body of water and savagely beats the hillbilly to death. Little Eli comes out of the house and throws himself into his father’s arms while Hannah starts to walk away, but big Eli stops her and proclaims that they are going to Texas, where they are going to “live it bold.”

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio 2.35:1 mastered in HD 1080p 24/fps using AVC MPEG-4 compression. "The Kentuckian" makes effective use of both Technicolor and Cinemascope and was filmed on location in Kentucky in the Cumberland Falls area and other locations. The colors are very good and the definition is very clear. With the exception of some day time used for night time scenes, the cinematography by Ernest Laszlo is outstanding. Kino’s production is the best way to watch the film.

Audio

English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono audio is the only option, it features a rollicking Bernard Herrmann score is used and the soundtrack is a definite plus. All dialogue was clearly defined and the mix is very good. There are no optional subtitles.

Extras

The only extras are the film's original theatrical trailer (2:15) as well as a selection of bonus trailers, that are a veritable Burt Lancaster mini film festival included:

- "Run Silent, Run Deep" (3:00).
- "Separate Tables" (2:26).
- "The Devil’s Disciple" (2:55).
- "The Unforgiven" (4:25).
- "Elmer Gantry" (3:17).
- "A Child is Waiting" (2:44).
- "The Train" (4: 35).
- "The Scalphunters" (3:13).
- "Valdez is Coming" (2:51).

Packaging

Packaged in a standard blu-ray keep case.

Overall

The Film: C+ Video: A Audio: A Extras: D Overall: C

 


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