The Kentuckian (1955)
The Professional Kentuckian
The way to start off new is to shuck off what's old - Elias
"The Kentuckian" was Burt Lancaster's first attempt at movie directing, seeing that it was then almost 20 years before he helped to direct another movie probably suggests that he found it wasn't for him. And I get a sense that he found directing as well as starring in "The Kentuckian" hard going because it is a mixed bag with some things working and some things not. Without giving anything away we get a stunning moment of action right at the end but then with in a few seconds the movie abruptly ends, no real closure and it feels weird. But here is the thing, whilst "The Kentuckian" feels uneven it has a nice underlying story of doing what society expects and doing what your heart says and that comes through even when the movie doesn't quite run smoothly.
"The Kentuckian" has a very simple story about Elias Wakefield (Burt Lancaster - Field of Dreams) and son Eli (Donald MacDonald) living the dream and making their way to Texas where the air is clean and the Buffalo roam. Along the way they have a run in with the crooked law and help free Hannah (Dianne Foster - Night Passage), a woman who is basically a slave to an abusive saloon owner. But when they reach Elias's brother Zach (John McIntire - The Far Country) and look to do some work to pay for a steam boat ticket to Texas things change. Zach thinks Elias should settle down, become a businessman, marry the socially acceptable school mistress Susie (Diana Lynn) and send young Eli to school.
So we have this personal battle going on as Elias is slowly worn down by those around him and finds himself giving up on Texas and conforming to social expectations. In doing so his son Eli feels betrayed by his father who has changed and Hannah who is in love with them both finds herself marginalised as Elias and Susie become a couple despite knowing that deep within the needs for freedom smoulders in Elias's soul.
Now the thing is that this is a good storyline, the battle to do what society expects and what your hearts says is timeless and so whilst "The Kentuckian" is set in the past the message that it gets across is still true. I wouldn't say it was inspirational but it is encouraging in a little way for those who wish to follow their dream rather than what society deems right and proper. But beyond this message and what we get is a strange mix of scenes, with romantic scenes, action scenes and even scenes of singing, yes we have singing in this western and that feels right out of place. It feels like as director Lancaster didn't have the confidence to deliver something different and so resorted to using traditional western elements even if they didn't necessarily work, it is the only way I can explain for the couple of almost musical scenes.
But then in what becomes a bit of a mismatch of styles there are some things which are great which generally is the action. A fight between Elias and local Saloon owner Stan Bodine is dramatic because of Stan's ruthless use of a whip. And the final big action scene which sees Elias running to tackle a man before he reloads his gun is dramatic if brief. But then you get the things which are wrong, the abrupt ending, the musical scenes and the whole Steam boat production as it pulls into town.
And this mismatch continues with the acting and characters because the trio of Burt Lancaster, Dianne Foster and Donald MacDonald all deliver solid performances and get across that element of being people who desire freedom from society. But then you have Diana Lynn, Una Merkel and John Litel all over act giving a feeling of forcing their characters. Ironically with a cast which also features John McIntire and John Carradine it is Walter Matthau making his movie debut who outshines. Matthau makes the most of his character, Stan Bodine and gets across the nastiness of him, the almost bully aspect especially when it comes to the use of the whip.
What this all boils down to is that "The Kentuckian" is overall entertaining with some good action and a great message. But it is also a bit of a mismatch and Lancaster's inexperience as a director leads to it being very uneven.
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