Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) makes his directorial debut with this superb, action-packed western. Featuring a poignant, unconventional screenplay by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., and a powerful performance by legendary actor Walter Matthau in his first screen role, The Kentuckian is an unforgettable western adventure of the highest caliber.
Big Eli Wakefield (Lancaster) and his young son, Little Eli (Donald MacDonald), are rugged Kentucky adventures who long for an exciting life on the Texas frontier. They soon learn, however, that the greatest challenge to their progress lies not in the uncharted wilderness, but in the people they meet along the way. Thrust into the midst of a bitter family feud, Eli confronts both the deadly rage of a madman (Matthau) and the love of a beautiful woman (Diana Lynn). But when he's lured into a brutal final showdown, Eli discovers that the only way to escape with his life is to stay true to his convictions, his honor and his dream.
"It's your life to live, Wakefield."
It's tough to fault a legend like Burt Lancaster for wanting to stretch himself and get out of his comfort zone. Known as an Oscar-winning actor, Lancaster was also prominent behind the scenes as a mover and shaker producing over a dozen films. He also tried his hand at directing a couple times. There's a reason he didn't direct many films. It just wasn't in his skill set. He was a performer who knew how to dominate the screen. He was a great producer who knew how to assemble great talent in order to ensure a successful picture. With 1955's The Kentuckian, Lancaster found himself working both in front and behind the camera. While the final film is decent and entertaining, it's hard not to feel as if Lancaster was in a little over his head directing this picture.
Elias Wakefield (Burt Lancaster) is a man of honor and principal. He's doing his best to raise his son Little Eli (Donald MacDonald) accordingly. The two live off the land and have their eyes set on helping to tame the wild land of Texas. Father and son; they made the plans together. But a stopover to visit Elias' brother Zach (John McIntire) complicates those plans. Along the way, Elias is forced to spend their Texas stake money to purchase out a beautiful indentured servant named Hannah (Dianne Foster) to get out of a spot of trouble. To earn that money back, Elias goes to work for his successful brother and gets a taste for civilized life. But when he runs into the town's local heavy Stan Bodine (Walter Matthau in his first film appearance), the dream of a peaceful life with his son is threatened.
For all of its faults, and it has many, I will defend The Kentuckian as a fine effort. You can see every time he appears on screen that Lancaster is genuinely trying to make the best picture that he can. He's giving his Elias the weathered look of a man who endured the death of his wife and is just trying to do right by the world and his son. He aims to deal with every challenge with a measure of grace even if grace doesn't suit his true nature. All he wants is to leave the world a better place for his son and the obstacles placed in front of him stack up against that goal at an increasing rate. It's a hell of a role and one that is perfectly suited for Lancaster's athletic everyman qualities. He probably just shouldn't have directed the film himself.
As his first true effort at directing, Lancaster was out of his element. Conversational character-building scenes play out as if the material had been written for the stage. Even though the film was shot on location in Kentucky, the static camera placements and uninspired pacing make the film look as though it had been shot on a backlot soundstage. Dramatic tensions between characters have an odd flow to them and some character turns make little to no sense. Walter Matthau's Bodine is a prime example of this. Why is he such a pain in the ass beyond to just be one? His introduction as he whips candle wicks is a hell of an introductory scene, but his antagonistic relationship to Lancaster's Elias feels pointless as he never really emerges as a true villain.
Then there is the addition of the two Frome Brothers played by Paul Wexler and Douglas Spencer who have some sort of beef with Elias. Supposedly they've been hired to end a family feud of some sort and kill Elias, but since they weren't hired by Bodine, their inclusion here feels more than extraneous. Then there is an added love triangle element between Elias, Hannah, and a pretty schoolteacher named Susie played by Diana Lynn. Understandably her character is there to tempt Elias away from moving on to Texas and stay in Kentucky further estranging him from Little Eli. The course of their relationship feels rushed and only serves to add tepid drama to a situation that doesn't call for it.
After watching The Kentuckian, it's easy to understand why Lancaster wouldn't want to step behind the camera anytime soon. It just wasn't his thing. That isn't to say this film is bad or isn't entertaining - it's pretty good and is a fun watch. There's a lot of this film that's great and enjoyable. The climactic fight between Matthau armed with a whip and Lancaster armed with only his bare hands is pretty damn intense stuff, there just needed to be more of that sort of intensity to the rest of the film. Like I said, it's not the greatest film, but it's certainly watchable and worth the time you give it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Kentuckian arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing cover pictures of other Studio Classics releases. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
The Kentuckian arrives with an aged but still pretty good looking 2.45:1 1080p transfer. From the detail clarity to the colors to black levels, nothing about this image looks as though this was a recent scan. That isn't to say that it's terrible and unwatchable, it's in relatively fine shape for a 60-year-old film. Daylight scenes are where this film shines. You get enough light to see the finer details in the clothing, the impressive production design, and fine facial features. Colors during the daylight outdoor sequences are bright and vibrant with a rich primary pallet. However, when the film moves into the shadowy night or twilight hours or attempts some day-for-night shots, things get a bit dodgy. Black levels can have a haziness to them that hampers depth during these sequences. The source for this transfer is in decent shape with only some slight speckling. As this was a Cinemascope film, the frames around the optical transitions can look a bit rough with noisier grain and muted colors, but that is a baked in issue. All around I'd say this film looks pretty good, far better than the previous DVD from MGM.
The Kentuckian arrives with an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix. Outright I will say that this mix does sound on the softer side of things. I felt like I had to turn my volume up louder than I normally would have, but that is really the only drawback I have for this track. Once you have your levels at a comfortable place, the dialogue is clear, sound effects have a natural presence to them and the Bernard Herrmann score sounds fantastic lending itself well towards creating a nice sense of adventure. Picture Herrmann's 7th Voyage of Sinbad score orchestrated for a western frontier adventure movie and you have a rough idea for the opening theme. It's great stuff, I just wish there was an isolated score track for this release. There is a bit of hiss present, but otherwise, this is relatively speaking a problem free audio mix. You're just going to want to turn it a notch or two louder than you normally would.
Unfortunately, there aren't any genuine bonus features for this release, only a theatrical trailer and a bunch of other trailers for other Burt Lancaster films, all of which are available through Studio Classics or will be in the coming months.
Original Theatrical Trailer (HD 2:17)
Run Silent Run Deep Trailer (HD 3:02)
Separate Tables Trailer (HD 2:26)
The Devil's Disciple Trailer (SD 2:56)
The Unforgiven Trailer (SD 4:30)
Elmer Gantry Trailer (SD 3:18)
A Child Is Waiting Trailer (HD 2:44)
The Train Trailer (SD 4:35)
The Scalphunters Trailer (SD 3:13)
Valdez Is Coming Trailer (SD 2:52)
While The Kentuckian may not be the finest film ever committed to celluloid, it's a damn good effort none the less. Burt Lancaster may have stretched himself a bit thin with this one, but the picture still holds its own providing a nice little father/son family drama against the backdrop of an adventure film. Also, it's great to see Walther Matthau in his first screen appearance already carrying all the whit and charm he'd bring to the screen in the following decades. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings The Kentuckian to Blu-ray with a serviceable A/V presentation. It may not be the best looking or sounding film, but it's a clear improvement over the previous DVD release. Without any real bonus features, this is a title I suggest people take a look at. If you're a Lancaster fan you'll get your money's worth.