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The Kentuckian [DVD]
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Kentuckian Eli Wakefield (Burt Lancaster) longs for the excitement of the Texas frontier, but when he sets out on the long journey to realise his dreams he soon finds his progress impeded by the people he meets along the way. The mad whip-wielding Bodine (Walter Matthau) wants to kill him, the beautiful schoolmistress Susie (Diana Lynn) wants to tame him, whilst all Eli wants to do is reach Texas in one piece.
Burt Lancaster's one and only feature as star and director, The Kentuckian, has a bedrock American folk tale at its core, but scarcely a clue how to tell it. For all his balletic control as an actor-athlete, Lancaster shows no sense of how a film should move and breathe over an hour and a half, or how to make the characters' growth or changes of mind credible.
It's the early 18th century--Monroe is president--and buckskin-clad Lancaster and his son (Donald MacDonald) are lighting out for Texas. "It ain't we don't like people--we like room more." They plan briefly to visit Lancaster's tobacco-dealer brother (John McIntire) in the river town of Humility, and then move on. But there are complications from a long-running feud, and some nasty baiting from a whip-cracking storekeeper (Walter Matthau in his film debut); the need to replace their "Texas money" after buying freedom for a bondservant (Dianne Foster); also the matter of deciding who's prettier, her or the local schoolmarm (Diana Lynn).
Lancaster aims for some quaint Americana--a sing-along to the tinkling of a pianoforte, a jaw-dropping riverside production number--and there's one nifty bit of action based on how long it took to reload a flintlock rifle. But mostly this film just lies there in overlit CinemaScope. --Richard T Jameson
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Lancaster plays a Elias Wakefield, a Kentuckian pioneer and widower bound for 1820's Texas with his young son (MacDonald). But ill education, romance and mean townsfolk stunt his progress.
Burt Lancaster had great designs to be a director, even planning to give up acting as early as 1955 to make directing his sole career. Foolishly thinking, and proclaiming, it to be an easy job, his experiences on making The Kentuckian would halt him in his tracks and the film would remain his only sole directing credit for the rest of his life. Unfortunately the film shows that the film world hasn't missed a great director in the making.
It's a decent film, more because it is an interesting misfire than any great dramatic thrust. There's very good period flavours here, the photography is often gorgeous, Herrmann's score (used better in Jason and the Argonauts 8 years later) is appealingly tone setting and a few scenes really do hit the mark, but the pace is stop-start and Lancaster isn't sure how to direct himself, with the big man turning in a performance that sits somewhere between camp and aww shucks machismo. He handles his other cast members well, where it's good to see two female characters properly impact on the storyline, but the screenplay sometimes falls flat and scene skipping cheapens the production (one moment Lancaster is in jail, we see a hand lift a key out a coat pocket and the next shot he and his son are relaxing out in the wilderness with Diana Lynn!).
Another major problem is the ludicrous nature of the main villain, Walter Matthau's whip-wielding Stan Bodine, the daftness of such Matthau (in his first big screen role) himself would decry later in his career at how ridiculous the role was. Yet the character features in the best scene in the film, as Bodine and Wakefield are pitched in a fight, man with whip against man with only brawn on his side. This oddness (stupid character features in best scene) that says volumes about The Kentuckian's variable quality. Other strong scenes flit in and out, such as a riverboat gambling sequence, while the finale that sees Lancaster run full pelt across a river to take down a foe, is hugely entertaining. But once the end credit flashes up you may find yourself scratching your head and pondering just what you had just sat through?
Entertainingly messy. 6/10
This action adventure film full of backwoods lore, does not demand too much of Lancaster. At times the film has a Disney feel to it and you expect Fess Parker to appear as Davy Crockett complete with coonskin cap. But this sits uneasily with the infamous bullwhipping scene where Matthau lays about Lancaster, and the scene where the two villains from the backwoods casually dispatch a character like a nasty varmit. A bit too dark for Disney! The film was made on location in Levi Jackson state park, London, Kentucky and this helps the cinematography no end. Lancaster with his distinctive toothy grin that Ewan McGregor seems to have annoyingly copied, brings an athletic vitality to his role. John McIntyre also acquits himself well in his supporting role, as he so often did. Walter Matthau plays a sort of panto villain who reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis's over the top "Bill the Butcher" from "Gangs of New York". But most annoying was the sweet faced child actor Donald MacDonald as young Eli. His attempts at tears and joy are both cringingly bad. Hopefully his acting improved, if he was ever allowed another chance. The two female leads are also very forgettable. Now what were their names?
Overall it is a pretty undemanding film. It can be best described as routine. For western fans like myself it is an enjoyable enough romp. It is one you would probably not need to watch more than once. Whilst not a bad film I can only give it three stars for effort.
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