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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Kentuckian (Blu-ray)
The Kentuckian (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // December 19, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $18.88 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 8, 2018 | E-mail the Author
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The Kentuckian (1955), directed by and starring Burt Lancaster, is a dreary almost-Western that never leaves 1820s Kentucky, Burt playing a noble backwoods dreamer and widower trying to move his son and loyal hunting dog to Texas.

It was adapted by A.B. Guthrie from Felix Holt's story The Gabriel Horn. Guthrie was extremely well thought of, having won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for his epic Western novel The Way West (itself later badly turned into a movie) and for his screenplay of Shane (1953), his work nominated for an Academy Award. The Kentuckian was Guthrie's only other screenplay credit, despite remaining active in other forms of writing until his death at 90 in 1991.

What so overwhelms this unrelentingly depressing film is that for nearly the entire picture the protagonists are humiliated, harassed, cheated, lied to, bullied, and even the more sympathetic characters conspire against them. Beyond a few scattered scenes, Lancaster's character comes off as a schmuck and a weakling.

The picture is barely remembered for other reasons: as Lancaster's directorial debut (he co-directed one other movie, years later, The Midnight Man), for Bernard Herrmann's occasionally good score (though it's still one of his lesser works), and for Walter Matthau in his first film role.


Widower Eli Wakefield (Lancaster), his son, Little Eli (Donald MacDonald), and their beloved hunting dog, Faro, begin a long journey to the promised land of Texas, each looking forward to riding the steamship in the Kentucky frontier town of Humility. However, in the small village of Prideville, a local constable (Rhys Williams) deliberately sics his dog on the peaceful Faro. When Faro proves his mettle against the lawman's vicious pooch, the spiteful constable attempts to shoot Faro. Wakefield tackles him and the vigilante-like townsfolk subdue Eli and throw him in jail.

Indentured servant Hannah Bolen (Dianne Foster), attracted to Eli and his dreams of a new life in Texas and fond of Little Eli, helps Eli escape from jail after the Fromes brothers (Douglas Spencer and Paul Wexler), feuding mortal enemies of the Wakefields, bribe the constable into letting them kill him. The constable catches up with the three fugitives, but Eli buys him off as well as Hannah's freedom with the steamship fare money.

Now penniless, the threesome make their way to Humility, where Eli's wealthy brother, Zack (John McIntire) and his wife, Sophie (Una Merkel) live. Sophie takes an instant dislike to both the dog, soon tied up outside, and Hannah, who's forced to work for sadistic, whip-brandishing tavern owner Stan Bodine (Walter Matthau). Zack and Sophie, determine to mold Eli into a respectable gentleman, conspire to pay him wages just low enough that he'll never be able to save steamship fare, and play matchmaker hoping Eli will fall for demure local schoolteacher, Susie (Diana Lynn).

More humiliation. While fishing for mussels, Eli is delighted to find an enormous pearl. At the tavern, Bodine and medicine show man Zybee Fletcher (John Carradine) make a big fuss about the pearl's pricelessness, suggesting they try to sell it to President James Monroe, supposedly an avid pearl collector. An excited Eli rushes home to write to the White House. Unbeknownst to Eli, everyone at the tavern is aware that freshwater pearls are worthless. Eli becomes the laughingstock of the village, while the kids at Little Eli's school taunt and beat him mercilessly.

There's no joy in The Kentuckian. Other than Eli and his son, the only sympathetic character is Hannah, who because of her indentured servant status has self-defeatingly low self-esteem and Big Eli is oblivious to her obvious feelings for him. In the last act, Eli gradually succumbs to his brother's machinations, giving up on his dreams and even lying to Little Eli about their future. Already demonstrated as naïve, unobservant, and foolhardy, Big Eli's actions toward his son pretty much vaporize any lingering sympathy the movie audience might have had for the character. Virtually everyone else in the story is dishonest, ornery, conniving, or sadistic and cruel - even Little Eli's classmates. Little Eli tears up constantly, throughout the story.

Walter Matthau, his later screen persona not yet formed, looks the part, resembling as he did the type of heavy found in innumerable Westerns of the period, but his thick Lower East Side New York accent seems all wrong. More versatile than he's usually given credit for, Matthau could occasionally play villains effectively (as he did later in Charade and Fail-Safe) but here he just seems out of place.

Film on location in the Cumberland Falls area, The Kentuckian is a reasonably handsome production. The cast is good even if their roles aren't. At times Bernard Herrmann's music is hauntingly effective, though much of it is so conventional that it's hardly recognizable as a Herrmann score.

Video & Audio

Kino's Blu-ray of The Kentuckian, filmed in CinemaScope and derived from an older MGM video master, generally looks okay but doesn't pop as the best Blu-rays of mid-‘50s ‘scope titles do. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is adequate. Region "A" encoded with optional English subtitles.

Extra Features

No supplements per se, but the disc includes scads of trailers for other Burt Lancaster titles under license to Kino.

Parting Thoughts

Worth seeing once but never again, The Kentuckian is an irredeemably depressing almost-Western, despite its decent production values and good cast. Rent It.





Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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