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A frontiersman in 1820s Kentucky finds the area too civilized for his tastes, so he makes plans for he and his son to leave for the wild Texas country. However, he buys an indentured servant along the way, and her presence throws a monkey wrench into his plans. Written by
In the first of two films Burt Lancaster directs as well as stars, he plays the title role of Eli Wakefield who is The Kentuckian. The part of the frontiersman in the James Monroe presidency fits Lancaster's robust personality perfectly. He's very much a combination of both the William Holden and Robert Mitchum characters in Rachel and the Stranger, taking the best aspects of both for his portrayal. Like Mitchum he's got 'woodsy' ways and like Holden he aims to see his son grows out of those ways.
Just where and how little David McDonald does grow up does concern Lancaster and he does during the course of The Kentuckian reexamine just what it is he wants for himself and his son. He's also got a real problem in the shape of a pair of inbred mountain people called Fromes whose family has feuded with the Wakefields for a couple of generations.
Burt's moving west with his boy to get away from the mountain feud so his kid has a chance to grow up and their destination is Texas which the Mexicans had opened up for Yankee settlers eventually to their regret. But he helps a lady in distress in the person of bond servant Dianne Foster and spends his 'Texas' money buying out her contract from Will Wright.
So a planned visit with brother John McIntire and sister-in-law Una Merkel is going to be longer than he thought especially with McIntire wanting to remake Lancaster into a merchant like himself. McIntire also has a wife picked out for him in the person of school teacher Diana Lynn.
The film was shot in Owensboro, Kentucky and presumably in 1955 there was still enough 'woodsy' territory that it still looked like 1820 frontier America. Director Lancaster got good performances out of his cast which included Walter Matthau making his motion picture debut. Matthau plays a tavern owner and town bully, a mean man with a bull-whip who goes after an unarmed Lancaster with one. That scene is really the climax of the film.
However the two to watch for here are the Fromes brothers, Paul Wexler and Douglas Spencer. They are a pair of evil looking dudes, no doubt ancestors of those guys from Deliverance.
In a recent biography of Burt Lancaster, because of some disparaging comments Lancaster made about directors, the Director's Guild first refused to let him direct his own film. Eventually the production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster got a waiver from the Guild. I think they wanted to Burt to sweat a little. For him though directing turned out not to be something he wanted to do, he got through the film with some difficulty and it was no accident that while he was on the production end, Lancaster only directed one other film in his career, Midnight Man.
The Kentuckian is a good film, perfectly suited to Burt Lancaster's athleticism and charisma, a must for his fans.
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