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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
The Los Angeles premiere was a benefit for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. See more »
At the beginning, Eli is sitting near a campfire. We can clearly see its flames, showing it is still burning. When Eli stands up, the flames has disappeared, even we haven't see him extinguishing the fire. See more »
Although "The Kentuckian" is sometimes described as a Western, it is set several decades earlier and a long way further east than most films in the genre. It may seem obvious that first the East and then the Midwest had to be won before Americans could make a start on winning the West, but in fact there are relatively few films about frontier life in the early nineteenth century compared with the thousands set in the West during the second half of that century. The explanation I have heard is that the Hollywood studios had on their doorstep the California deserts which could easily represent Texas, or Nevada, or any one of several other Western states without too many people noticing, but nowhere that could convincingly stand in for the deciduous forests of the eastern USA in the same way.
The action can be dated (by references to the Presidency of James Monroe) to the period 1817-25, and takes place in Kentucky. (This does not necessarily follow from the title. "The Virginian", after all, did not take place in Virginia). The main character is Elias "Big Eli" Wakefield, a widowed frontiersman who is considering leaving the state and moving to Texas. His reason for leaving, apparently, is that Kentucky is becoming "too crowded", even though in 1820 the state only had about half a million people spread over its 40,000 square miles. One thing that is never mentioned in the film is that at this period Texas would have been ruled by either Spain or Mexico; perhaps it would have been considered unpatriotic to have stated explicitly that Wakefield is considering emigrating from the USA to a foreign land.
Urging Big Eli to leave is his son "Little Eli", who is looking forward to a life of adventure in Texas. Urging him to stay is his elder brother Zack, who hopes that Eli will settle down in Kentucky and join him in his business. A further complication is that two women take a liking to Big Eli, indentured servant Hannah who wants to go to Texas to escape from her villainous master Stan Bodine and schoolteacher Susie who wants to stay in Kentucky.
Burt Lancaster, who also directed, also stars as Big Eli, but this is not one of his better performances. Indeed, most of the acting is not very good. Dianne Foster as Hannah and Diana Lynn as Susie are both dull, and Donald MacDonald as Little Eli, with his whiny voice and perpetually sulky expression, must rank as one of the least appealing screen youngsters ever. Probably the best is Walter Matthau (in his first feature film) as Bodine, played as an American version, complete with moustache and bullwhip, of the villainous Squire Jasper from a Victorian melodrama.
This film was Burt Lancaster's first experience of directing; indeed, it was the only film on which he acted as sole director. (He was also credited as joint director of "The Midnight Man", made nearly twenty years later). I have often wondered what attracted him to this story. In his later career he was often drawn to complex, socially significant movies, often ones with a message in line with his own left-wing convictions. There is nothing, however, complex or significant about "The Kentuckian", a film with a turgid plot taken from an obscure novel. The gist of the story is Big Eli's indecision about whether he should move house or stay put, and even the most experienced and gifted of directors would have struggled to make that particular plot line interesting. There is very little apart from its setting to distinguish this film from dozens of standard Western B-movies. The one good about the film is that the experience clearly persuaded Lancaster that his future in the film industry lay in the field of acting rather than directing, and as a result we were not deprived of all the wonderful performances he was to give over the next three decades. 4/10
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