By the mid-1950s Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest stars in the world. He used his clout to form his own production company so that he would not be chained to exclusive contracts with specific studios as so many of his peers were. Lancaster could pick and choose his own projects and how they were brought to the screen. He harbored dreams of becoming a full-time director and stated publicly that he intended to retire from acting in order to fulfill this fantasy. So far, so good. However, Lancaster, who was never lacking in confidence or ego, managed to alienate seemingly everyone in his orbit by making disparaging remarks about directors and their profession in general. This didn't sit well with those he offended and Lancaster was denied entry into the Director's Guild of America when it came to helming his first film, an adaptation of Felix Holt's frontier novel "The Gabriel Horn", which he was bringing to the big screen in Technicolor and CinemaScope under the title "The Kentuckian". Lancaster had lined up some top-rate talent for the production, which was the first of a multi-picture distribution deal with United Artists. Acclaimed Western novelist A.B. Guthrie Jr. was the screenwriter, the esteemed Laszlo Kovacs was the cinematographer and Bernard Herrmann was the composer. This was a fairly big-budget production that eschewed Hollywood's penchant for studio-bound sets and stock photography in favor of actually filming on location in rural Kentucky.
The story opens with Elias Wakefield (Lancaster), a widowed backwoodsman and his young son Little Eli (Donald MacDonald) as they gleefully march through remote wooded areas in Kentucky heading toward a far-away river where they intend to ride an elegant steam ship to a new life in Texas. The promise of vast land and unlimited potential is too much for Elias to resist and he's scrimped and saved up $200 for the passenger fare aboard the boat. He also wants to put some distance between him and Little Eli and two members of a clan that have been carrying on a long feud with the Wakefields and who are intent on tracking down and killing Elias. Things go awry when they reach a town where the locals are anything but friendly. Elias is framed for a crime and jailed. The corrupt locals intend to allow him to be killed by the would-be assassins who have arrived in town. Elias is saved by Hannah (Dianne Foster), a lovely young woman who is suffering as an indentured servant to a cruel owner of a tavern. She frees Elias and joins him and his son as they flee towards the freedom Texas offers. Along the way, they are captured by lawmen and Elias has to use his life savings to buy Hannah's "contract" out with her employer. Although Elias treats Hannah with sisterly respect, it's clear she has romantic designs on him that she keeps subdued. Upon arriving in another town to visit Elias's brother Zack (John McInintire) and his wife Sophie (Una Merkel), the trio finds the new locale not much friendlier than their last encounter with civilization. Although they are warmly greeted by Zack and Sophie, the rest of the local population mocks them as unsophisticated hicks. Because they are destitute, Elias has to go into Zack's career as a tobacco seller where he finds unexpected success. Hannah, however, finds herself back in servitude with yet another cruel tavern owner, Bodine (Walter Matthau in his big screen debut). Elias enrolls his son in school for the first time and manages to fall for his teacher, Susie (Diana Lynn), who returns the sentiment. As their love affair grows, Elias alienates his own son, who accuses his father of dashing their plans to move to Texas. Also alienated is Hannah, who suffers in silence while the man she loves romances another woman. Things come to a head when Elias has a knock-down brawl with Bodine, whose penchant for wielding a bullwhip exacts a terrible toll on him. Then the killers from the rival clan show up and lay in wait to assassinate Elias.
"The Kentuckian" was not the great success Burt Lancaster had hoped for. Critics were anemic if not downright cynical about the film with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times mocking it mercilessly. When the movie under-performed, Lancaster uncharacteristically went public with his frustrations at the magnitude of work it took to both star in and direct the film. He ate considerable crow and said he underestimated how much talent it took to direct a movie, thereby winning him favor with a profession he had previously offended. (Lancaster's only other directing credit is as co-director of the 1974 crime thriller "The Midnight Man". ) Although "The Kentuckian" has plenty of corny and predictable elements to it, the film is reasonably good entertainment. Lancaster, who was always among the most charismatic of leading men, delivers a solid performance and he is aided by an able cast of leading ladies and fine character actors. Young Donald MacDonald gives an impressive performance as his son and Matthau, who would later denounce the role he played as ludicrous, is nevertheless a suitable villain in the Snidley Whiplash mode. The cinematography is very good, though the movie does feature some of the worst "day for night" effects imaginable. Scenes that are set in the dead of night are presented in bright sunshine. Bernard Herrmann's score is appropriately rousing and the film features some good action sequences. Perhaps the most under-valued aspect of the movie is its intelligent screenplay which presents the characters with engaging back stories and dilemmas. Lancaster chose to stress the human side of the story instead of spectacle and violence.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray looks great and contains the trailer along with a welcome gallery of other trailers pertaining to Lancaster movies.