Burt Lancaster, Dianne Foster, and Donald MacDonald in The Kentuckian (1955)


(director: Burt Lancaster; screenwriters: A. B. Guthrie, Jr./based on the novel The Gabriel Horn by Felix Holt; cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo; editors: George E. Luckenbacher/William B. Murphy; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Burt Lancaster (Elias Wakefield), Dianne Foster (Hannah), John McIntire (Zack Wakefield), Diana Lynn (Susie), Una Merkel (Sophie Wakefield), John Carradine (Zybee Fletcher), John Litel (Pleasant Tuesday Babson), Walter Matthau (Stan Bodine), Donald MacDonald (Little Eli Wakefield), Will Wright (Decker), Rhys Williams (Constable), Douglas Spencer (Frome brother), Paul Wexler (Frome brother); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Harold Hecht/James Hill; United Artists; 1955)

“Burt Lancaster’s only effort as solo director is this slow-moving, flat, so-so western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Burt Lancaster’s only effort as solo director is this slow-moving, flat, so-so western, that scatters the action between long drawn-out talky sequences to establish character (which it never does, as all the characters remain absurd caricatures) and it also never establishes dramatic tempo. The film is a misfire, as all the chatter was a bore, the action wasn’t good enough to compensate for its long tedious stretches and the plot was never adequately developed. It’s based on the novel The Gabriel Horn by Felix Holt and the screenplay is by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

Of note, Walter Matthau makes his screen debut in this serious role as the mean-spirited whip-wielding villain.

It’s set in the heavily sentimentalized rural Kentucky of 1820. Pioneer backwoodsman Elias Wakefield (Burt Lancaster), a rugged good-natured Davey Crockett type, and his young son Eli (Donald MacDonald), head west to the promised land of the Texas frontier to get away from a long time generational feud between rival families–the Wakefields and the Fromeses, and make a new life. The hunter’s most prized possession is this hugh Gabriel horn, which is blown to signal a hunting catch or the arrival of daybreak. Stopping in a Kentucky village, Prideville, to get chow, the hostile sheriff (Rhys Williams) arrests Elias for being a Wakefield, but luckily the widower is freed by world-weary Hannah Bolen (Dianne Foster), the indentured servant at the local tavern to the cruel Decker (Will Wright), before the Fromes brothers, bearded coonskin-wearing mountaineers, kill him. But the escapees are tracked down in the woods by the tavern owner and sheriff, and Elias is forced to buy Hannah’s freedom with the Texas money he saved or else he will be jailed. The trio trek to the nearby river town of Humility, where they stay with Elias’ tricky brother Zack (John McIntire) and wife Sophie (Una Merkel). Forced to stay and earn money before trekking onto Texas, the pioneer settles down fishing for mussel, on the suggestion of Zack to keep his naive brother poor and not leaving for Texas. Eli goes to school, where dedicated pretty school teacher (Diana Lynn) takes an interest in him and his pa. A guilt-ridden Hannah sells herself into servitude to tavern owner Stan Bodine (Walter Matthau) to pay back her benefactor. When Elias tries to break the contract, the two feud. It’s most memorable scene has Lancaster bull-whipped by Matthau, only to get his revenge in the conclusion when Bodine has invited the Fromes brothers to kill Elias. Whenever the fighting stops, Lancaster is fussing over some mundane thing and which of the two women he will choose for a wife to take to Texas.

This was the first film Lancaster’s independent production company shot under its new deal with United Artists, a deal which called for seven films over two years at a total cost of $12 million. This one was originally meant to be a musical western, and I doubt if it could have been worse than the way this serious traditional western film turned out.