All Growed Up: ‘The Kentuckian’ and the Myth of Freedom

In this tale of the formation of Texas, a roof over one's head is antithetical to freedom.

Burt Lancaster not only stars in The Kentuckian (1955) but directed and produced it for the company he co-founded with Ben Hecht. The result is an exciting piece of Americana accoutred in all sorts of he-man folderol, as shot right handsomely in Technicolor by Ernest Laszlo and scored by Bernard Herrmann with lusty horns to echo the source novel, Felix Holt’s The Gabriel Horn.

Lancaster plays the title Kentuckian, Big Eli Wakefield. His young son, Little Eli (Donald MacDonald), is quite literally a mini-version of his Pa, complete with buckskin suit, thick blond hair, and uncouth outdoors ways. He wanders through the movie clutching the novel’s titular symbol of manhood — the horn, that is — and he’ll know he’s “growed up” when he can blow that instrument. He’ll manage as long as his Pa doesn’t tame him by tying him up, like their coondog Pharaoh, and putting a roof over their heads.

Roofs are to be dreaded as antithetical to freedom. The Wakefields are first seen in the great green outdoors, where they shoot their food and sleep under the stars. Then comes a shot where the camera pulls back to reveal a crooked wooden fence they jump over and next they’re in a town where trouble and meanness will thrive against them. The first shot as the enter this space finds the camera panning from under a porch, so there’s a roof darkening the top of the frame and posts to enclose them.

The film’s not really a western, although it’s about the spirit or mythology of the West. The story unfolds during the time of the fifth president, James Monroe, when a Spanish territory called Texas was granting settling rights to some “meddlesome Americans”. That’s this mountain man’s destination, for they imagine Texas as a sparsely populated land where the air tastes like nobody breathed it before. They pause in a Mississippi river town called Humility, where Big Eli faces a crisis of whether to keep moving or “grow up” and settle down as a prosperous pillar of the community.

This conflict is symbolized, as such conflicts are, by two women. Hannah (Dianne Foster) is the plain indentured servant whose freedom the Wakefields bought after she ran away with them, although it’s not proper for a “lone woman” to travel with them. But if she’s traveling with them, she’s not a lone woman, right? At the proper end of the spectrum is Susie (Diana Lynn), a schoolteacher who plays piano and clearly has heat for Big Eli, and it’s mutual.

Before this dilemma gets settled, Big Eli will find himself roped into not one but two climactic bouts of violence. As a showcase for his own physical performance, Lancaster the director stages these particularly well for the high, wide and handsome Cinemascope ratio. One is a breathless dead-on run across water toward the camera.

Elsewhere in the cast, Walter Matthau (in his debut film) wields a mean bullwhip, while John Carradine sells snake oil. John McIntire and Una Merkel play Eli’s brother and his wife, who live in Humility. Another interesting supporting player, according to research, is the same riverboat previously used in Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) and John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). They were getting one more run out of it.

Hecht and Lancaster spared no expense on this handsome production, beginning with hiring A.B. Guthrie Jr. to write the script. He was a big deal at the time, having in the last few years won a Pulitzer for his novel The Way West (1949) and an Oscar nomination for scripting George Stevens’ Shane (1953), another story that partly takes the viewpoint of a boy’s growing-up lessons. Guthrie provides a cleanly constructed script with dialogue whose period flavor is notable without being overpowering.

According to Wikipedia, the producers also commissioned Thomas Hart Benton to paint a picture of the Wakefields and their dog sallying west through the forest. After it was used for promotional purposes, Lancaster held onto the painting and eventually donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Kino Lorber’s no frills Blu-ray upgrades a previous DVD release without actual restoration. The film could probably use a spiffing up but the print still looks good.

RATING 7 / 10