Burt Lancaster became a star in 1946 with The Killers. He began producing his own films in 1948 with Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948). Lancaster continued to star in films for another forty years. His success as a producer was so extensive that he is considered central to the relaunch of UA in the 1950s. The profits of Apache, Vera Cruz and The Kentuckian officially launched the new UA in the 1950s, and according to David Shipman, the decisive factor in its rise to affluence was Burt Lancaster. It is significant that he would never direct solo again (He’s credited as co-director with Roland Kibbee on The Midnight Man (1974).
The Kentuckian tells the story of Elias Wakefield (Burt Lancaster) caught up in a feud back home who wants to get to Texas with his son to be free and lead an independent life in the 1820s, gets waylaid into a life of business with his brother Zach (John McIntire), caught between two women, a schoolteacher (Diana Lynn) and an indentured servant (Dianne Foster) who knows how to use a gun, all the while being hunted down by the From Brothers from back home. It’s not bad but it’s really not good. Particularly terrible is the direction of the actors. The more inexperienced, the more they suffer: Donald MacDonald as the son is particularly terrible. It’s only more expert or experienced actors such as Una Merkel and John Carradine who come off well. Walter Matthau, whose first appearance on film this is, already knew enough to accuse Lancaster of ‘not knowing what the hell you’re talking about (Burford, loc 2715).
As a director, Lancaster’s got no sense of composition, of where to place the camera in relation to the actors. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, accused the director of lacking consistency of pace and tone and letting the whole thing run wild. ‘It is evident that Mr. Lancaster was almost exclusively concerned with the pleasure and effectiveness of his performance, whether he was aware of it or no’. I agree about the pace and tone but disagree about Lancaster being concerned only with his own perfomance. As you can see in the only scene from the film people seem to remember — the one where Walter Matthau whips him — Lancaster the director does no favours to Lancaster the star.
Lancaster who is grace itself in motion directs what amount to a set piece with almost little tension, little evoked through framing, composition or movement. He places the camera under the cart for what initially seems like no reason, and remains little reason other than a foreshadowing, an his strength, his body, his agility, are given short shrift by himself. It’s now awful but one can’t help but think what Aldrich or Tourneur would have done with him in the scene.
It’s perhaps telling that it took me six hours to watch the film, watch a little, get bored, go online, watch a little more, make breakfast, watch a little more….it’s not awful, and it was a success in its time, but it’s far from primo Lancaster.
The film’s greatest legacy is perhaps the painting Lancaster commissioned from Thomas Hart Benton to publicise the film (above).