Starring: Burt Lancaster, Walter Matthau

Director: Burt Lancaster
Released: 1955

Mood: If you’ve done something horrible and got away with it but your conscience demands repentance so you need a movie so awful that sitting through it improves your karma.


I’m not going to mince words here: this is a terrible f*cking Western.


  • The Kentuckian is so bad that my fiancé AND my dog left the room after 10 minutes
  • The Kentuckian is so bad that when the DVD skipped for an entire scene, I was actually hoping it would crash and I’d get to quit
  • The Kentuckian is so bad that Burt Lancaster didn’t try directing again for over 20 years after making it… and the world is better for it

As a huge fan of the Sacketts books and TV movie, and someone who considers herself an honorary Sackett, I was hoping that this movie would deliver that rugged Cumberland Gap vibe. Instead, it somehow combines all of the things I loathe: overacting, bad accents, unnecessary singing, and annoying child acting.


You can stop right here and just never watch this god-awful Western. But if you want to stick with me, I’ll keep tearing into it with my trademark vitriol. I Googled that word just for y’all.


photo of the Kentuckian dvd


The Kentuckian takes place in 1820s Kentucky, and is actually shot in Kentucky… so that’s something.


Elias “Big Eli” Wakefield (Burt Lancaster) and Little Eli (Donald MacDonald) are a widowed-dad-and-kiddo duo who hunt, roam the countryside, and sleep under the stars with their coonhound. They carry a horn, which Little Eli tries to blow every day. Apparently he will become a man when he can blow the horn. You need to know this.


Kentucky is getting too civilized for these two backwoods-talking, G-rated hillfolk. Big Eli has saved up his money, and they’re going to take a steamer to Texas, where they can continue to look adorably clean-shaven, coiffed, unwrinkled, and pristine while sleeping in dirt and pooping in the woods.


Along the way, they meet a sweet, pretty indentured servant named Hannah (Dianne Foster). Little Eli adores her, so Big Eli uses their Texas money to buy her freedom. She tags along. But when they reach the town where the steamer is due to arrive, they encounter crazy challenges!


I’m kidding. All of the challenges are thin and poorly played out. You can pretty much predict the ending, with the single exception of Walter Matthau delivering a shockingly evil badass in a WHIP FIGHT. I’ve never seen a Western with a whip fight, so that’s one point for The Kentuckian.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


Burt Lancaster made several mistakes with The Kentuckian.


The first was just making this movie in the first place. The script is f*cking bad. Even for 1955 Western movie standards, you should have seen that this was a bomb, and not the good kind of bomb, like “that’s the bomb.” This is a fail. Everyone who read the script and still signed onto the project is at fault.


The second mistake was acting in it, because holy shit is he bad. I haven’t seen another Burt Lancaster movie to give me any frame of reference, so I hope he’s better in other films – but he’s atrocious in this. Like, so bad that I was searching the Internet to see if people from Kentucky find his portrayal offensive. They should.


If you subbed in character actor Jack McBrayer as Big Eli, doing his simple, inbred, pig-farmer schtick from 30 Rock, you’d have the correct vocabulary, demeanour, and accent that the role demands – and that Lancaster epically fails to achieve. THIS IS NOT WHAT ANYONE WANTS in a frontiersman.


But Lancaster isn’t alone in his crapness. Everyone is overacting. All of the actors are fighting back their polished pronunciation, so it’s like you’re watching Haley Mills circa The Parent Trap, trying to talk country. To top it off, sometimes they randomly burst into song. For no reason. And none of them can sing.


The kid starts off mediocre in his role, but quickly becomes that grating, whining plot-burden that I complained about in Shane.


Literally the only reason to watch The Kentuckian is for Walter Matthau. He’s so good here, you may wonder why he didn’t do more Westerns.


  • My regular readers know that I LOVE finding Westerns with unexpected actors. In this case we have a talented character actor whose career included such random movies as Some Like it Hot – where he wore drag and flirted with Marilyn Monroe – and Grumpy Old Men. Save yourself the trouble of suffering the rest of the acting and script, and just peep the whipping scene.

Matthau had a whip expert as a stunt double, so when he has the epic fight with Lancaster, where he is cracking a whip the whole time, it’s kind of shocking cinema for its time. He also whips Little Eli while a bunch of adults stand around and cheer, which is one of a couple of way-off-base moments in this saccharine script that throw you.


The whipping fight is unfortunately ruined by Lancaster “performing” exaggerated falls and fake dives that make his character look so pathetic, you give zero craps about the outcome.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


The Kentuckian suffers from long periods of no action, ridiculous plot leaps with no explanation, and weirdly dark scenes where women and children are assaulted – plus dog fighting. NOBODY WANTS TO WATCH DOG FIGHTING.


Many of Eli’s choices make no f*cking sense at all, so you can’t relate to him. He changes his mind like… well, frontiersman didn’t wear underwear and were notoriously ripe, so pick your own analogy.


I can’t wait to re-donate this dumpster fire back to the thrift store. I hope I have now saved you 1.75 hours of time that can be used for anything better than this.