Kentuckian, The (1955): Burt Lancaster Directs and Stars in Technicolor Adventure

One of the two films Burt Lancaster had directed, The Kentuckian is a big Technicolor adventure, shot on location and released at the peak of the star’s career.

Based on Felix Holt’s novel, “The Gabriel Horn,” it’s the tale of frontiersman Elias “Big Eli” Wakefield (Lancaster), who decides to leave 1820s Kentucky and move to Texas with his son “Little Eli” (Donald MacDonald).

In the first scene, father reassures son that Texas is “for people like us,” unlike Kentucky, where “you can’t move.” They have $215 in their possession.

Along the way, they run into two women, servant Hannah (Dianne Foster), who wants to go with them, and schoolteacher Susie (Diana Lynn), who would like to marry and settle down.

Big Eli has to deal with villainous Stan Bodine, played by Walter Matthau in his screen debut, who cracks a bullwhip.

The movie also features the famed sternwheel riverboat, “Gordon C. Greene), the same steamboat used in “Gone With the Wind.”

The film, a nice father-son and coming of age tale, was popular at the box-office, cashing in on Lancaster charisma and considerable physical abilities.

In the brutal fight between Lancaster and Matthau, the latter was doubled by whip expert Whip Wilson, who cut Lancaster across the shoulder after the star asked him to “hit me and make it look real,” for the sake of authenticity

Thomas Hart Benton created the commissioned painting “The Kentuckian,” which hangs now at the LA County Museum of Art.


  • Burt Lancaster as Elias Wakefield
  • Dianne Foster as Hannah
  • Diana Lynn as Susie
  • John McIntire as Zack Wakefield
  • Una Merkel as Sophie Wakefield
  • John Carradine as Fletcher
  • John Litel as Pleasant Tuesday Babson
  • Walter Matthau as Stan Bodine
  • Donald MasDonald as Little Eli Wakefield