Written and Directed by George Waggner
September 15, 1949
Returning home from the War of 1812, a Kentucky militiaman falls in love with a French exile and discovers a plot to steal the land that she and others plan to settle on when he is mistaken for a land surveyor.
The Fighting Kentuckian is pretty standard fare for an adventure yarn of the era. It has romance and it has action and it even has a comedic sidekick in Oliver Hardy (of Laurel & Hardy fame) as Willie Paine who is best friend to our hero John Breen played by the legendary John Wayne. Often the comedic sidekick is way too ridiculous and sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to everything else that occurs in the films of this era, but Oliver Hardy keeps it rather muted in comparison to his contemporaries. Then again, he is one of the great comedic actors of all time so it was a given he would know what to do.
John Wayne is once again cast as the handsome stranger who sweeps a young woman, in this case French exile Fleurette de Marchand (Vera Ralston), off her feet with his manly charms as he passionately pursues her in a way that might get authorities summoned in a modern film. I think if it had been any other actor as Breen this film would not have worked as well as it did. I am not calling The Fighting Kentuckian a great film, but it is definitely an entertaining film. Few actors by their mere presence in a film can carry that film. Plenty of actors can give a film a boost but few have ever been able to make something better. Wayne was one of them. He had a unique screen presence and an ability to turn light crap into good material. And do not get me wrong. This is light crap, but Wayne makes it better than it is. You are entertained through this movie.
Reportedly Wayne wanted an actual French actress in the role of Fleurette but was forced to use Republic’s Ralston who was Czech born. Reportedly she was Republic studio chief Herbert J. Yates’s mistress so I think we can guess how she got her job. This forced them to cast other Czech and Austrian actors to hide the fact when they spoke in accents. Wayne blamed this for the reception of the film, and I can somewhat see the point. Not so much because of the accent but because Ralston was a bit wooden here. All things considered is not like she needed to really try.
The Fighting Kentuckian is an entertaining adventure romp based on actual historical events. The film is set an 1818 with historical events serving as a framework for the story. As Hollywood often does even today, they do not stick 100% of the facts. They may stick 25% in this film. And that is being generous.
For me it was kind of weird seeing Hardy in a film without his traditional other half. Stan Laurel was ill at the time so there were no Laurel & Hardy films being made. Hardy, a native Georgian that did not need to fake an accent, initially did not want the part because he thought the public would believe L&O had broken up. Laurel explained there was no reason they both should be unemployed, so Hardy decided to work with his good friend Wayne.
The Fighting Kentuckian is not a deep film and I doubt it was ever intended to be. It looks like it was designed to cash in on the celebrity of John Wayne. And it does that very well. Wayne is front and center but the premise itself manages to be interesting as well. The plot that the character of Breen stumbles into solving is that the markers that were placed to tell the French settlers where to settle were moved in a landgrab scheme. Interesting idea right there. Simple yet with potential. Unfortunately, the execution is a little poor.
The plot becomes a little convoluted even by romantic comedy standards. Breen must compete with Blake Randolph (John Howard) for the heart of Fleurette and does so with the help of Willie after getting suckered into posing as a surveyor by Ann Logan (Marie Windsor) who has designs on screwing over George Hayden (Grant Withers) and Randolph who are conspiring to take the land from the French and somehow subvert this plot for her own ends. How exactly this will all occur to benefit her is a little vague, but you really do not notice that with everything else-at least not until you think about it post viewing.
The action is fine, and the majority of the cast pulls off their material. Hardy in particular nails the comedic elements. No wonder Wayne wanted him as his permanent comedic sidekick after this. Howard as Blake was as stiff as Ralston and you are curious who he slept with to not even have to try as well. The costuming is great and really helps to the environment. The ending of the film feels a little cliché with the last-minute help showing up but that could be because I watched it around 70 years after it came out. It may have been original to an extent at the time but that type of ending is definitely overdone since.
Is The Fighting Kentuckian great cinema? No. Is The Fighting Kentuckian entertaining cinema? Yes, and in the end that’s what’s really important. General movie fans may not be drawn to this, but John Wayne fans will enjoy it. I say watch it!