Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A serious Western that twists The Searchers into a war fought along racial lines,
Flaming Star is a very politicized film about intolerance. The only Elvis film almost
totally without a sense of humor, it gets its two songs out of the way quick and then concentrates
on heavy drama. If not Presley's
best film, it's certainly his most sobering.
The Burton homestead has lived in peace with its white and Indian neighbors for thirty
years, but a murder campaign by new chief Buffalo Horn (Rodolfo Acosta) finds the family forced to
choose their loyalty by belligerents from both sides. Sam Burton (John McIntire) wants to weather
the storm, but when the neighboring Howard homestead is massacred, the local whites turn on the Burtons because
Sam's wife Neddy (Dolores Del Rio) is an Indian, and his second son Pacer (Elvis) a half-breed.
The Burton allegiance is also coveted by Buffalo Horn and his young brave Two Moons (Perry Lopez),
white son Clint (Steve Forrest) is pressured by the locals back at the crossroads to defect to the
all-white camp. Only
the Burtons and local girl Roslyn Pierce (Barbara Eden) can see beyond the hysteria, and soon
more violence breaks out.
I'm glad I didn't see Flaming Star as a kid when it was new; I would have been traumatized.
Everyone hates everyone else, with no clear villains to blame and heroes who are much more like
victims. Because they are not attacked by Buffalo Horn's raiders, the loving Burton family is split
almost immediately. Their best white friends become bitter enemies - after tolerating the mixed
family for decades, the whites suddenly demand that the Burtons choose sides. "If you're not with
us, you're against us", they goad. The Burtons are expected to betray their own heritage.
The Indians are indeed behaving like savages under a new chief's delusion that the land can be won
back from the White Man through violence. Their appeal to the Burtons is warm, but also self-serving,
with a similar and predictable 'choose sides or die' message behind every gesture of friendship.
The inspired director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers keeps Flaming Star floating
tensely between a number of interpretations: the racial equation of The Searchers moved up
to a more densely populated West Texas (10 years hence); another anti-McCarthy tract, with various
factions blackmailing individuals into conformist loyalty; and selfish patriotic
hate, where all issues are reduced to black and white, and anyone with a divergent agenda is an
enemy. The, "If you're not with us, you're against us" speech is used to justify murder. The
political aspect is heightened when one realizes that the hateful whites are using the exact same
threatening words we've been hearing from our own President for the last year.
With tensions like this forced upon the one-theme-at-a-time Western genre, Flaming Star is
more than a little overweighted for some tastes. Plot-wise, it works very nicely, and never
becomes a predictable series of violent action sequences. But it has more than its share of
violence, with Presley doing a lot of his own stunt fighting bareback in the rough exteriors.
The major turn of the story is started by a badly wounded survivor of
the very first massacre, who has crawled through the desert in pain for the better part of a week.
Instead of being rescued, he shoots down the first 'enemy' he sees.
Many serious critics of Don Siegel's movies say his interest is with loners, not families, but
Flaming Star shows the forces that make a good man like Pacer Burton into a wild-card outlaw.
When keeping one's integrity requires becoming a kidnapper and murderer (not our Elvis!), then
something's wrong in general. I'm sure that 1960 reviews discussed Flaming Star only as a Presley
vehicle, probably complimenting him on his serious acting ability. The online reviews I've read with
the release of this new DVD do the exact same thing ... I suppose Savant's more a Western aficionado
than a Presley fan. Back then, few audiences seemed tuned into the serious content of Ford's The
Searchers, Flaming Star, or John Huston's very similar The Unforgiven.
Presley is good; after the very cool title tune and a rather trite dance song, he's all action and
no smiles. He's also a character instead of a variation on his own persona. Pacer Burton has racial
gripes of his own - at one point he accuses his brother's fiancee of choosing a beau on the basis of
color, the same assumption made by others. Elvis' Pacer isn't ennobled by his ordeal, not exactly. Fans
expecting an upbeat ending are going to be impressed, when he finally chooses sides.
A good script puts nice touches on stock characters. Barbara Eden is just so-so, 1
but Steve Forrest achieves some nice coloration in the tense standoffs. John McIntire's lack of hostility
is nicely presented, and Dolores Del Rio makes a superb Indian woman. Neddy's no Earth Mother, just a
woman also willing to take risks to find peace. When she goes out to seek the 'flaming star of death', Neddy is
once again an exotic native fulfilling a primitive ritual - don't forget that Del Rio was the original tropical princess whose destiny was to jump into a volcano. Neddy just did her best to keep the peace.
Other stock roles are given good turns by regulars Karl Swenson, Ford Rainey, Richard Jaeckel and
L.Q. Jones. Perry Lopez (Chinatown) can be seen briefly as Elvis' Indian 'brother'; I wonder
if he was hoping that Hollywood's racial climate would one day allow him to play something other than
Indians. Oily Tom Reese plays a potential rapist in a scene that looks tacked-on; in it Elvis gets
to protect his mother in a showy fistfight. Maybe the idea for that came from 'technical advisor'
Colonel Tom Parker.
Fox's DVD of Flaming Star looks very nice, even though some shots are on the grainy side.
The color is fine, and the sound, especially the title tune, is rich and detailed. Seen almost
exclusively pan-scanned on Television, the full width of the screen helps express the Burtons' isolation,
taking the focus away from Elvis' every facial twitch. There are several trailers, including two for
Flaming Star in English and Portuguese, and a full track in Spanish as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flaming Star rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 13, 2002
1. Apparently it's true; Barbara Eden's role was originally cast with
young starlet Barbara Steele, who at the time was being courted by Fox, before she became a star in Fellini art and
Bava, Freda, and Margheriti Eurohorror. The flighty Steele didn't like the part, and after a costume
fitting and some publicity stills, just ran away and took off for Europe. It was unheard of behavior for
a starlet - at the time, landing a role in a Presley picture would be considered a major career step.
Steele's career took an entirely different course, thanks to her rebelliousness; her action is
very similar to that of rebel Louise Brooks 30 years earlier. Trying to picture how the very English
Steele would ever fit into Flaming Star is quite a stretch - perhaps she knew it just
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson