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Elvis Presley's movies after Jailhouse Rock weren't all underachieving musicals. The King of Rock 'n' Roll grew up in Tupelo loving westerns, and tried the genre more than once after his debut picture Love Me Tender. His second film after returning from the Army is a relentlessly grim western that twists the frontier conflict The Searchers into a war fought along racial lines. Flaming Star is a very politicized film about intolerance. The only Elvis star vehicle almost totally without a sense of humor, it gets its two songs out of the way quickly and then concentrates on heavy drama. If not Presley's best film, it's certainly his most sobering.
Texas is growing up, and pushing the Indians out. 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) puts them in a difficult position, 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. Buffalo Horn also covets the Burtons' allegiance -- if Pacer were to raid white settlements alongside his blood brother, young brave Two Moons (Perry Lopez), it would be good medicine. Sam's white son Clint (Steve Forrest) is pressured by the locals back at the crossroads to defect to the all-white camp. Both sides demand that the Burtons choose, and are unwilling to accept the wrong answer. The only townie to see beyond the hysteria is local girl Roslyn Pierce (Barbara Eden). More violence is guaranteed.
I'm glad I didn't see Flaming Star when it was new, for at age eight I would have been traumatized. Except for the Burtons, everyone in this show hates everyone else, with no clear villains to blame. Because Buffalo Horn's raiders spare their ranch, the loving Burton family is torn apart. Their best white friends become bitter enemies: after tolerating the mixed family for decades, they suddenly demand that the Burtons choose sides. "If you're not with us, you're against us", they goad. 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 an identical 'choose sides or die' message behind every gesture of friendship. Whichever way they turn, the Burtons will betray their own heritage. Elvis essentially evolves from farm boy to terrorist, overnight.
The inspired director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes Flaming Star very socially conscious. The story reflects the polarizing Cold War years, with opposing factions seeking to enforce conformist loyalty, with racial hate -- the Civil Rights problem - ensuring that all debate is reduced to black and white. 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. In other words, nothing has changed in a hundred and forty years... primitive tribal conflict is alive and well today, practically everywhere.
With tensions like this forced upon the one-theme-at-a-time Western genre, Flaming Star is more than a little over-weighted for some tastes. Plot-wise, the violent action sequences have a cruel logic and are never wholly predictable. Presley does a lot of his own stunt fighting and bareback riding in the rough exteriors. The major story pivot is something out of a horror comic: a badly wounded survivor of one massacre crawls through the desert for days. When he does contact people, he shoots down the first 'enemy' he sees, precipitating an all-out war.
Serious critics of Don Siegel say his interest is with loners, not families, making Flaming Star an exception. The good man Pacer Burton is transformed into a wild-card outlaw. When circumstances require that the hero become a kidnapper and murderer (Say it ain't so, Elvis!), then something's wrong in general. I'm sure that 1960 reviews discussed Flaming Star almost exclusively as a Presley vehicle, probably complimenting him on his serious acting ability. Some online disc reviews do the exact same thing ... I suppose Savant's more a western aficionado than a Presley fan. In the late 'fifties, few audiences worried themselves about the serious content of Ford's The Searchers, Siegel's Flaming Star, or John Huston's very similar The Unforgiven.
Presley is good; after the very cool title tune and one rather trite dance song, he's all action and no smiles. His Pacer Burton is a distinct character instead of a variation on the King's stage persona. Halfway through the story, Pacer reveals that he has racial gripes of his own. He accuses Roslyn Pierce of choosing a beau on the basis of color. Elvis' Pacer isn't ennobled by his ordeal. Fans must have been surprised when the expected upbeat ending didn't come to pass.
The 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 standoff scenes. John McIntire's lack of hostility is nicely presented, and Dolores Del Rio once again makes a superb Indian woman. Neddy Burton is no Earth Mother, just a frontier woman willing to take risks to find peace. When Neddy stumbles into the cold night to seek the 'flaming star of death', she's 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) is seen only briefly as Elvis' Indian brother; I wonder if Lopez expected Hollywood's racial climate to 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.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Flaming Star is a beauty, far surpassing the grainy, somewhat pale Fox DVD from 2002. As was the case with TT's recent Blu-ray of Violent Saturday, the transfer has rich hues throughout and good density levels for the day-for-night scenes. The extra sharpness adds clarity to the concluding chase scenes, brings Don Siegel's many wide shots to life and takes the focus away from Elvis' every facial twitch.
An Isolated Score track is present. I've always liked the title tune and regret not having it repeated at the end. It's of course too upbeat for the finish and this was before end credits sequences allowed for a reprise of a musical theme. But I bet the movie would have done better if Fox had ended the film on an upbeat note, even just a musical one. Two trailers are included, one of them in Portuguese. Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs handle the feature commentary.
Julie Kirgo's informative liner notes identify Flaming Star as the turning point for Elvis Presley's acting career; until this time he was highly motivated to be a serious actor. She gets into the unfortunate business decisions (enter once more Colonel Parker) that changed Elvis from a cultural fireball into a lazy non-achiever, grinding out movies and records to keep film studios and record companies happy. Kirgo tells us that the fourteen songs for Blue Hawaii were recorded in just three days. The powers that be induced Elvis to stay locked in a performing prison, like a goose that lays golden eggs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flaming Star Blu-ray rates:
1. Apparently it's true; Barbara Eden's role was originally cast with young English-born starlet Barbara Steele, who at the time was in Hollywood and had appeared in a couple of TV shows. Unimpressed by the town's 'factory' attitude to young hopefuls, the nervous and flighty Steele decided that she didn't like the part. After a costume fitting and some publicity stills, she just left and took off for Europe, where she soon became a star in Fellini art and Bava, Freda, and Margheriti Euro-horror.
Steele's exit was unheard-of behavior for a starlet, and surely put her on various "You'll never work in this town again" lists. Landing a role in a Presley picture was considered a major career step, although the record with other starlets doesn't support that notion. Thanks to her rebelliousness Steele's career took an entirely different course. Her kiss-off to Hollywood matches that of rebel actress Louise Brooks' legendary walkout on Paramount thirty years earlier. Trying to picture how the very English Steele would ever have fit into Flaming Star is quite a stretch - perhaps she intuited that it just wasn't going to work out.
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T'was Ever Thus.