Flaming Star: Elvis Presley at his very best as a dramatic actor in Don Siegel’s dark & violent Western

Flaming Star(1960), directed by Don Siegel, is a dark & violent Western that deals with racism and culture-clash in the old-West. The film has Elvis Presley, in a full-fledged dramatic role, giving a terrific performance as a half-breed torn between his white father and Kiowa mother.

Apart from being the ‘King of Rock & Roll” and one of the most influential cultural icons ever, Elvis Presley was also quite a prolific Movie-actor, who made more than thirty films in a career spanning more than a decade. In fact, all through the 1960s Elvis concentrated mostly on making movies and cutting soundtracks. Of course, the majority of them were very formulaic products that was meant to capitalize on Elvis’ real-life image of a path breaking musical prodigy. But despite these films being very commercially successful at the time, most of them are very hard to sit through today- they have dated very badly; and not to mention the fact that his sojourn into movies damaged his musical career tremendously. It was in the late ’60s, after he had pretty much given up his movie career, that Elvis made a musical comeback. But there was a time in the late ’50s and early ’60s when Elvis was seriously developing himself as a screen actor. He attempted some serious dramatic roles in this period; and Don Siegel’s 1960 Western, “Flaming Star” is, perhaps, the best among them. Except for the title track (which is one of Elvis’ most haunting songs) and a brief birthday-party song, there are no other musical performances by Elvis in the film. It’s a very straightforward dramatic role for Elvis, in which he got to play an intense, brooding anti-hero; the kind that his idols Marlon Brando and James Dean excelled at playing. Actually, Brando was the original choice for playing the lead role of the half-breed, Pacer Burton, but the producers eventually decided to cast Elvis in the role, after their previous film with him, “G.I. Blues,” became a hit. Originally, the producers wanted to include four songs in the film, but they were removed at Elvis’ insistence, because he wanted to be taken seriously as an actor.

“Flaming Star” is set on the West Texan frontier of the 1870s and tells the story of the mixed-race “Burton Family.” Sam “Pa” Burton (John McIntire) and his eldest son, Clint Burton (Steve Forrest), from his first marriage are white, while Sam’s second wife, Neddy Burton (Dolores del Río), is a full-blooded Kiowa and the younger son, Pacer, is of mixed-blood. Despite the cultural diversity in the family and the harshness of the frontier, they are leading a happy life at the ranch. But their peaceful life is interrupted when Neddy’s tribe, under the leadership of the new chief Buffalo Horn (Rodolfo Acosta), declares war on the white settlers (which includes Sam Burton) who have been inhabiting their lands. The Kiowa warriors start raiding neighboring homesteads and brutally killing the white folk, but the Burton ranch is spared because the new Kiowa chief recognizes Pacer as his brother and wants him to join their fight against the white man. On the other hand, the white men in the area, who have always looked at the Burton family with suspicion, now ask Forrest to choose sides and help them in fighting off the natives. As the violent clashes between the two races escalate, Neddy, who tries to play peacemaker, becomes a casualty of the racial violence.. After seeing his mother killed, Pacer decides to join up with his mother’s people. Soon, the violence also claims ‘Pa’ Sam’s life as well, forcing a distraught Clint to join the fight against the natives. With the brothers now fighting on opposite sides, the film progresses towards a violent and tragic climax; the film ending with a fatally-wounded Pacer, the outsider torn between the two races, riding into the valley to see the ‘Flaming Star’, like his mother before her passing.

“Flaming Star” was one of the several Clair Huffaker books, alongside “The Comancheros” and “Rio Conchos,” that was adapted to the screen in the early ’60s. The screenplay was written by Huffaker himself, though it was later rewritten by the esteemed screenwriter Nunnally Johnson. Within the parameters of a typical Western story, filled with themes of love, hate, loyalty, and family, the writers have managed to include some strong political commentary, especially regarding the state of race relations within the US at the time- during the rise of the Civil Rights movement; and also the HUAC blacklist – “if you are not with us then you are our enemy” is what both Burton boys are repeatedly told by their respective tribesmen. The film is directed by the great action-director Don Siegel, most famous for his violent thrillers like “Dirty Harry” and “Escape from Alcatraz.” This film was made long before his ‘Clint Eastwood’ phase and at a time when Siegel was more of a B filmmaker (more famous for “Invasion of Body snatchers”), adept at churning out spare, minimalist genre pieces very quickly and economically. This film was intended to be a low-budget B-Western and, at several instances, one does feel the cheapness of the production (costumes & set dressing mainly), but thanks to Siegel’s technical virtuosity – both at staging scenes of dramatic tension and tackling action sequences, and the superb outdoor photography (the film was shot mainly in San Fernando valley), the film looks like a high quality production. And typical of Siegel, It’s also a pretty violent film, especially violent for its time, with the surprise Kiowa attack near the film’s beginning being quite graphic (and, as in the case of the similarly themed John Ford’s “The Searchers,” the implied violence even more horrifying). The film features a slew of action sequences involving guns, arrows, knifes and fists, with the two fisticuffs involving Elvis being quite brutal and intense. The narrative is free of flab, with the film clocking in at a crisp 92 minutes, the narration remains tense throughout. The film is also quite bleak and downbeat, with a very tragic ending, but the nature of the story demands this tone. This is not a rousing or uplifting Western by any standards. The film has two story strands running in parallel, and both are very tragic. On the surface, the film tells the story of a half-breed and his native mother (who embraces the white civilization) who finds themselves to be outsiders to both white and native cultures, and hence, ending up dead because there is no place for them on earth which is brutally mapped out on racial\tribal lines. At its heart this is a story about the disintegration of a family by forces that are beyond its control. There is no happy ending in either of these stories.

Apart from strong moments of drama and action, the film also boasts a strong supporting cast. that includes Steve Forrest, Dolores Del Rio and the quintessential Western actor John McIntire. All of them deliver superb performances. Under Siegel’s direction, Elvis stretches his acting talents to the limit and comes out with his career-best performance as an actor. Though majority of the films he made were bad (to the point of being embarrassing), out of the three I consider the best – “King Creole,” “Jailhouse Rock” and this- this is my favorite Elvis film and performance. What i particularly like about the performance is that Elvis relies less on his magical voice and more on an expressive face and body language to convey the character’s emotions. Being of mixed race, Pacer feels the conflict from within, and hence a lot of his performance is wonderfully non-verbalized. At every stage we see him struggling to articulate his pain, and resorting to sporadic acts of physical violence to quell it. I could also make out lot of similarities between Pacer and the real Elvis Presley, and i feel that Elvis very closely identified with this character, and that’s why he was able to deliver such a heart wrenching performance. I believe Elvis had some native blood in him, with one of his great grandmothers being a full-blooded Cherokee (by the way, Elvis was inducted into the Los Angeles Indian Tribal Council for his positive portrayal of Pacer Burton). Also, Just like Elvis in real life, Pacer is a very conflicted character- he is a rebellious hothead, who acts impulsively most of the time, but he also has the ability to be cool, and chillingly so. It’s also refreshing to see the the character not turned into a virtuous noble martyr, Pacer is a flawed anti-hero, and could be quite menacing and even evil: the scene where he starts going after the town doctor and his own brother after his mother dies is very disturbing and proves that Elvis could have played bad guys, real negative parts, very well. For further analogies with real Elvis, Pacer is also extremely attached to his mother, and it’s her death that leads him to a path of self-destruction. Elvis is also terrific in the horse-riding and action sequences, most of them done without the help of a double. At the time of the film’s production, Elvis was already a Karate Black-belt, and he was also coming off a 2 -year military training, so he was in really good shape to meet the physical demands of the role.

It also helps that this is not a formulaic ‘Elvis Presley film.’ This is more a Don Siegel film and an extremely well made, small-scale Western in which Elvis happened to play a very well-written character that suited him physically and emotionally. It’s also not just another traditional oater, but a powerful, and even important film that dared to intelligently and honestly tackles some serious issues which the big A-list productions of the time were shying away from tackling. Also, unlike his other films which are built completely around him, this film plays more like an ensemble piece with Elvis’ Pacer slowly emerging as the pivotal character of the film. Watching his performance in the film, I really wish Elvis was given more opportunities to hone his dramatic skills. Of course, he would never had become a Marlon Brando or even a James Dean, but at least he had the potential to become a movie-actor in the range of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. It’s too bad that Elvis never got his “From here to Eternity” or “Rio Bravo.” Maybe the fact that “Flaming Star,” and the contemporary drama “Wild In The Country,” weren’t as commercially successful as other Elvis films must have deterred producers from casting in those types of roles\films. The result was that Elvis was forced to appear in several of those silly ’60s Hal Wallis produced musical comedies, which by all accounts he hated appearing in. But that’s what Col. Tom parker decreed, and Parker was more of an exploiter than a manager, who was only concerned with the bottom-line, especially his bottom-line which i believe grew to almost fifty percent of Elvis’ earnings, incredible!. Parker was such an idiot that he even stopped Elvis from appearing in Robert Wise’s classic, “West Side Story.” If Elvis’ acting career was properly nurtured – keeping it separate from his singing career the way Sinatra nurtured his- then the ’60s would have been considered the golden age in Elvis’ career, and not the embarrassing disappointment as it is perceived today. I feel that his life itself would have taken a very different path; the fact that he was denied from using his talent constructively (and was used merely as a cash cow) must have hastened his self-destruction. Anyway, “Flaming Star” remains a testament to Elvis’ skills as a dramatic actor. It’s ironic that, today, this film is ignored by film buffs and ‘Western’ aficionados simply because it stars Elvis Presley. This is a very well made Western that needs to be widely seen, for its craft, content and, yes, it’s lead actor.

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