Pacer Burton (Elvis Presley) and his half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest) ride home to a birthday celebration with their parents and friends the Howard family and Ros Pierce (Barbara Eden). After Clint’s mother died, Sam Burton (John McIntire) married Neddy (Dolores Del Rio), a Kiowa Indian, but while the family are close-knit some locals are uneasy about Pacer’s mixed-race parentage. Tensions flare when the new Kiowa chief, Buffalo Horn (Rodolfo Acosta) goes on the warpath and slaughters the Howard clan. Pacer and his mother find themselves caught in the middle of an ugly race war that tears their family apart.
When most people dismiss Elvis Presley’s movie career they are more often considering his post-Blue Hawaii (1962) run of forgettable fluff. However, Elvis’ early films were pretty solid. Flaming Star ranks alongside King Creole (1958) as his most substantial cinematic effort and that is partly because it is the only Elvis movie actually about something: racism. Based on a novel by Clair Hunnaker, who co-scripted alongside Nunally Johnson, the film cleverly allies the rootlessness of its half-breed hero with the image fostered in the public eye of Elvis as rebellious youth incarnate which, whether accurate or not, had taken on an almost mythic grandeur.
Acting on Elvis’ own instructions, the great Don Siegel dispenses with the token musical numbers early on (although the theme song is pretty good) and gets down to the dramatic meat. He brings the same tough, uncompromising edge that he brought to his other westerns and crime pictures. The opening massacre of an entire family is genuinely nightmarish and brutal. Later on, Elvis holds a child hostage at gunpoint. Though we know there is no way he would ever hurt her, the tension remains unnerving. He does not even get the girl. Future I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden (who replaced a miscast Barbara Steele!) is in love with older brother Clint, much to Pacer’s quiet despair. Pacer is torn between the racist townsfolk and the Kiowa who may tolerate him and his mother but threaten the rest of his family.
Like John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), Pacer is an outcast in both worlds but also the only character able to move between those worlds. That gives him an advantage. Unlike The Searchers, which concludes on an optimistic note embracing the idea of an intergrated America, Flaming Star is about destruction. After opening with the image of a happy family celebrating togetherness, it tracks their gradual disintegration via distrust, tragedy and death. Only after a great American icon has been served as a sacrificial lamb does the film offer any possiblity of a brighter future. Unsurprisingly, Elvis fans were unaccustomed to seeing their idol in such a downbeat movie and although all his films made money, this was not among his highest grossers. So Colonel Tom Parker (here credited as technical advisor - yeah, right) put him back on the musical comedy treadmill and the rest is history.
Brooding and charismatic, Elvis gives arguably his most anguished and affecting performance. He also got to show off his action hero credentials, whether kicking the crap out of racist scumbags who dared molest his mama or becoming a bare-chested virtual one-many army as he wipes out a succession of stuntmen. Siegel may have pushed the envelope as far as violence was concerned but also delivered a more balanced and thoughtful account of the Kiowa struggle than was the norm at this stage in Hollywood westerns. Dolores Del Rio is every bit as outstanding as Elvis imbues her role with stirring grace and dignity.
I can see why this wasn't a huge favourite with the traditional Elvis fans, it is incredibly glum, but before the decade was out he'd starred in Stay Away Joe, which was in no way a step up.
11 Sep 2012
Uncompromising is the word I'd use rather than glum. All the awful things that happen serve to underline the film's inherent point that race hatred is tearing the West apart. Granted Elvis' fans didn't want to see their idol this way, which suggests he was as much a prisoner of their expectations as Colonel Parker's. Such a shame.