Flaming Star (1960)
Dir: Don Siegel - Cast: Elvis Presley, Dolores Del Rio, Steve Forrest, John McIntire, Barbara Eden, L.Q. Jones, Richard Jaeckel, Rodolfo Acosta
Flaming Star is arguably Elvis Presley’s best movie (most people will tell you Jailhouse Rock comes nearest in quality). The screenplay, by Nunnaly Johnson, was based on a novel by Clair Huffaker, but Johnson had written it with Marlon Brando in mind. When Brando dropped out, it was rewritten for Elvis by no other than Huffaker himself.
The movie is a late entry in a series of westerns from the Fifties that tried to shed a new light on the clash between the white and the red man, between those who saw the continent as the New Land and those for whom the New Land was their Old Home (1). Like John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960) it tells a story of a mixed (red-white) family torn apart when hostilities flare up between the Indians and the settlers.
Elvis Presley is Pacer, the half-breed son of a Texas rancher, Sam Burton, and a Kiowa mother. Together they live with Pacer’s white half-brother Clint (from an earlier marriage of their father) on a small cattle ranch. The family seems well-integrated into the new flourishing society of fellow ranchers and townspeople, but things change rapidly when the Kiowa - under a new Chief - go on the warpath and attack the neighboring ranch of the Howard family, killing all but one. In a desperate attempt to avoid a massacre, Pacer’s mother has a powwow with the tribe’s wise men, but she is shot on her way back home, by the sole survivor of the assault on the Howard ranch. With his family being distrusted by the Indians and despised by the whites, Pacer is propelled into a maelstrom of conflicting feelings of loyalty, pride and passion.
Elvis was very keen on establishing himself as a serious actor and does a pretty good job here. With his dark hair and dark complexion he could well pass for a half-breed and the star vehicles he had appeared in, had told him how to move in front of a camera. He was also in very good shape and could therefore perform many of the stunts himself. But there were still doubts about his talents as a dramatic actor and when Johnson’s script was rewritten by Huffaker, the character of Pacer was brought less central to the events; for about an hour it’s a story of a family stuck in the middle rather than one about a character of mixed-blood who’s loyalties are put to the test. It’s only during the final thirty minutes, when the violence erupts, that Elvis’s Pacer becomes the true pivot of all things happening. It neither hurts the movie nor his character; quite on the contrary, it makes his ‘explosion’ after the death of his mother only more convincing.
Flaming Star is not without flaws; the Kiowa dialogue is too poetic and some of the story elements (especially in the first half) could’ve been handled with more subtlety. But the film is crisply directed by Don Siegel and the grievances of the red man are presented in believable fashion. Pacer is rejected by the Whites and reclaimed by the Kiowa, but on both sides the message seems to be ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’. We heard some echoes of this message in more recent times. This movie might actually be more relevant and significant today than it was back then.
The ending of Flaming star is bleak and may feel a bit forced, but in all its bleakness, it pays lip-service to the idea of the melting pot (2). Like his mother earlier in the movie, Pacer has seen the flaming star of death, which means his days on earth are numbered. He asks his brother Clint to live in his place:
“You live for me, maybe they'll understand people like me some day.”
* (1) Lesley Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American, London, 1969, p. 16
* (2) The idea of the melting pot was a homogeneous society, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture (remember the Blue Milk song of the same title). We seemed to have abandoned this idea completely in favor of what is called a multicultural mosaic, in which the different cultures remain distinct in many (if not most) aspects.
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough enough to take
The world and all its got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score