Hollywood’s model of taking pop music phenomenons and placing them in film productions began with Bing Crosby and accelerated with Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, producers were usually clueless as to how to tap the stars’ prodigious talents. The model petered out in Madonna’s whisper of a film career. In between Madonna and Bing came the biggest and perhaps most disappointing of them all: Elvis Presley. Tinseltown did attempt to tailor its vehicles to Presley, which may have been one of its big missteps. Most critics and audiences concede that Presley’s early films were the best, though many might argue that is not saying much. Presley debuted in the Civil War era Western Love Me Tender (1956) with a supporting role, while Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) all had thinly disguised biographical elements. Yet, none of these films fully captured the unbridled energy and vitality seen in just a few moments of Presley’s documentary footage of the period. G.I. Blues (1960) began a deadly slide, placing the star in dumbed-down, misogynistic family fare. Blues reached its nadir with the king of rock and roll singing to a puppet.
Presley followed G.I. Blues with Flaming Star (1960), a progressive western, directed by that taut craftsman, Don Siegel. Presley desperately wanted a film career and envisioned one modeled after his film idol, Marlon Brando. Ironically, Siegel and the producers originally wanted Brando for Presley’s role of Pacer Burton. With Presley finally getting his chance at a Brandoesque role, he comes closest to the celluloid Elvis that he himself envisioned. Unfortunately, it was not what the American public wanted, and the result was a box office bomb, despite good critical reception. The public wanted Presley singing, not acting, and he only gets one song here (along with the title track). Despite the public indifference, Presley made another stab at dramatic acting in the Clifford Odets-penned Wild In The Country (1961). Miscasting aside, Presley, who was too seasoned to play a juvenile delinquent, gave a relatively good performance in a mediocre soaper. Again, the public did not respond, which signaled the star’s management team to take the reigns with Blue Hawaii (1961). This was Hollywood’s saccharine death kiss. A best-forgotten string of execrable movies followed, and it wasn’t until Presley left Hollywood that he became (briefly) vital again. With the “’68 Comeback Special” and several documentaries, Presley finally became an imposing film presence, simply by being the leading man in his own unique life. Of course, Vegas seduced the King, just as Hollywood did, but his second fall from grace was at least a more original and fascinating American parody.
Although Flaming Star is imperfect, it gets one aesthetic component of the Presley paradox: Siegel shrewdly pinpoints the desperation and conflict inherent within an ambitious artist seeking to overcome his white trash origins. Here, he transplants them to Elvis as a half-breed. There has long been an identification amongst some whites with the archaic image of Native American as savage. Rather than tailoring a vehicle to Presley’s public persona, Siegel gives the actor an identification point within an already framed narrative. Stepping into Brando territory, Presley gives a thoroughly convincing and enthusiastic performance, possibly his only one as a professional actor.
Presley and Siegel smartly and predominantly ignored the pop star’s fan base by tapping the star’s edginess and making him actually play a character in an ensemble. In the promo trailers, studio execs interpreted that “edge” as a shirtless Presley fighting a savage. The scene it’s culled from is actually brief, and renders the trailer grossly misleading. Rather, the real “edge” is Pacer nervously conversing through a door slat with unwelcome visitors, followed by his beating the hell out of two racists when they insult his mother Neddy (Delores del Rio). Siegel draws on Presley’s latent maternal fixation for the scene. (Interestingly, one of Presley’s most effective songs, amidst one too many Neil Diamond covers during his final John-Wayne-in-a-Shazam-cape phase was an intimate, maternal version of the rosary. Catering to the imagined mindset of the King’s alleged WASP fan base, Presley’s distributors usually omit it from the plethora of posthumously-released gospel compilations).
Presley’s acting in Flaming Star is simple and not bogged down with the type of dialogue he would have been ill-suited for. While Brando would have given an excellent performance, Presley delivers a commendably natural one. As a half breed, he has divided loyalties in this tale about racism. Thankfully, Siegel and scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson do not lose focus. For the first and only time, Presley has no love interest. Here the trailers, again, were misleading, making it look as if a King was romantically entangled with a genie. Actually, Roslyn (Barbara Eden) is the “britches wearin’” girlfriend of brother Clint (Steve Forrest).
The entire Burton family is caught up in divided loyalties, and racism is seen from all sides. Neddy is shunned by her Kiowa tribe for having married the white man, Sam (John McIntire). Smartly, the film opens, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with an intimate look at the family, but it’s also a reason to show off Elvis singing. This is almost essential before the bleakness sets in.
An Indian massacre follows, which will eventually take victims beyond that single incident. Although the Burtons do not excuse the brutality of the Kiowas, they also refuse to be willing victims of community resentment and demonization. Hostilities quickly make their way to Neddy, even from friends and extended family, such as Roslyn. When the town doctor refers to an injured Neddy as “that woman” Presley responds: “That woman? Don’t she got a name, like white people?” Poignantly delivered, it’s one of his best acting moments.
Flaming Star was shot on a modest budget, which is occasionally obvious (as in the day for night scenes). Siegel, as usual, is in his element with outdoor settings, regardless of funding constraints. Comparisons to The Searchers are inevitable, but while that film was grandiose (perhaps too much so), Flaming Star tells its smartly paced story in a far briefer running time, leaving no room for unnecessary distractions.