***½/**** Image B Sound B+
starring Elvis Presley, Dolores Del Rio, John McIntire, Steve Forrest
screenplay by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel Flaming Lance by Huffaker
directed by Don Siegel
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. In his compulsively readable autobiography A Siegel Film, Flaming Star director Don Siegel recounts a conversation he had with the film's producer, David Weisbart. Told that Elvis Presley has replaced Marlon Fucking Brando as the lead in their Nunnally Johnson-scripted western, a baffled Siegel observes, "He's no Marlon Brando."
"On the other hand, Brando's no Presley," Weisbart retorts, creating a kind of Lewis Carroll logic loop from which the only escape is to concur. Siegel is later ironically relieved to hear that the esteemed Johnson has bailed on the project in protest, as it confirms he's not the only one not taking the recasting lightly.
What's maybe not quite as mystifying is Elvis's acceptance of the role, despite his own misgivings about its dramatic challenges. (He would go so far as to bribe Siegel with the use of his Rolls-Royce into putting off a particularly challenging piece of acting until the end of the shoot, then still try to weasel out of it at the last minute.) The King had something to prove--to himself, to his play-it-safe handlers, to an audience that saw him as a singer first and foremost--and, moreover, having recently lost his darling mother Gladys, likely felt a tremendous sympathy with the material, in which a boy's love for his mama can't save her from the Flaming Star, a hokum-folklore version of the white light people claim to see when they die. (Oddly, the film was originally called Black Star.) In a scene that looks as though it must have been as savagely cathartic for Elvis to play as it is for us to watch, a pair of would-be rapists menaces Neddy (Dolores Del Rio) in her own kitchen. Son Pacer (Presley) returns with firewood in the nick of time, susses out the situation, and takes the two out back for a beating that would do Sonny Corleone proud, although without the ostentatiousness that implies. It's a poignant touch: She knows what he's up to and he knows that she knows what he's up to, but as long as he does it quietly, she isn't forced to acknowledge it, nobody's really implicated, and that bubble of innocence protecting their image of each other goes unpunctured.
Neddy is a Kiowa woman married to a white man, Sam Burton (John McIntire), with whom she sired Pacer. Sam has a white son, Clint (Steve Forrest, brother of Dana Andrews), from a previous marriage, and these four individuals appear to live together in Brady Bunch harmony. They're an uncontroversial lot within the community, too, until one morning the Kiowa ambush a neighbouring family returning home from a surprise party for Clint, an attack that leaves its few survivors shell-shocked and vengeful. (Almost anachronistically horrific and kinetic, this sequence is quintessential Siegel, who, probably from having learned the filmmaking discipline through editing and second-unit directing as the de facto head of Warner Bros.' montage department in the late-'30s and early-'40s, could always be counted on for these violent explosions of pure cinema. (No surprise that Sam Peckinpah was his protégé.)) Under the leadership of a new chief, Buffalo Horn (Rudolph Acosta), the Kiowa are on the warpath trying to undo the previous generation's mistake of surrendering their land to white settlers. Caught in the sometimes-literal crossfire are the Burtons--Pacer, the half-breed, in particular: Suddenly viewed as a double-agent of sorts by his white peers, Pacer also receives a not-so-thinly-veiled "you're either with us or against us" ultimatum from Buffalo Horn, who spends a day ominously surveying the Burton home from a hilltop perch.
The filmmaking may be a little ramshackle (another Siegel signature), but it's sensitive (ditto), and the performances are soulful. The most highly regarded of Elvis's pictures, at least among cinephiles, Flaming Star nevertheless flopped hard at the box office, giving Col. Tom Parker license to exert an even more Machiavellian influence over the King's movie career. Elvis would make only one more quasi-"straight" picture, the Sirkian Wild in the Country, before relenting to brand expectations for an endless string of bubblegum musicals. But while Elvis is perhaps an irreconcilable enough presence here that he didn't help the grosses ("He is also allowed to twang the guitar in one cowboy ballad, so the film cannot be listed as a total loss by the rock [and] rollers," the NEW YORK TIMES warned/reassured), it's difficult to imagine Flaming Star being a substantially bigger hit with Brando in the lead. The picture is, very simply, a downer--and not, alas, of the Stanley Kramer, liberal-guilt-inducing variety that makes people feel as though they have to see it out of civic duty, whatever its banning from South African movie theatres (for its implicit message of anti-Apartheid) might lead one to expect. Pacer dies at the end, Shane-style, and much pointless feuding has left his mother and father dead and his brother convalescing from arrow wounds. Although a self-described Hollywood Lefty, Siegel was no Pollyanna; if the film could be said to intentionally allegorize the dawning Civil Rights movement in showing suppressed racial tensions finally simmer over--and throughout his career, Siegel was so hip and socially engaged that this doesn't seem too far-fetched--then it mainly anticipates with palpable dread the collateral damage the more militant campaigns will incur. Is it overreaching to say that, in hindsight, the casting of Elvis as a cultural misfit with a fragile status quo seems apt? What is the title if not a retroactive metaphor for Presley himself, the star who burned twice as bright and half as long?
Originally pressed in 2002, Fox's DVD release of Flaming Star frankly leaves something to be desired. Sourced from a less-than-pristine print, the 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer has faded colour and contrast, smudgy detail that's just this side of dupey, and some gratuitous edge-enhancement. It's OK, don't get me wrong, but the picture deserves better. Meanwhile, the attendant Dolby Surround audio is maddeningly directional in typical Fox CinemaScope fashion, though it has a nice, warm timbre and decent dynamic range. Extras are limited to trailers for Love Me Tender, Wild in the Country, and two for Flaming Star (the second intended for Portuguese venues). Originally published: August 5, 2010.