But Could He Act?: Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR (20th Century Fox, 1960)

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Elvis Presley left this Earthly building on August 16, 1977. The King was undoubtably one of the greatest entertainers of his (or any) generation. He brought rock’n’roll into the mainstream, recorded country and gospel albums, and his stage shows were legendary. The movies, however, were another story. Critics complained about him being a ‘one-note’ actor in a series of formulaic musicals. But Elvis’s early films tell another story. Case in point: the 1960 Western drama FLAMING STAR.

Directed by Don Siegel (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, DIRTY HARRY, THE SHOOTIST), Elvis gives a well-rounded performance as Pacer Burton, a half-breed youth caught in the middle of a war between white settlers and Kiowas in 1878 Texas. Pacer’s father Sam (John McIntire) is white, his mother Neddy (Dolores Del Rio) Kiowa. He has a half-brother, Clint (Steve Forrest), who chooses family over factions. When the neighboring Howard clan is attacked by a Kiowa war party led by bloodthirsty new chief Buffalo Horn (in a pretty violent for its time scene), the local townsfolk shun the Burtons. Buffalo Horn wants Pacer to renounce his white heritage and join with the Kiowas, but the youngster refuses. Neddy and Pacer go to the Indian camp to talk with their relatives, but they’re shunned by the tribe as well.

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When the two are escorted back to their ranch by Pacer’s friend Two Moons, they’re ambushed by the lone Howard survivor, who kills Two Moons and mortally wounds Neddy. The brothers race to town to get a doctor. The townsfolk refuse to help until Pacer grabs the doctor’s little girl and forces the doctor to accompany them. But they arrive too late, as Neddy sees “the flaming star of death”, and wanders outside to die, where she’s found by her husband in a heart wrenching scene well-played by veterans Del Rio and McIntire.

Pacer blames the doctor for wasting time back at town and goes after him with a knife. Clint restrains him, but the headstrong Pacer has had enough. Tired of dealing with white prejudice, he leaves to join the Kiowa, bring the body of Two Moons with him. Pa Burton is killed by marauding Indians, and Clint goes after them alone. He kills Buffalo Horn, but gets shot by arrows. Brother Pacer saves him, hiding him under a tree, and draws the Kiowa away. He ties Clint to a horse and sends him to the white town while vowing to fight the Kiowa alone at their ranch. Later we see Pacer ride into town, bloodied, shot, dying. He too has seen “the flaming star of death”, but wanted to see his brother one last time before going to the hills to die.

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Director Siegel was noted for his violent action movies, and FLAMING STAR doesn’t disappoint. Siegel, who guided young Clint Eastwood early in his career, gets a good performance out of Presley. Elvis shows a wide range of emotion as the conflicted half-breed torn between the whites and the Kiowas. The rawness of his reaction to the death of his mother was probably real, as Elvis’s own mother Gladys had died just two years previous to the making of this movie.

Given a sure-handed director like Siegel, a well written screenplay (by Nunnally Johnson  and Clair Huffaker), and surrounded with seasoned pros like Del Rio, McIntire, and the rest of the cast (Forrest, Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckel, Rodolpho Acosta), Elvis proves he had what it takes to be a fine dramatic actor. In films like this,KING CREOLE, and WILD IN THE COUNTRY, Elvis more than holds his own in the thespic department. It was only later, in fluff like PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE and SPEEDWAY, that The King chose to sleepwalk through his roles. Can you blame him? He must have been bored to death with the lame scripts. It was rumored Presley was up for the part of Joe Buck in 1969’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY, but it was nixed by his manager, the carny con man Col. Tom Parker. That’s a shame, because Elvis could’ve done so much more with his film career. At least we’re left with his terrific showing in FLAMING STAR and a handful of others.

Long Live The King!!

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