Sunday, April 10, 2011

Flaming Star (1960, Don Siegel)

Elvis vowed, after watching his mother weep at the premiere of Love Me Tender, to never take on another role that killed him off.  And, technically, this is true of Flaming Star, although there is no question Elvis's character rides off into the sunset to die.  Though, unlike Shane, not to meet death alone, but because he has already been a rejected and has no place else to go.  Elvis must have felt a terrible sympathy with the role as it shortly followed his mother's death (just as the screenplay calls for), and the alienation he must have been feeling in this stage of his career could only increase exponentially with this loss.
The pain on Elvis's face is unmistakable and reminds us of Walter Matthau's words after the two co-starred in King Creole: "he was an instinctive actor.  He was quite bright, he was very intelligent; he was not a punk.  He was very elegant, sedate, and refined, and sophisticated."  Elvis had already taken on a more adult screen persona since returning from the Army, and Flaming Star has him acting like he really means it, as scary as that was for him.  Siegel tells us in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich that Elvis, so frightened by these stakes, bribed Siegel with use of his Rolls-Royce to postpone the most challenging scenes.  "So I kept driving his Rolls-Royce," Siegel jokes, but was also able to forge Presley's best on-screen performance, bar none.

Unlike the Taurog pictures, Flaming Star is without question a Siegel picture first and foremost, not an Elvis picture.  There is an emphasis on true human emotion in a film that could have easily fallen into liberal moralizing or worse: the kind of reckless, flamboyant stereotype of Presley's later film, Stay Away, Joe.  Elvis plays half-breed Pacer Burton, son of white father, Sam (John McIntire) and Kiowa mother, Neddy (Dolores Del Rio).  Together with Sam's former son, Pacer's half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest), credit Siegel for the family living as an understated, peaceful unit in the frontier.  When race wars begin to break out, the family is violently and irreparably torn.  The film makes subtle (and prognostic) statement on the hypocrisy of the "other", and has the guts to cast America's favorite farm boy in the role.  And unlike many Elvis pictures adapted from earlier material, Siegel's eye for montage transcends Flaming Star from liner-note reading to something occasionally and brutally cinematic.

But Flaming Star was not the From Here To Eternity that may have given Elvis the last nudge he needed to be seen as a serious actor in the public eye.  The film was a relative bomb at the box-office, and the soundtrack is nearly non-existent.  Elvis sings the title song which, although fairly uncharacteristic of his oeuvre, is one of his best.  The film has but one musical number early on that seems a bit of a compromise, but doesn't detract from Siegel's vision.

Flaming Star is sad in how prophetic it would be in Presley's own career.  The Cult of Elvis is strong, shining on longer and brighter than he ever could in his lifetime (for further viewing on this topic, check out the brilliant and frightening documentary short film Mondo Elvis).  Presley was a man who tangled with his demons, and there is no question in this film that he did just that.  Siegel said "it's very hard to fight the kind of success that Elvis has."  Despite what his film career would become, for a moment in Flaming Star, Elvis fought the fight. -- ***½ / four stars 

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