Label: Twilight Time
Released: November 11, 2014
Synopsis: A half white-half Kiowa Indian is torn between defending both cultures when his neighbours and family members are killed in a bitter escalating war.
Special Features: Audio Commentary by film historian Lem Dobbs and producer Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Original Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Reportedly regarded by critics as a dud upon its original release, Flaming Star is a genuine oddity within Elvis Presley’s 21 film C.V., and in the eyes of some fans and critical supporters, it’s matured into a unique western that avoids certain dreary genre clichés and familiar characterizations.
That may be a highly subjective stance, but there’s no doubt Flaming Star is a very odd film which doesn’t deliver the kind of Elvis movie expected by his fans, especially those who believed this adaptation of Clair Huffaker’s novel would be a light genre entry with songs, laughs, fast action, some brief bits of serious drama, and romance. (Any publicity stills that display Elvis and Barbara Eden cheek-to-cheek are pure bullshit.)
Elvis does croon the pop-styled title song and performs a sort-of folk tune on guitar during an early birthday celebration, but credit’s certainly due to someone – be it director Don Siegel, producer Don Weisbart – or according to film historian Julie Kirgo, Presley himself, for not larding the movie with further music numbers and just sticking to a serious drama of Pacer Burton (Presley), a half Indian, half-white man who ultimately takes the side of aggressive Kiowa leader Buffalo Horn (Hondo’s Rudolfo Acosta) to fight the white settlers that have taunted Pacer for most of his life.
In so doing, Pacer must break ties with his always supportive father Sam (veteran character actor John McIntire) and older white brother Clint (Steve Forrest), but prior to the great family rift, there is relative peace between the Burton family and local neighbours who gather for Clint’s birthday party.
The drama in Huffaker’s tale isn’t unique – a racial divide within both a single family and the insular community that explodes after a family’s viciously massacred – nor is the setting, nor the back & forth chase scenes among the slopes of a mountain, but there are small moments within the script and Siegel’s direction which are rather atypical for a studio film designed to please rather than provoke.
The violence is surprisingly nasty – the first act involves a family friend (L.Q. Jones) getting axed in the face (!) Mario Bava-style, whereas there’s an undercurrent of potential danger when Pacer threatens to harm a child – and the racism is omnipresent via slight remarks, outright cat-calling, and an attempted assault of Pacer’s Indian mother Neddy (Dolores Del Rio) by two thugs. When Pacer emerges in the film’s finale, it’s clear he’s had more than a run-in with Buffalo Horn’s men – the fatigue and scars imply cruelty inflicted upon Pacer which he likely redirected with double (and perhaps lethal) force.
Pacer remains perpetually tormented by being ‘a half-breed’, never comfortable in either white or Indian communities. That makes his final scene perhaps logical, although the abruptness and outright tragedy must have enraged Elvis’ fans wanting a resolution more Hollywood-happy, if not victorious for the good-hearted Burton family.
Many tragic events keep eroding the Burtons’ security and sanity, and while the family’s determined to survive the worst, neither the white locals nor Buffalo Horn and the Kiowa leave the Burton clan alone; both white settlers and Indian warriors demand absolute fidelity to their respective causes, or face death. (The film’s title refers to a ‘flaming star’ that’s a death star which the dying see and doggedly head towards, although it’s the journey to that endpoint which ultimately kills them.)
Elvis followed Flaming Star with Wild in the Country (1961), but that film’s greater box office and critical failure reset the singer to the more affable romantic music comedies and light dramas for the rest of his career.
The irony is that while it’s easy to trace the decline in Presley’s cinema career, it’s hardly the first time a gifted singer / entertainer with natural acting chops lost his mojo and fell into a slump, walking (or singing) through banalities. One need only look at Frank Sinatra who got lazy in the sixties, and moved from hard dramas like From Here to Eternity (1953), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to ego-grousing crap in which he was either badly cast (Come Blow Your Horn) or walked through scenes shot in a banal closed set (Assault on a Queen).
The difference is that Sinatra was his own boss, and he knew when a film’s portal into a specific drama could be ruined by a protracted singing interlude, whereas Presley was too reliant and seemed unwilling to stand up against ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, his manager who finagled a recurring “Technical Advisor” credit on each of the singer’s films. (It’s hard to believe the self-branded ‘advisor’ was wise to the nuances of Native American culture or the trials & tribulations of farming communities. Instead of accepting an associate producer-styled credit, Parker’s chosen nomenclature reeks of a shallow know-it-all and bull-headed impresario.)
Director Siegel managed to get decent performances from his unusual cast which featured several up-and-coming actors like Barbara Eden (TV’s I Dream of Jeannie), Karl Swenson as the town’s lead bigot, L.Q. Jones, Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen) as another doomed neighbour, Ford Rainey (Little House on the Prairie) as the town doctor, and Virginia Christine (a carry-over from Siegel’s sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as a distraught mom.
Cyril Mockridge’s score hits all the right dramatic marks, and Charles Clarke’s cinematography is quite lovely, exploiting the flowing landscape and often following the screen with rich colours. (The bright sunlight also seems to have been used to accentuate foreground characters while softening details of immediate background components, giving some medium shots a slight 3D quality.)
As mentioned at the onset, Flaming Star is an odd film, and perhaps repeated viewings may soften the film’s flaws, tempering some lapses of logic so viewers can enjoy the genuinely affecting directorial touches in some scenes, especially Presley’s ‘big scene’ which he handles really well; but it’s a film that still kind of baffles, in terms of it being planned as a breakout vehicle for the singer.
As loyal fans Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman detail in their fact-filled, highly edifying commentary track (which is really one fat 90 min. discussion), Nunnally Johnson’s script was reportedly junked, and author Huffaker returned for a rewrite which was closer to his novel, but there are bits that just don’t jibe so well.
Dobbs and Redman rightly single out the mountain chase that feels like a concession towards the studio wanting some generic action, but there’s also Pacer’s sudden flip-flop from hating / saving his brother Clint from a potential slaughter, and Clint never blurting out the reason for his attempt to reunite with Pacer in the mountains. (Reason: their dad’s dead, which is kind of a biggie.)
Also clunky is the sudden death of Indian escort Two Moons which is forgotten about until his cadaver becomes a prop slung over a horse when Pacer enters Buffalo Horn’s camp to join in the fight. There’s also one of the Howard boys who survived the opening massacre, yet goes crazy and spasmodically kills Two Moons instead of seeking help after hiding and starving from the Kiowa for days. I mean, if he made it as far as the Burton’s land, why not head for town?
Dolores del Rio may look the part of Pacer’s mom, but her acting range is extremely narrow, and her performance comes off as rather stiff instead of the more stoic approach as assessed by Dobbs, Redman, and Kirgo.
Barbara Eden (who replaced Barbara Steele) may not be anyone’s love interest in the film – an unusual state for any female character in a western – but she also doesn’t have much to say or do, and her shift from scorning the Burton boys in her family’s general store after the opening slaughter to siding with them lacks clarity; the inference is Neddy’s death caused the empathetic shift, but there’s a sense any scene detailing that change in loyalty was either never written, or shorn from the film. (At 92 mins., Siegel’s cut is very lean, but maybe a few important bits were cut for the sake of pacing.)
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a lovely transfer with vivid colours, clear details, and a decent sound mix that works in a re-channeled 5.1 and pseudo-stereo 2.0 mix; the sound elements have been tweaked for slight spatial enhancement rather than faux surround.
Cyril Mockridge’s score is isolated in stereo on a separate track, and Redman and Dobbs’ discussion is worth as much as the film on Blu, largely because the pair’s love for the film mandated organized, clear thoughts supported by research brought to the recording session. There’s a clear qualitative difference between someone like critic Richard Schickel spouting facts in a singular sitting from an armchair (as in Fox’ DVD of All About Eve), and a proper pre-planned discussion on the merits of a maligned genre entry and its place in the careers of an iconoclastic singer and a skilled director.
Dobbs’ blunt views are supported by his wealth of knowledge on the genre and director Siegel, and it’s a rare commentary track worth revisiting, especially for jotting down some referenced films worth tracking down on video. You may not share Dobbs and Redman’s affection for the film, but you respect their reasons for hugging this oddity.
The two also provide some great info on author Huffaker, whose own C.V. is filled with TV and feature film productions, and some repurposing material from his other works. Who knew Huffaker reworked the same story of convicts, bounty hunters, and rebel gunrunners in The Comancheros (1961), Rio Conchos (1964), and 100 Rifles (1969)?
Julie Kirgo’s essay neatly contextualizes some of the key facts of this peculiar production which followed Presley’s return to movies after leaving the Army, and the obvious tragic elements that followed: whereas director Siegel eventually hit career pay-dirt by directing a string of classic Clint Eastood films (Dirty Harry and The Beguiled being the toppers), Presley’s box office and critical failure to strike Sinatra gold in other genres meant a return to a romantic-action-comedy-musical formula that would bleed his cinematic aspirations dry. He may have dreaded the lone ‘big scene’ where he formally breaks with brother Clint, but Presley nailed it, and with further opportunities with equally deft directors, he could’ve succeeded in other genre because he was a natural, and naturally sympathetic.
Also available from Twilight Time is the underrated Elvis comedy-drama Follow That Dream (1962), featuring a great low-key performance by Presley.
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review