Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Flaming Star (Fox, 1960)

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A very good Western

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You might think that a Western with Elvis Presley in it would be a popular, ultra-commercial vehicle, just a showcase for a few songs. Love Me Tender, his first Western, four years before, was a bit more than that but not much. And later ‘Westerns’ were, frankly, pretty dire. In 1965 we had Elvis as the Panhandle Kid in a ‘comedy musical Western’ called, wait for it, Tickle Me. After that, Stay Away, Joe was just as awful in 1968 and his last oater was the American spaghetti Charro, in 1969, better than Tickle Me or Stay Away, Joe but that’s about all you can say. I’m afraid Elvis’s Western record is far from distinguished.

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However, Flaming Star showed that Elvis had real acting talent. And it’s is a taut, gritty Western with a lot to say about racism, bigotry and loyalty.

 

Sam Burton (John McIntire, excellent, as always) has a Kiowa wife (the great Dolores del Rio) and two sons, Steve Forrest (by a previous marriage so he is all ‘white’) and Elvis Presley, a ‘half-breed’. The Kiowas go to war, the Burtons try to remain neutral but can’t and we watch the family disintegrate before our eyes. The townspeople are bigoted but you can understand it. The Indians are enraged but you can understand it. It’s unusually nuanced and subtle.
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I’ve written about John McIntire’s Western career. To read that, click here.
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Dolores Del Rio (or del Rio, it varied) was a most interesting and very beautiful woman. A hugely glamorous Hollywood figure of the 1920s, she became the shining star of Mexican cinema. You could compare her with Katy Jurado. She didn’t do many Westerns, more’s the pity. She did a silent Klondike picture in 1928, then a Leslie Fenton-directed oater with Wallace Beery in 1940, The Man from Dakota. Then came Flaming Star. And in 1964 she was quite wonderful as ‘Spanish Woman’ in John Ford’s not-so-wonderful Cheyenne Autumn. She was graceful, noble and powerful.

 

Apart from the title song, Elvis only gets to do one number (probably insisted upon by Col. Parker) and that is right at the beginning.

 

The script is intelligent and thought-provoking (Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson from the Huffaker novel). The characters are very well developed. There is plenty of action. The music (Cyril J Mockridge) is a little ponderous and there are rather obvious orchestrations of ‘Indian’ music when the Kiowa appear but it’s quite gripping. A lot of the movie was filmed in Utah but the scenery makes an effective Texas. Charles G Clarke’s photography is good.
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This film was powerfully directed by Don Siegel, although he might be accused of making the message too obvious at times, especially in the final scene. Still, I would put this picture and The Shootist at the very top of the list of Siegel’s Westerns.

 

It was originally planned for Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. I like it better this way. In fact, given how bad thier Westerns generally were, thank goodness.

 

Andy Warhol’s famous diptych of Elvis as cowboy came from a shot in this movie.
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Don’t get me wrong, this is no truly great Western. If you want to see a really fine movie on such themes, you need to watch The Unforgiven or The Searchers. But neither is it a pot-boiler. It’s a well-produced, fast-paced motion picture with good acting, and it has something to say.

 

And Elvis is really rather good.

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2 Responses

  1. I'm not ashamed to admit I have this film in my western collection and enjoy watching it on a rainy afternoon.

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