Elvis Presley was a singer, a performer, an entertainer. And yes, he was a movie star, starring in 31 movies over 13 years. Most were movies meant to capitalize on his singing (and scandalous dancing), the King singing plenty of his songs to keep audiences dancing in their seats. I like Elvis' music a lot, but musicals are not really my thing so I've actually never seen any of those movies. What have I seen? Presley's ventures into the western genre, 1969's Charro! and today's review, 1960's Flaming Star.
In the late 1870's in west Texas, aging, small-time rancher Sam Burton (John McIntire) has worked hard to create a life for himself with his family. On their small but solid ranch, they run cattle and horses, working every day to keep things up. Sam's family includes his wife (his second wife), a full-blooded Kiowa woman, Neddy (Dolores Del Rio), and two sons, Pacer (Presley), and Clint (Steve Forrest), with his first wife. Pacer is a half-breed but has lived his whole life with the whites, not the Kiowas. It's never been much of an issue as the Burton's friends think of them as just that; friends and even family. But when a new, young chief riles up his Kiowa warriors, no one in the territory is safe...except the Burtons who seem to go untouched while everyone around them is attacked. The townspeople and local families begin to suspect something. Now who's the bigger enemies? The supposedly friendly white families and settlers or the rampaging Kiowas?
I caught parts of this 1960 western years (YEARS) ago on AMC at some point but never sat down and watched the entire thing. Well, this channel called Encore Westerns shows westerns...all...day...long, and I was able to track it down. Westerns I haven't seen are getting harder and harder to find! Why this one doesn't have more of a reputation for the positive, I just don't know. It's not a classic, but with an excellent performance from young Mr. Presley and a hard-hitting story, 'Star' deserves much more standing within the western genre.
A big ingredient for success? Director Don Siegel behind the camera. One of the all-time great tough guy directors, Siegel is known for his pairings with Clint Eastwood in the 1960's and 1970's, but he had actually been directing feature films since the late 1940's. He was a no-nonsense kind of director, and 'Star' fits the mold. Even by 1960, westerns often painted the white Americans as the good guys and the Indians (whatever tribe, pick one) as the blood-thirsty savages obsessed with killing. That trend would begin to change in the coming years, but this is one of the first westerns I can think that tries to not only humanize Native Americans but shows that white settlers were far from perfect. It is a rare socially conscious western that simply paints things as they were. Prejudices and biases are ugly in any form, whether it's 2015 or 1878. This is a western story ahead of its time, and it's the better for it.
By the time this film was released, Presley was a S-T-A-R. He'd already made five movies, but this was the first to allow him to show off his dramatic acting chops. Much like he would years later in Charro, Presley gives an above average turn as the stoic, quiet, loyal and very capable anti-hero (of sorts). If there's any red flags, it's that Presley is playing a half-white, half-Indian character, but the part, script or Presley never makes it cliched, forced or overdone. Other than some really tan skin (really tan), the casting of a white actor as a Native American character isn't an issue, never presenting itself. Presley is known for being a singer, a dancer, an entertainer, but when given the chance, he showed that he was a more than respectable dramatic presence too. This is a good one.
The dynamic among the Burton family as a whole is key and the main (and best) focus of the story. For these four people, their "situation" isn't a situation at all. They are family. White blood or Indian blood doesn't matter in the least. McIntire and Del Rio are excellent as a couple that's been married for half a lifetime by now. The same goes for Presley and Forrest, half-brothers who never question the 'half' part. They complain and insult each other but are always there for the other because that's what brothers do. Hatred and violence can be quite the divider though, testing even the strongest of brotherly relationships. Four very strong performances from Presley, McIntire, Del Rio and Forrest as the heart of the movie.
Filling out the rest of the cast, look for a pre-I Dream of Jeannie Barbara Eden, Rodolfo Acosta, Richard Jaeckel, Karl Swenson, L.Q. Jones, Ford Rainey, and Perry Lopez.
There are some slightly overdone dramatic moments in the second half as everything comes front and center. AH, DRAMA! The ending too feels a little rushed, almost like a key scene was shot but eventually cut for timing or something. Overall though, this is an easy movie to recommend for any number of reasons from Elvis fans to western fans. And yes, Presley sings one song early almost to appease his fans before the story takes a turn for the dark. A hard-hitting story western that's definitely worth checking out.
Flaming Star (1960): ***/****