Two years in the Army and a lightweight, family-oriented musical -- "GI Blues" -- intervened before Elvis again got to show his natural acting talent in "Flaming Star," a film originally slated for Marlon Brando. Elvis acquitted himself well in the role of Pacer Burton, half Caucasian and half Kiowa, in 1878 Texas. Pacer is a young man trapped between two cultures and races, in a situation in which either of two available choices spelled tragedy. The same is true of the other members of his family, including an older, white brother (Steve Forrest), and his parents (Dolores Del Rio and John McIntire) -- all perfect in their roles. This is really a film about hate, and just as much about love, loyalty, and family. It's also probably a more-than-oblique commentary on the state of race relations within the US at the time, during the rise of the Civil Rights movement. Apartheidmongers in South Africa banned this film because Elvis played a 'colored' person. On the other hand, Elvis was inducted into the Los Angeles Indian Tribal Council for his positive portrayal of Pacer Burton.
Elvis is thoroughly convincing as the 'half breed' Pacer and the film showcases his considerable nonverbal communication skills. He convincingly portrays a very conflicted character (the same was true to some extent of "King Creole") and runs the full gamut of emotion through the film. Pacer's basically a bit of a hothead, but he's also possessed of a fairly chilling cool, and both aspects of the character are played well by Elvis (who, himself, shared the same dichotomy). The scene in which Pacer and Clint, his 100%-white brother, scuffle is pretty intense.
Elvis could appear quite menacing and in this film he is pure menace at several instances. He'd have made a great bad guy in a movie and I really do believe that he could have acquitted himself well in Marlon Brando's role in "Apocalypse Now" had it been shot circa 1974, particularly if circumstances had conspired to have Elvis make more films like "Flaming Star" than "Clambake" during the '60s. Is this the best scripted Elvis Presley film? Well, most'd point to "King Creole," and this film is so un-Elvis that it's really NOT an 'Elvis Presley film.' It's a powerful film, with a strong and intelligent point to make that also ensures that it is not just another horse-opera, in which Elvis happens to have a key role. Also, the film does not focus exclusively on him and his co-stars are essential to the film and all turn in excellent performances. Still, I think that it's perhaps in this film that he turned in his best acting performance.
The rest of the supporting cast does a more-than-competent job, and among their number are Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckel, and Rodolfo Acosta. Interestingly, LQ Jones -- who plays the clueless redneck who says that Mrs Burton's cooking was indistinguishable from any white mother's -- showed up again in Elvis' 1968 "Stay Away, Joe," the other movie in which Elvis played a native American (Jones later played Three-Finger Jack in "The Mask Of Zorro").
The film was directed by Don Siegel, who'd earlier been behind "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers" and who later went on to do the "Dirty Harry" films among many others. It's a pretty violent piece, especially for one shot in 1960. The Kiowa attack near the film's start is quite graphic for the time and the implied violence within and around that scene is even more disturbing. "Flaming Star" includes axes to the head, spears in the thigh, arrows in various parts of the anatomy, and fatal knife attacks, as well as shootings and assorted fisticuffs. Elvis wades into the violence with relish, particularly during his one-man war against the Kiowa warriors toward the film's end. The thrashing that he administers to two unsavory trappers is also realistic and pretty savage, beginning with a rifle butt snapped into one trapper's chin. Elvis, five months after his black-belt grading, must have loved the physicality of his role. He's in good shape for it, too.
"Flaming Star" and Fox's follow-up, the contemporary drama "Wild In The Country," basically didn't make as much money as "GI Blues." That fact determined what was pretty much the formula for most of the '60s. It's a pity, because Elvis' career path during the '60s could have taken an entirely different path: appearances in high-quality movies (including the odd musically-oriented one) and occasional , big-event concert performances at home and abroad. What might have been...
The ending never fails to sadden me immensely. As in his debut film, this film ends with the death of Elvis' character. I guess the obvious thing is that Pacer's off to die and, in a way, being a man between peoples, he's got no other place to go. It says something about Elvis' characterization of Pacer, I think, that we'd even care. The same is true of the deaths of Pacer's mother and father. More to the point, though, I always think of Elvis seeing his own Flaming Star of Death 17 years later. For that matter, 10 out of 10 people die, as do 10 out of 10 pets, and we all face our own mortality and that of our loved ones. I must admit that, figuratively, Elvis has yet to die -- as I write he's in an amazing third week at #1 on the UK singles charts, with #1 rankings in several other countries courtesy of a remixed, relatively obscure 1968 movie song. I went to high school and university with a kid (Robert Trueman, good friend of my best friend) who died, rapidly, of leukemia -- ironically enough, a few years before he'd told me that he wasn't really into Elvis but that he loved the song "Flaming Star." It's indeed a great song, but one forever touched by an additional aura of sadness the result of Robert's passing too soon.