Elvis fans who go into this film blind can only be stunned by what they see. I don't watch Presley's films as a rule, but I have to imagine that nothing else he made was as violent and downbeat as Flaming Star -- his second picture after his return from military service. In 1960, it wasn't yet implausible that Presley would evolve into a star equally capable of dramatic and musical work, like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra. A precedent existed for casting young pop singers in westerns, but Ricky Nelson didn't have to carry Rio Bravo by himself. Nor was Elvis so obliged; Siegel surrounded him with capable, veteran character actors, particularly John McIntire and Dolores Del Rio as his parents. The film doesn't prove Presley a master thespian, but he is entirely serviceable as a young man at times laconic, at times hotheaded, and eventually doomed.
Flaming Star is the story of the destruction of an American family. Pacer Burton (Presley) is the son of Sam and Neddy Burton (McIntire and Del Rio) and the half-brother of Clint (Steve Forrest), whose mother, Sam's first wife, apparently died in childbirth. The story is refreshingly free of the brother issues you might otherwise expect in such a film; the Burtons as a loving family unit are the heart of the film. But any hope for reconciliation between whites and natives the Burtons might represent is overwhelmed by the tide of white settlement and the desperation of native resistance. Neddy's Kiowa people are on the warpath, led by a new war chief, Buffalo Horn (Rodolfo Acosta). They treat the Burtons with respect, though many women in the tribe despise Neddy, but they attack a party of neighbors leaving the birthday party at the Burtons' where Elvis sings his only onscreen song. L. Q. Jones takes a hatchet in the forehead in the encounter. As Buffalo Horn takes the fight to the whites, and the settlers demand to know where the Burtons stand, neutrality begins to seem impossible, though the Burtons insist on it. They refuse demands from both sides to take sides, earning scorn from almost everyone.
Takin' care of business: Elvis Presley in Flaming Star.
Above: 'Run, Forrest, run!' The finale of Flaming Star echoes Dolores Del Rio's fatal walkabout (below).