Flaming Star Is the Best Elvis Movie You Never Saw
With the King of Rock ’n Roll’s biopic now on streaming, we remember one of the few movies starring Elvis Presley that’s actually worth watching.
“I made him the highest paid actor in Hollywood history. We had a lot of fun!” So purrs Tom Hanks’ brazenly camp Col. Tom Parker in the new Elvis biopic. The film, which is the most decadent, jewel-encrusted piece of kitsch ever given an $85 million budget, is as much a monument to director Baz Luhrmann’s showmanship as it is Elvis Presley’s. For who else could condense the larger than life excess of a man dubbed “the King of Rock ’n Roll” into a three-ringed circus that keeps all its plates in the air for 160 minutes?
Elvis really is a marvel in spectacle and indulgence—plus a breakout for star Austin Butler who is so superb as the titular character that Luhrmann more than once slips in footage of the real Elvis’ 1950s rock star career, as well as clips from his ill-advised detour in 1960s Hollywood… and few viewers ever seemed to notice! For all intents and purposes, Presley and Butler became interchangeable onscreen: the singer and the actor, merged as one.
There’s a small bit of wistful irony in this too. After all, Elvis always wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and screen presence, which is what makes Hanks’ “we had a lot of fun!” hurt all the more.
Despite being nearly three hours, and seemingly exploring every highlight in Presley’s career, from singing with a hound dog on The Steve Allen Show to one final “Unchained Melody” before the King’s death in 1977, Luhrmann’s Elvis spends almost no time whatsoever on Presley’s Hollywood career. Mentioned in passing during a scene at the beginning of Elvis’ courtship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), where the then-Army uniformed Elvis talks aspiringly about James Dean and considering a career in the movies, Luhrmann’s Elvis is as coy about the rock star’s cinematic oeuvre as it is in mentioning Priscilla’s age during that scene (she was 14).
In reality, Elvis had already made four films before being yanked into the Army by an overzealous U.S. government. Among them was at least one attempt at genuinely mimicking Dean’s brief career of moody adolescent antiheroes: King Creole (1958) starred Elvis as a rebel without a particularly worthwhile cause in a film drenched in noirish shadows, courtesy of director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, White Christmas, and a dozen other classics).
But by the time Elvis got back to the States two years later, “the Colonel” had by and large settled on what would be Elvis’ big screen persona: a dreamy smile and a few innocuous, and often uninspired, showtunes that carried Elvis through another insipid plot line that rehashed the Arthur Freed musicals of MGM’s 1950s heyday—only minus the charm, budget, or talent.
There’s a reason Luhrmann’s Elvis epic spent only a scant 102 seconds on Presley’s years in Hollywood: the vast majority of movies he made were awful. So much so, they derailed his career as a rock ’n roll rebel, leaving him in a precarious place where by ‘68 he had to decide if he wanted a musical comeback or to sing Christmas jingles on TV for the rest of his life.
Even so, Elvis’ movie career could have gone a different way. And if you only want to spend your time on watching one movie that shows that potential, your best bet is 1960’s Flaming Star.
Directed by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers and, eventually, Dirty Harry) and released in 1960, Flaming Star really was one of those first few films Presley made after getting out of the Army, attempting to become another Dean or Marlon Brando. Indeed, as originally conceived by 20th Century Fox, Flaming Star was intended to be a vehicle for Brando and Frank Sinatra. That of course never happened, perhaps because no one told them that Sinatra despised Brando after working with him on Guys and Dolls (1955). The years, and later The Godfather, did not make the heart grow fonder for Ol’ Blue Eyes.
In any event, when it became clear that Flaming Star would not be a star vehicle for the most interesting young actor of the 1950s, plus a popular singer(!), the Western was reimagined as an experiment for a young actor who also was a popular singer: Elvis Presley.
In the film, Presley stars as Pacer Burton, a half-white and half-American Indian rancher’s son. Pacer grew up in the wilds of 1870s Texas where his white father (John McIntire) and Kiowa mother Neddy (Dolores del Rio) raised him and his white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest) as equals. Theirs is a genuinely loving inclusive family. But after a Kiowa raiding party brutally attacks a nearby homestead, tensions swell between white Texans and Native Americans again, and the Burton family finds itself in the crosshairs of both sides, with Pacer particularly being the subject of vitriol and suspicion among former friends and neighbors who would kill his father’s cattle before letting the lad sing another ditty to their lily white daughters.
To modern eyes, there are all manner of trigger warnings required for a movie like Flaming Star: the film is rife in the sentiments and prejudices of 1950s America, not least of which include casting all-white Elvis as the “half-breed” Pacer, and the Mexican del Rio as his fully Indigenous mother. There’s also no particular good explanation for how Presley’s Pacer perfected his greaser pompadour in the 1800s.
However, the movie’s strength is how straightforward and grimly self-aware it is about the racism of its subject matter. Here is a film produced in what was still the then highly segregated 1950s in which the hero (and not the John Wayne sidekick) is of a biracial background, and most of the conflict derives from how the white characters react to this fact. At the beginning of Flaming Star, Presley has his one tacked-on singing sequence where Pacer croons a birthday barnburner for his neighbors before the killing starts. (Presley apparently insisted the two other songs intended for the film be cut so he could be taken more seriously as an actor.)
In that moment, the community is all laughs and smiles, but after tensions rise, neighbor turns on neighbor. There’s a scene where some of the same folks at that party come to take Pacer away at gunpoint (he doesn’t go). It has echoes of the kind of small-minded bigotry that is still sadly very common in American life.
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was probably too enthusiastic when he called Flaming Star “a truly great fifties Western, and maybe the most brutally violent American western of its era.” But there’s a reason why the movie was initially banned in South Africa when apartheid reigned in 1961: It featured a sympathetic portrait for its tragic and (in the script) biracial hero. Notably, that government eventually allowed white South Africans to see it but still kept it banned for segregated Black audiences.
Even the casting of Presley in the film feels pointed since, as Luhrmann’s new biopic takes great pains to demonstrate, part of the outrage against the Elvis phenomenon in the ‘50s was due to many white adults being repulsed by Presley’s clear inspiration from Black Rhythm and Blues, and early rock musicians. On ‘50s television programs, white men casually dropped the N-word while discussing the influence of late ‘50s rock ’n roll music (including Elvis) on white children.
Flaming Star taps into the alleged subversion Presley represented to some audiences as much as his matinee appeal as a teen idol. In the role of Pacer, Presley is also surprisingly serviceable. I’d hesitate to say good, or even necessarily promising, but unlike most 1950s musicians turned actors—with Tom Parker clearly hoping Presley would follow in the footsteps of a Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin—Elvis is unexpectedly solid. He would’ve never been Brando or Dean, but maybe he was on the cusp of finding his From Here to Eternity (1953), which to this day fools people into thinking Sinatra was an above average actor.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Presley won his battles and only sang two songs in Flaming Star (the other was over the film’s opening credits). But the downbeat Oater about racism and with scenes of murder and assault that pluck from real Western masterpieces like The Searchers (1956) and Shane (1953) did not particularly appeal to Elvis’ largely teenage girl demographic. Released in the same year as Elvis’ other post-Army movie, G.I. Blues (1960), Flaming Star made only a fraction of that paper-thin musical programmer. G.I. Blues’ signaled the end of any fledgling attempts at a serious acting career by Presley. Instead Col. Parker rotated Presley into one undercooked musical mediocrity after another for the rest of the 1960s—albeit the process occasionally produced a few golden singles. For instance, most forget that the King’s beloved ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love” came out of Blue Hawaii (1961).
At the end of Luhrmann’s new Elvis movie, Butler’s uncanny ability to conjure Presley’s ghost ends on an unsurprisingly bitter note. In the final non-musical moment of the film, Presley discusses his acting career again, among other things, with a now adult and divorced Priscilla.
“I’m going to be 40 soon, Priscilla,” the King laments. “Forty. And nobody’s going to remember me. I’ve never done anything lasting. I never made a classic film that I could be proud of.”
At least in terms of his filmography, he really didn’t. But much like his doomed Pacer character in Flaming Star, a better world would’ve given him a shot.