Flaming Star Blu-ray Review: Hunka Hunka Burning Death

It wasn’t until earlier this year, when Twilight Time released the happy, family-friendly flick Follow That Dream to Blu-ray, that I finally, willingly [citation needed] sat through an entire Elvis Presley film from beginning to end. Even then, I had to occasionally resist the urge to lift up my couch in order to read the fine print on those labels that tell me not to remove them just so I could keep my spirits up. And that is probably because there is this weird misconception about Elvis movies ingrained into my head (which is a fairly common credence that could be more than likely be found inside the noggins of many others) that suggests: “If you watch it, it will suck” (which certainly applies when our contemporary recording artists land acting gigs).

Thankfully, in the case of Flaming Star, all such notions may be thrown out of the window. The sixth film of the legendary rock idol, Flaming Star was originally slated to be a Frank Sinatra/Marlon Brando film. After recently being discharged from his stint as a member of the US Army – during which time his beloved mother, with whom he was almost inseparably close to, passed away – the singer/actor demanded to be given more serious roles. A recent story by western novelist Clair Huffaker became a script written by the aforementioned and Hollywood screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, itself serving as a timely parable of various racial tensions felt throughout the country during the Civil Rights Movement.

Here, Elvis stars as Pacer Burton, the half-Kiowa son of a white settler father and a full-blooded Native mother. John McIntire and Mexican-born beauty Dolores Del Rio fill those shoes, respectively, and the latter of the pair occasionally looks at her onscreen son in such a way that you have to wonder if there wasn’t any hunka hunka burning love going on between the two after hours (I know I would have were I him). The Burton family also features another member: son Clint (Steve Forrest), Pacer’s older half-brother whose mother left the picture when he was a baby. But despite the fact that both Burton boys are grown-up, the time is fast approaching for each of them to become men in their own right.

And that time arrives promptly the very night Clint’s family and friends toss him a surprise (belated) birthday party. As the guests – including young versions of Richard Jaeckel, LQ Jones, and a Barbara Eden (the latter of whom is our second-billed star, but who is given very little to do in a part originally filled by Barbara Steele before she reportedly walked off the set) – make way for their homes in the middle of the night, a raiding party of warring Kiowas attack one of the guests’ homestead and massacre everyone in sight. This brings to the surface something the local (white) settler folk have always feared: the seemingly-kind Indians living nearby are nothing more than deadly savages. Naturally, these small minded men afraid of being run out of the very land they stole from someone else (did I mention this takes place in Texas?) group the Burton family into the fray – especially poor Pacer and his mother.

Having felt the cold untrusting stare of prejudice his entire life, Pacer is perhaps the most affected by this sweltering tension (and having grown up in a small and predominantly redneck town, I can relate to Pacer’s plight 100%). To further complicate matters, the new Kiowa chief Buffalo Horn – as played by Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta (I think this may be the only old western film from Hollywood wherein the Natives Americans weren’t played by Italian and Jewish actors!) – wants Pacer to join his brothers in the war he has declared upon whitey, as he knows it’s only a matter of time before the invaders wipe out his people completely. (On a side note, I would like to point out that there were approximately 12,000 Kiowas with us as of 2011.)

With suicidal warriors in make-up to the left of him and teasing suspicious bullies to the right, Pacer finds himself stuck in the center of the situation with no one to sing a similarly-worded Stealers Wheel tune to. He has never been a part of either world. But when threats to his family’s welfare extending from both sides of the plains turn into a harsh reality, and Pacer’s hot-headedness, quick temper, and even faster trigger finger soon form a hunka hunka burning death. Don Siegel, the man who taught both Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood how to make movies, delivers a highly entertaining and surprisingly violent tale that proved Elvis actually could act when he was cast in the right part. And there could have not been a better part for a guy whose twin brother died at birth and had only recently lost his mother than this.

Best of all, Flaming Star doesn’t insult its audience by tossing in random musical numbers. There’s a rather typical toe-tapping composition that is performed over the title credits, which is followed almost immediately thereafter by a sort of hoedown-style piece during Forrest’s birthday party. But that’s it, fortunately – even though the studio and Elvis’ nefarious devil of a manager, Tom Parker, did their best to squeeze in a few more numbers. Preview audiences, however, laughed at some, while our rising star himself refused to croon out a ditty on horseback while riding into town as his singing cowboy predecessors had done in the B pictures of the ’30s and ’40s. Flaming Star itself is a B movie; but one that is ultimately much better than it seems it may be.

Alas, mainstream moviegoers weren’t quite ready for Elvis to hang up his guitar and stop belting out one song after another on film. The King’s previous post-Army outing, Paramount’s infinitely-happier musical comedy G.I. Blues made a much bigger splash at the box office. It also sold more records, which prompted good ol’ Colonel Parker to persuade Elvis to hold onto that guitar after all. Sadly, Presley’s career as a serious actor was to be put on hold permanently after this. But at least now there is at least one movie (out of 31, mind you!) that won’t inspire me to closely scrutinize hidden furniture labels in the future – and I thank Twilight Time for choosing this one to be a part of their collection.

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the new HD 1080p/AVC transfer of this – what surely must be the best performance of Elvis’ acting career – movie is a very crisp and clear affair. The color pallette is a little muted, and the occasional spec pops up here and there, but that’s exactly how the master Fox handed to Twilight Time looked. It looks darn good, either way – and the film is presented with DTS-HD MA soundtracks in both remixed 5.1 and 2.0 mono. Additional audio options are on-hand in the form of a commentary by film historian Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, and an isolated score in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are also available.

Two theatrical trailers for Flaming Star can also be found here; one in English, and the other in Portuguese. The release concludes with Julie Kirgo’s liner notes, which – among many things – touches upon the brief rise and fall of Elvis as a serious motion picture contender, and that delightful shared sense of disaffection most anybody who has ever been even slightly exploited feels for Colonel Tom Parker and his sixth of many credits as a “technical advisor” (which he no doubt lovingly continued to get paid for as well after Elvis died). Twilight Time’s recommended contribution to their Limited Edition Series is limited to just 3,000 units.

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Luigi Bastardo

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