‘They take a man for what he ought to be, not what he is.’
Sam ‘Pa’ Burton uses these words to console his confused half-breed son, Pacer. The suggestion is that we should hope for a world where we can all be accepted for our difference and otherness. The hope defines American liberalism quite well. The flaw in human nature is not eccentricity but intolerance. The British equivalent is ‘Live and let live’. There is a difference in meaning, which is important. Americans emphasise the need of the individual and they leave space for ambition. The British are fatalistic.
‘Things can get bad round here,’ says Dred Pierce when he insists that the Burton family show total loyalty to the cause of the white townsfolk.
In this initial encounter Dred is calm and appears to be reasonable yet ‘Things can get bad round here,’ sounds like a UKIP MP talking about what will happen if more immigrants are allowed into Britain. UKIP and Dred understand that nothing justifies the reactionary more than fear of the future.
Before the critics of Cahiers Du Cinema discovered that Don Siegel was a great director the Western, Flaming Star, was dismissed as a B Movie reduced by the presence of Elvis Presley as the half-breed Pacer Burton. Since then the movie has occasionally featured in lists of the top 10 Westerns of all time. The movie is not perfect. Either Chief Buffalo Horn is a rampant exhibitionist or someone has a strange idea of authentic Native American speech. ‘I will return when the sun has killed the stars,’ and the like soon become tedious. Oddly, when Buffalo Horn discusses quietly with Pacer the possibility of the half-breed becoming a Kiowa warrior the chief speaks with impressive dignity.
Like the dialogue of Buffalo Horn, the acting in the film is uneven. The normally reliable Richard Jaeckel disappoints in the confrontation at the store in the town although his subsequent appearance in Baywatch much later is probably nothing other than coincidence. Surprisingly, Elvis is fine in a role originally intended for Marlon Brando. When Elvis has to explain to his brother Clint why he is returning to fight the Kiowa and face probable death he is not helped by a poor line of dialogue. Brando would have added something and made the line believable. But it is difficult elsewhere in the film to imagine Brando as Pacer, and this is because Elvis soon becomes the troubled half-breed, a man who has strength and potential but is seriously weakened by a faith in violence although ultimately his violence is necessary to prevent war between the whites and the Kiowa.
Dolores Del Rio and John McIntyre are also persuasive as two characters that have enough independence and strength to challenge their communities and cross the racial divide. At the beginning of the film Elvis sings a song at the birthday party of his brother. If the inclusion of a song is a commercial compromise, the scene has meaning because we realise that although the whites like the music Pacer plays they do not speak to the musician. He is a useful presence but invisible. During the celebration Pacer only communicates with his mother, and this can be spotted in their brief exclusive smiles. The rest is faked performance for an audience. Elvis had his reasons to make the scene work for him but Del Rio performs like a woman who understands the benefits of intimacy and the burden caused by strangers.
Nor should we forget that Siegel is also a fine technician. As he does in the underrated Hound Dog Man (nothing to do with Elvis) he uses widescreen to capture rural space and simple existence. The opening credits feature Pacer and Clint riding home. The journey is undertaken in the ‘golden hour’ and looks marvellous. The moment when the camera zooms in on the riders and we suddenly hear clearly the sound of the horses’ hooves is a fine example of the contribution of the Foley operator.
The movie succeeds, though, because it has seriousness in its bones and a liberalism that refuses to compromise a brutal misanthropic examination of the human race or, at least, humans tainted by hierarchy. When Pacer and his brother Clint kidnap the town doctor to attend their injured mother, Pacer takes the daughter of the doctor as a temporary hostage. The ruse succeeds because the young girl is free of prejudice and regards Pacer as an innocent friend. We also have a glimpse of human compassion at the burial of Neddy Burton, the Native American mother of Pacer. Doc may have been recruited as an unwilling participant but he is affected by the death of another human being. Elsewhere, though, in the movie, the analysis is grim. Neddy dies because of a gunshot from a crazed white man injured in an attack by the Kiowa. Once begun violence is exponential, thoughtless and random. Flaming Star even rejects the familiar notion that love offers redemption and helps us transcend death. The death of Neddy Burton is theatrical rather than realistic but it is theatre with real poetry. Neddy heads in to the empty landscape, wandering through wind-strewn sagebrush, to seek the ‘flaming star of death’. Not only does her search evoke the will of fate but it also presents a surprising view of death and grief. Here the end is a personal even selfish impulse that has to be gratified, a final hunger that abandons lovers who, left behind, realise how alone and deluded they have been about their own existence. If individuals are compelled to be remote because of the physical need for death, no wonder they struggle to survive alongside communities that have a different way of life.
Apart from the theatrical there is little that is unexplained in Flaming Star but there is an odd moment as Pacer
and Neddy enter the Kiowa camp. A young Kiowa woman turns her back immediately at the sight of Neddy and Pacer. We do not know if she is reacting to a young man she finds attractive or detests the family for being outside the community.
Don Siegel had a career that mixed liberal and conservative statements. Pauline Kael described his most successful film, Dirty Harry, as ‘medieval fascism’. His other great work Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was hailed as an indictment of McCarthyism but it could be interpreted as the complete opposite. Like Elvis, he confuses people, especially Europeans, but he should be regarded, again like Elvis, as a pre-Vietnam American liberal. Rod Serling, who created the incomparable Twilight Zone, is another impressive example. These men were pro-civil rights and opposed to the Vietnam War but they were also alienated by the anti-American radicalism that followed. Serling combined misanthropic distrust with a liberal will inspired by a faith in America and capitalism. In The Twilight Zone his crude caricatures of Kruschev and Castro are now embarrassing but they help us make sense of him and men like Siegel and Presley. They have hope despite their knowledge of human failure. If humans are averse to rational thought and even the best of them too easily seduced by violence, the Burton family, despite their tragedy, remind us of rugged individuals and they offer hope of a virtuous future shaped by American idealism and what makes the nation exceptional. Elvis is required to articulate this ambition at the end of the film. Not easy from the back of a less than interested horse. But, to his credit, the Hillbilly Cat delivers. Since then we have had neo-conservatism and the poor have become poorer and academics have been recruited to justify the poverty amongst minorities. More than ever we are taking men for what they ought to be and not what they are.
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The appearance of the white horse was a shock. I found him close to the main road that leaves Liverpool and heads for Southport. I had been drinking in the city centre and was walking home from the railway station. The horse had large grey spots on his nose. I removed my earplugs and stopped the music on the smartphone.
‘You’re going to get yourself killed, mate,’ I said.
The two of us stood on the pavement close to the busy road. The white horse breathed deeply but was calm. At midnight the road was quiet but the odd car appeared. If the drivers noticed anything unusual about me standing at the side of a road with a white horse, none did anything. They drove past. The horse had no saddle and under the electric light his body looked especially clean. The mane like his nose had the odd grey spot.
‘How did you get yourself here?’ I said.
The white horse brushed his nose against my arm.
‘How did you get yourself here without killing yourself?’
The white horse did nothing but I could tell that he was curious about my hands. I stroked his nose, and he snorted. As this obviously pleased him, I stroked his nose some more.
‘I’ve got to get home,’ I said.
The white horse lowered his head until his mouth touched the back of my hand.
‘I’m in enough trouble as it is,’ I said.
This was a lie. My wife would be asleep when I arrived home. We both had jobs that took a lot of time. We rarely met. Talking had become especially difficult, and usually we kept it to a minimum. When the horse had appeared I had been listening to a song about a love that stretched to the moon and back. My wife and I had been to the moon and those were the good days but somewhere on the way back we had landed on different planets.
‘I don’t think I can take you home,’ I said to the white horse. ‘We can’t pretend you’re a present.’
The horse stood really close, and I felt the heat of his body. The white horse breathed and his murmurs hinted at suppressed power. His breathing was complicated enough to fill a universe. I touched the nose of the white horse. He looked into my eyes and he raised his nose and snorted. A car passed by on the road, so I leaned into his neck to keep him calm. I could feel the strength of the white horse but also something else, promise and potential. The white horse was as tall as me, and I was aware that he could have pushed me into the road and in front of the car. I was drunk and that helped but I was prepared to trust the animal.
The wide road to Southport was lined either side by substantial semi-detached homes, and the pavement was broad which meant that there was enough space for the horse and me. Most of the residents were in bed and asleep like the cars in their drives. The white horse and me walked side by side but very slowly and each time we took a step the white horse would pause to look at me. It soon became a ritual where we imitated and approved of each other.
One of the houses had a drive like the rest but also a garden with impressive hedges and strong grass that grew high in the corner next to the front wall. I grabbed a handful of grass and fed the white horse. He ate quickly and his mouth, teeth and tongue left heat on my hand. The white horse rubbed his neck against my arms. I fed him some more grass. The white horse and me stood outside the semi-detached house for some time. I fed him and he ate. In between mouthfuls the white horse would play modestly, leaning his neck against my arms as he had done earlier. But also sometimes he would bend his head and press his nose against my chest.
‘You’re alright,’ I said.
I looked up at the closed curtains of the semi-detached and imagined a couple asleep and their dreams preparing them for the next day. I was happy to stay there and, if they woke and heard me, I was ready for an argument.
‘It’s just a horse and it’s just a bit of grass,’ I would say, ‘and I’m taking him home.’
But nobody came and the white horse and me stayed there for some time. More cars passed but the white horse enjoyed feeding and being nourished. If he noticed the cars, he did nothing. Instead, we kept to a ritual that felt as if it might last forever, me feeding the white horse grass and him leaving powerful hot breath over my hands before snuggling against my chest.
‘You’re not to know,’ I said as I stroked the white mane with the grey spots, ‘but this brings back memories for me. You’re not the first white horse that wanted to be friends.’
The white horse ate more grass.
‘I was a kid,’ I told the white horse, ‘and, instead of walking straight home from school one afternoon, I saw a horse behind the shops. We had farmers’ fields close by. I stopped and stroked the horse and fed it. And like now, mate, I found it difficult to leave.’
I was surprised how well I remembered the incident. I arrived at my grandparents so late that they called me an idiot in anger. I thought that they might be right but I believed I had potential for something worthwhile yet unexceptional.
The garden was becoming short of grass so I caressed the white horse and let it rest his neck against my chest. I put my face close to the nose of the white horse and took a photograph of the two of us. I showed the photograph to the white horse and he snorted.
I thought about my wife asleep in her bed like everyone else and remembered again the first time I fed a horse and wasted time that everybody else thought essential. It occurred to me that I might be able to walk the white horse home to a nearby stable. The walk would be a couple of miles but I thought the white horse and me could make it because we trusted each other. The time was very late, and I decided that I needed to tell my wife what I intended to do. I listened to the promise of every powerful but suppressed breath from the white horse and felt him scratch an itch against me. I had the idea that perhaps the three of us could walk to the stable. My wife could listen carefully to the breath of the white horse and feel the heat of not just the body of the white horse but also mine.
The white horse and me left the semi-detached house and we walked to the turning into the estate where I lived. I was nervous outside my house and I paused before entering. The white horse waited by my side in the drive. He was very patient and stood very still as if he knew what might happen next could be very important. Although his breathing was quieter, his power and promise was not diminished.
I rang the bell and hoped. I waited for my wife to appear and, as anxiety stretched my stomach, I became aware that the power and promise of the white horse was something I shared, nothing rare but definitely important.
The light in the hall appeared and my wife opened the door. I saw that she was angry, and at that moment the white horse disappeared from my side. I heard his steps in the road behind me but when I turned to look there was no white horse to be seen. I was, though, able to hear the sound of what had once been something fabulous running quickly into the darkness.