Stagecoach To Somewhere – Western Cinema – Flaming Star


‘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 Flaming Star posterStar, 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.

Don Siegel

Don Siegel

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

Elvis on the set of Flaming Star

Elvis on the set of Flaming Star

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, asmedieval 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 Elvis Presley Challenge no. 2 – Cary Grant

This challenge was issued a decade ago.   It occurred on a rare visit to Sheekeys Restaurant in London.  The food was delicious and expensive.  My friend and I sat on two stools facing the bar sipping white wine as dry and crisp as any I have tasted.  Both well-fed and probably a little self-satisfied we talked about Elvis.  I mentioned the ending of the revised edition of the documentary ‘That’s The Way It Is’ and the appearance of Cary Grant in the after show party.  I described how the two men appeared to swap identities as they talked.  Cary Grant had told Elvis that he had been hot.  Elvis had said that he was probably a little too nervous.  Grant was edgy and modern American while Elvis was relaxed and almost haughty.  His southern accent languished into something like aloof English.

Elvis with Cary Grant

‘Come, come,’ said my friend.

My surroundings were no longer quite so enhancing.   The people around me were different and I suspected the impact of the bill would be less on them than me and that they would return before I did.   It was neither the place nor the time to compare a flash poor white Southerner to a charming English sophisticate once voted the best dressed man in Hollywood.   These were the circumstances of challenge number two and I have taken my time in responding and that says something about me.

The biography ‘Haunted Idol’ which refers to Cary Grant and not Elvis gives plenty of detail.   Archibald Leach arrived in Hollywood a working class Englishman who left home to join a circus.  No, this did not inspire the story of Pinocchio.  Pinocchio was made of wood and Cary Grant was anything but wooden.   Like Elvis he used his body to enhance his performance and, again like Elvis, he was versatile.  Elvis could rock and sing ballads and Grant was equally comfortable in comedy and drama.  This circus travelled to America and somewhere along the way he left the big tent and became a Hollywood actor.   His early films, especially those with Mae West, reveal a different Grant to what emerged later.  Grant is no less confident but instead of the superior sophistication we have a defiant swagger.  This has been not properly recognised because in these films he also had a tendency to overact.  But his defensiveness and street cockiness are plainly evident as they are in a more charming way in the classic ‘Gunga Din’ by the great director, George Stevens.  Grant was not ashamed of his working class background but like Elvis he wanted more.  Indeed, the two men wanted both authenticity and luxury, or maybe something more complicated than luxury that involved status and personal power.   Elvis curled his lip and Grant talked as if he was breathing rarefied air.  Both mannerisms suggest an insistence on recognition and acknowledgement.  The more conservative could argue this is why the two men became so haunted.  They simply wanted too much, a consequence of narcissism and its always attendant gluttony.

They paid a price.  Both suffered depression and insomnia for most of their lives and both felt entitled to experiment with ‘medication’.   The word entitled is important.  Grant and Presley were not alone in taking drugs but what they did have in common was a belief that their position or their work entitled them to unusual medication.  Elvis shovelled in pills and Grant tortured himself with LSD hallucinations.

But they began as working class men and though they had an image that insisted on their separate superiority they were always loyal to their class and its habits.  Both enjoyed the taste of basic cooking.   Elvis liked bacon, mash and gravy (not available in Sheekeys as it happens) and Grant was so fond of bangers and mash he insisted it was served on Christmas Day.  Undoubtedly, a key factor in the loyalty of both men was their devotion to their mothers.  It is not fanciful to assume this devotion was exacerbated by feelings of guilt.  The mother of Elvis died early when he was in the Army and the mother of Grant was kept in a lunatic asylum for a large part of his life.  When he was seven years old he had been told by his father she had died.  He was already a superstar when he learned the truth.  He became devoted but their different circumstances meant they lived very different lives.

To the European outsider it is tempting to think of Hollywood as a home to the successful but it also represents American privilege – the best parties, the most adoration and, last but not least, the most beautiful women.   This was even better than what happened to David Cameron at Eton and Oxford.  The problem for Elvis and Grant was they could only enjoy the privilege with the knowledge that the women they loved the most had been removed from their lives.    Grant, of course, survived into old age but he was of a different generation, one that never understood excess as well as that of Elvis and his peers.  He also had fabulous genes while Elvis was prone to fat.  That is why the scene at the end of ‘That’s What It Is’ chills.  If their identities could merge so easily how much did chance influence their very different fates?

We will never know.  No two personalities are the same and the slightest tilt in circumstances will have a significant effect.   The English found it inconceivable that Grant leaped across the English class system in the athletic way he did and it probably would have been impossible if he had stayed in England.  Being an Englishman in America not only helped his self-esteem but helped others to groom him effectively and helped him to re-invent himself as a creature of our dreams.    Elvis dealt in dreams as well but he did not have the luxury of being the unfathomable alien.  He was merely unfathomable.  Grant secured adoration because of the confusion.  He side-stepped European social class while Elvis rejected racial and gender certainties.   For many Americans this was more uncomfortable than their homegrown idealised Englishman.  Elvis also had adoration but he also had to endure contempt.

Both men were obsessive about fashion to the extent it generated phobias.  Elvis insisted upon high collars and Grant could only wear jackets with narrow armholes.   The fashion phobias occurred because they were needed for their alternative identities.  Originally, their identities had been liberating, especially as they had attracted privilege but their mothers had been sacrificed so they were obliged to understand the price that needed paying – loneliness, alienation and self-hatred.   When Grant was told by someone, ‘I would love to be Cary Grant’ the actor replied, ‘So would I’.   Towards the end of his life Elvis met his drummer D J Fontana.  ‘I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley,’ he said.  The statements compliment remarkably well.  It is certainly possible that the remarks reflect different core natures, one maybe haunted but ultimately more sunny.   But if there are differences the remarks are all too illustrative of what they had in common.  What united them and, I like to think they recognised in each other, was success and the price that followed.  In their case the price was demanded because of their social class and their punishing family circumstances.  Elvis found the price to be unmanageable.   Grant endured but with significant cost and pain.

All of which makes me think from time to time of that evening in Sheekeys.

‘Come, come,’ my fellow diner had said.

We had faced the mirror, two middle aged men who had drunk too much and who had clashed for a brief moment, two middle aged men obliged to think about their past and what made them different.