UK politics and the rest through the phenomenon of Elvis Presley.

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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Stagecoach To Somewhere – Walt Whitman and Elvis Presley


French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this in Democracy In America

There will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity  … performance will bear marks of the untutored and rude vigour of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity.

It sums up Elvis Golden Records Volume 1 quite well.

This is what Walt Whitman said in his poem Song Of Myself –

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

Whitman was determined to deny himself nothing, to embrace the whole world because he was, like all

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

human beings, ‘inevitable and limitless’. He was not necessarily the father of American ambition but he was adamant that it was different from what had gone before and that the possibilities and consequence could be enormous. Others who have written about Elvis have mentioned Walt Whitman and also Herman Melville. Comment, though, has been restricted to saying no more than Whitman, Melville and Presley are all American artists and democrats, as if the mere mention of an actual poet in an essay on Elvis requires discreet footsteps.

In Mystery Train – Images Of America In Rock And Roll Greil Marcus criticises Elvis for not giving an emphatic no to the tasteless elements of American culture.  Marcus quotes the novel Bartleby by Melville with its hero who ‘prefers not to’ and argues that all serious artists must say no to something.  But Marcus also uses Whitman to emphasise the importance of Elvis and so contradicts the Bartleby assertion.  Both Whitman and Elvis were determined to contain everything.  Whitman does say no but his no is different because he is saying no to saying no to anything.  He rejects the discriminators.  Our lives will not have the required grandeur unless we are sensitive to everything and welcome all into our sensibility.  He does not respect racial or cultural birth right in the way of blues and country music purists.  We are universal and share entitlement, the oppressed and the privileged.

Although Whitman was white and from New Jersey, he claimed –

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.

And –

I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In the inclusive world of Whitman there is no patent on virtue and talent.  It demands to be shared and copied.  The vibrancy of contradictions is more important than identity.

Do I contradict myself

Very well then I contradict myself.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

If he draws a line, it is not with the benefit of taste and intelligence but a resistance to corruption –

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

If we all have the same ambition to embrace the world, we will not be identical because there is so much that is diverse; Whitman describes himself as the arbiter of the diverse.  But our potential to welcome all and experience it with the weight of memory means that every human being is sacred and that means we are all both individual and universal.

Elvis needed to embrace not only the American continent but also his personal complexity.  Of course, the tilt towards universality taken by Elvis may have been a consequence of the greed of Parker who wanted Elvis to appeal to as many suckers as possible.  The purpose of Parker is, though, less important than the performer who is required to play.

‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’

And Elvis did.  And this by Whitman, written in the middle of the 19th Century, anticipates Elvis and rock and roll.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Elvis has been accused of naïve narcissism and it was in his nature but Whitman would recognise the trait as a virtue, especially if personal delight is extended to others.

I sing the body electric,

The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them

Moby Dick is the novel that can be compared to Song Of Myself.   Both stress the variety, detail and transcendental grace of ordinary life, and the failure of Ahab is that he confuses ambition, which is good, with obsession, which is bad.  True ambition, that is non-judgemental ambition, will seek everything.  Obsession is obliged to exclude others and to dismiss nature and material that has worth.  The warning against the false glory of obsession or singular ambition has a tragic consequence in Moby Dick but the warnings also exist in the poetry of Whitman.  All writers need sales but this judgement is particularly harsh –

Let him who is without my poems be assassinated.

He is not, of course, criticising a failure to buy his book but an unwillingness to embrace his writing into a comprehensive sense of self and the material other.  If his ambition embraces the stranger then the stranger has to embrace him.  We have to engage.

Stranger if you are passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?

And why should I not speak to you?

To the European ear, this quote may not mean much but its simple description of the responsibility for strangers to speak captures American optimism. When Elvis visited a French nightclub he posed for photographs with strippers and whores. He spoke to those who would speak to him. For all his faults he did the same with the fans, he would pose with the glamorous and the ugly, the slender and the obese. This does not make him a wonderful human being, merely an American.

Elvis with fans


The desire by Whitman for grandeur can easily be mistaken for gluttony.  Whitman avoided it by travelling the country and staying poor.  Elvis made the mistake of retreating to Graceland and indulging his wealth.  His rich democratic instinct, which was initially rooted in Whitman type appetite, was soon scarred by fear and excess comfort.  And American appetite, like its ambition, is different. The poetry of Whitman exalts the common man but faith in human beings untarnished by hierarchy is not unique to America.  To convince the reader that he was serious about how he could embrace the world and acknowledge the ordinary, the poems of Whitman often contained long lists.  The amplitude of the continent defines Americans as blessed. Pablo Neruda in his poem Oda Al Hombre Sencillo also stresses the importance of the common man but Neruda also insists on old world restraint –

Ves tú qué simple soy,

Qué simple eres,

No se trata

de nada complicado

Roughly translated this means – you see that I am simple, that you are simple, one should not try for anything complicated.

Both Whitman and Neruda imagine a state of grace for the common man but Whitman imagines it as momentary and random.  Neruda insists, though, that mutuality, and not just indiscriminate universality, is important.   The mutuality of Neruda requires the curiosity of Whitman but also a sense that dignity demands restraint as well as experience.

Ando, nado, navego

Hasta encontrarte,

 y entonces te pregunto

como te llamas,

calle y numero,

 para que tu recibas

mis cartas,

para que yo te diga

quien soy y cuanto gano,

donde vivo,

y como era mi padre.

The recognition of inevitably muted existence by Neruda challenges the universality of Whitman which is rooted in appetite.  Translated it means – I walk, swim and search until I find you and then I will ask you your name, street and number, so that you receive my letters, so that I tell you who I am and what I earn, where I live and who is my father.

This is not man in a new vast continent. What is best shared is our simplicity not our magnificence.  Only this will endure.  Magnificence dies in the second act.

But Elvis had talent, he was the well-made man that Whitman promised.

But you a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known

Arouse! for you must justify me.

When Elvis was interviewed on board USS Randall he was asked what book was he reading. Elvis said Leaves Of Gold.   The poems of Whitman are contained in Leaves Of Grass. Unfortunately, Elvis picked the wrong book.  But the title is close.  Elvis was nearly there.  His initial promise that he could contain multitudes and stay healthy and clean was ultimately denied.  Whitman is still waiting to be justified.

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