Flaming Star is thought of as one of Elvis’ best performances, and it might be, but it is not one of my favorites. It is definitely not in my rotation of 11 Elvis movies I watch all the time. In fact, I rarely watch it and maybe have only watched it a handful of times – and most of those are from my recent revisiting of Elvis’ movies. I am sure it is a fine movie, it is just not my thing as I do not like Westerns. But I do like Andy Warhol’s painting he based Elvis’ character Pacer on, which I saw when I visited the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh years ago.
I think Flaming Star is the only Elvis movie where his character does not have a true love interest. His character’s main relationship is with his mother rather than a girlfriend – he doesn’t even have a girlfriend in this movie. Flaming Star deals with Elvis’ character Pacer’s issues with being born from a Native American mother and a white father. This sort of racism of interracial marriage that bore children had basis in the culture of the time, 1950s and 1960s. Flaming Star dealt with racism much more intelligently than other westerns of the time. The anti-Indian bigotry and the anti-white anger were both misguided. **SPOILER ALERT** This is one of two Elvis movies (along with Love Me Tender) where Elvis’ character dies at the end – but this time it is off camera. Charro is the only Elvis movie that has less songs, although the Colonel and Fox wanted to squeeze ten songs into Flaming Star.
Unfortunately because of its serious nature and lack of songs, Flaming Star did not do well at the box office. A major mistake was made when it was falsely advertised as “Elvis singing the song his fans will love most – “Flaming Star” – and 3 others!” Maybe if they would have correctly advertised the movie warning the audience it was going to be a dramatic role for Elvis with no songs, Flaming Star would have done better and maybe Elvis could have went on to make more dramatic movies like he wanted. Opening only one month after Elvis’ previous movie GI Blues, the serious almost songless Flaming Star competed with the fun song-filled GI Blues for Elvis’ audience. The light, song-filled GI Blues was a big hit reaching #2 and 14th of box office ratings for the year while the serious barely two-song Flaming Star struggled only reaching #12 and was way down the list of the year’s top grossers. The 11 songs in GI Blues led to the movies’ success which led to the success of its soundtrack album which in turn led to multiple viewings of the movie by Elvis fans. This showed Colonel Parker what Elvis movies would be successful, and unfortunately it was not the dramatic ones like Flaming Star.
Flaming Star was based on Clair Huffaker’s 1958 novel originally titled The Brothers of Broken Lance. In April of 1958, Fox bought the rights to this unfinished novel. On May 27, 1958 it was announced Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra would play the Burton brothers. The title was changed to The Brothers of Flaming Arrow and filming was to begin June 16, 1958. Negotiations with Brando and Sinatra broke down and the title was again changed to Flaming Lance. Filming was delayed for two years while the novel was being adapted for the movie (by Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson) and the script shifted the focus to one brother. It was then announced on June 12, 1960 Elvis Presley would play the lead role of Pacer Burton, which was a different conception of the character than had been offered to Brando. In August of 1960, the title was again changed to Flaming Heart then to Black Heart then to Black Star and finally to Flaming Star on September 2, 1960. Flaming Lance was the name of the family ranch in the novel, and the Black Star of Death was the theme of the story. In the movie, they changed it to the Flaming Star of Death.
David Weisbert, who also produced Rebel Without a Cause and Elvis’ first movie Love Me Tender, produced Flaming Star. Weisbert also went on to produce two more Elvis movies Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad. Weisbert brought in Don Siegel to direct Flaming Star, which was the only movie of Elvis’ he ever directed as he found Elvis too difficult to get through to when he was not alone, and he was hardly ever alone. He thought Elvis was talented and a great guy, but always surrounded by his friends made it difficult to reach him and help him. Barbara Eden, who played Pacer’s brother’s girlfriend Roslyn, initially turned down the role because she was still filming Swingin’ Along. The role of Roslyn then went to British actress Barbara Steele, but she was fired because her British accent was too strong. By this time, Barbara Eden was available and took over the role as Roslyn. Legendary actress Delores Del Rio played Pacer’s mother Neddy. Flaming Star was her first appearance in an American movie in 18 years.
Elvis reported on August 1, 1960 for pre-production work beginning with two weeks of riding lessons to increase his skills. He was thrown once, but was not hurt. On August 4, 1960, Elvis was fitted for brown contact lenses for his role as half Native American, half white. It was later decided not to use the brown contact lenses and let his natural baby blues shine. Filming on Flaming Star began on August 16 and finished on October 4, 1960. Interior scenes were shot on Stage 14 at Twentieth Century Fox Studio in Hollywood while exteriors were filmed on location on three ranches in the San Fernando Valley, including the 8,000-acre Conejo Movie Ranch near Thousand Oaks.
A stuntman was hired as a double for Elvis in the fight scenes, but as it turned out he was not needed as Elvis did a great job. In fact, Elvis was actually faster and a better fighter than that stuntman, who was a black belt in karate. Too bad they didn’t hire a stuntman for Elvis’ friend Red West who broke his arm while filming a fight scene with Elvis. Elvis was so apprehensive for Pacer’s serious scene after his mother dies that he bribed Siegel into postponing shooting of the scene by promising him the use of his new Rolls Royce for every day the scene was postponed. Elvis also had trouble with his final scene as his horse kept rearing. Finally the horse trainer had to massage Elvis’ horse’s leg to keep him calm. Although this was not supposed to be the final scene. In the original draft, Flaming Star was supposed to end with Clint (Pacer’s brother) burning down his family’s ranch in grief after his brother Pacer rides away to die.
On August 25, 1960, Elvis was photographed by Don Cranes for Life magazine at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The Colonel commissioned Cranes to take some photos for future record sleeves such as “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and His Hand in Mine. On September 9, 1960, Elvis leased the house at 525 Perugia Way in Bel Air after he and his entourage including Red West, Joe Esposito, Gene Smith and Marty Lacker were thrown out of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. On September 27, 1960, Vernon and his friends the Nichols visited Elvis on set. It was Mr. and Mrs. Nichols who had accompanied Vernon and Gladys to the set of Loving You three and half years prior. Elvis fan Gary Pepper also visited Elvis on set during this time.
There were two advanced screenings of Flaming Star on November 23th and 25th. The November 23rd screening at Loyola Theatre in Westchester, California showed the version with just two songs: “Flaming Star” and “A Cane and a High Starched Collar.” The November 25th screening at the Academy Theatre in Inglewood, California showed the version with four songs with the additional “Britches” and “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears.” The audience preferred the two-song version and that was the Flaming Star that was released and premiered in Los Angeles on December 20th then opened nationwide the following day on December 21, 1960. It was #12 on the National Box Office Survey its first week and earning just $900 in its first nine days. Because of its bi-racial family, Flaming Star was banned in South Africa where there were strict laws of racial separation. It was for this same reason that in the US Flaming Star reached a wider audience than previous Elvis movies. Women of all ages had always been gaga for Elvis’ movies, but Flaming Star was a guy’s movie, so now the entire family had something to enjoy. Oklahoma Creek entertainer Chief Wah-Nee-Ota inducted Elvis into the Los Angeles Indian Tribal Council in recognition of his “constructive portrayal of a man of Indian blood.” Elvis received a ceremonial headdress, which he proudly took back to Graceland.
Elvis had recorded the song “Black Star” before the title of the movie was finally changed to Flaming Star, so on October 7, 1960 after filming was complete Elvis went back to Radio Recorders to re-record the title song “Flaming Star.” Only two songs were actually in the movie. The title song “Flaming Star” was played behind the opening credits. “A Cane and A High Starched Collar ” was the only song we see Elvis sing and it was performed within minutes of the opening credits by Elvis’ character as a family sing-a-long. “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” and “Britches” were cut from the film after audiences reactions in advanced screening of the movie called for it. Before it was cut, “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” was sung by Elvis’ character Pacer to a group of Native Americans sitting around a campfire smoking a peace pipe. It is no wonder the test audience laughed during this scene having it cut from the movie. Years later in 1992, “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” was released in the Wim Wenders’ film Until the End of the World.
Flaming Star is one of the few movies I don’t have the original vinyl soundtrack. The EP Elvis By Request contained “Flaming Star” and “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” on side one and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “It’s Now or Never” on side two. It sold 1 million copies. The song “Flaming Star” stayed on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart for seven weeks in 1961, peaking at #14. I do have the re-release Elvis Sings Flaming Star on vinyl from 1969.
**I consulted Elvis: The Elvis Files Vol 3, Elvis The Movies, Reel Elvis, Elvis Presley in the Movies, Elvis Films Faq, Elvis Elvis Elvis The King and His Movies, Elvis Presley The Hollywood Years, Elvis in Hollywood for more information**
To read my take on all of Elvis’ movies, please click HERE.