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The STAR & the Fury

Two ’50s Westerns still work today

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Just dropped in glorious high-definition DVDs are two decidedly curious Westerns from the 1950s, possibly the greatest decade of the Western in the history of film. Though neither Gun Fury nor Flaming Star would ever qualify as “classics,” they still serve the genre well and, particularly in hindsight, are worthy of rediscovery and attention.

Gun Fury (1953) stars Rock Hudson near the start of his long career, one of his earliest starring roles after 21 films beginning only five years before—several Westerns, including the true classic Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River (both with James Stewart). In addition, Gun Fury was made in 3D, reproduced beautifully on the Twilight Time disc.

Hudson’s costar is Donna Reed, who won an Oscar the same year for From Here to Eternity, released three months before Fury. Though she’s predictably good in the Western as the damsel in distress, it’s quite a comedown from the WWII epic.

The plot is standard fare. Hudson plays Ben Warren, a California rancher and Civil War vet whose fiancée Jennifer (Reed) is kidnapped by an outlaw band who leave Ben for dead. Frank Slayton (Phil Carrey) heads the gang, backed by partner Jess (Leo Gordon). Like Ben, Frank made it through the war, but on the losing side. Like John Carradine’s character in the original Stagecoach, he aspires—in the guise of a genteel Southerner—to court the unwilling
Miss Ballard.

Ben’s not dead and is soon in hot pursuit. Where Fury deviates from the usual oaters of the time is its focus on the relationship between the outlaw partners who are soon at each other’s throats. Jess is trussed up and left for dead by Frank but eventually rescued by Ben, teaming up with his original victim to track down his ex-partner.

The most interesting characters by far are the outlaws; Carrey and Gordon get the plum roles. Carrey’s greatest success came later on TV, starring as Asa Buchanan from 1984-2008 in the long-running soaper One Life to Live. Gordon also had a long career, particularly on TV, almost always playing the heavy. He has one of those faces—easily recognized, but damned if you can remember the name.

Among the many other nostalgic pleasures of Fury is the presence of Lee Marvin and Neville Brand as lesser, nastier Slayton Gang members. Watching Marvin in particular, you can see the qualities that would make him a star and an Oscar-winner.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Fury is directed by Raoul Walsh, whose 52-year directorial stint included classics: The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, They Died with Their Boots On and John Wayne’s debut The Big Trail. Though never nominated for an Oscar, Walsh—like contemporaries John Ford and Howard Hawks—was one of the greats. Not all of his films were classics, but they weren’t dull. Fury demonstrates that.

In 1960, fresh out of the U.S. Army, Elvis Presley had two films released in little more than a month. G.I. Blues (a bland prototype of most of Elvis’ dreadful pics) included 14 songs recorded in three days. It was a big hit. A month later, Flaming Star, a much better movie and a Western, hit the screen. Tepid success, compared to the Blues.

As Julie Kirgo points out in her excellent liner notes for Twilight Time’s release of Flaming Star, Colonel Parker used the films’ box-office receipts to convince Elvis his film career trajectory aimed at musical tripe, not drama. Poor decision artistically, but not financially.

Elvis is quite good in Star, playing half-breed Pacer Burton, son of a white rancher (John McIntire) and his Indian wife (Dolores del Rio). With his white stepbrother Clint (Steve Forrest), Pacer deals with suspicion and outright hatred from white neighbors when an Indian uprising takes a deadly toll.

Torn between two worlds (warring Kiowa claim him as their own), Pacer struggles to find his place, the final disruption precipitated by his mother’s accidental death by a white settler. In the end, though, there’s not really one side or another for the tragic Pacer. As he says—Elvis delivering the lines with conviction—“I don’t know who’s my people. Maybe I don’t got any.”

Star was directed by Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah’s and Clint Eastwood’s mentor. In fact, Eastwood’s Western masterpiece Unforgiven is dedicated to Siegel and Sergio Leone. Siegel’s deft touch is obvious in the pacing, action and performances of all involved, especially Elvis.

If the singer had only listened to anyone besides the slick “Colonel” Parker, the hip-shakin’ rocker from Tupelo might’ve followed Sinatra into cinematic respectability. Flaming Star demonstrates the sad potential of what might have been.

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