The United States Civil War is finally over, but a gang of Confederates unaware of this led by Vance Reno (Richard Egan) are putting into practice a plan which will see them swell their side's coffers and take away from the Union Army. That plan is to rob a train carrying a huge payroll for the Northern soldiers, and the gang are not averse to taking lives in their pursuit of the cash, so it is they gun down the station master and lie in wait for the train, dressed in uniforms they have stolen as a disguise. Soon they have claimed the bounty and after a shootout made good their escape, but somewhere along the road they meet defeated Confederate soldiers who give them the news - so what now?
How about a few songs from the King of Rock 'n' Roll? That's guaranteed to cheer them up, for this was the movie debut of none other than Elvis Presley, here third billed as the fourth Reno brother, Clint. Over the previous months he had seen his star rise stratospherically, thanks to his talent as a singer and performer and the need the new music movement had for a charismatic front man: Elvis fit the bill with a heavy dose of charm and even danger. Savvy movie producers snapped up the new celebrity and rewrote a standard Civil War Western to accomodate him no matter if he could act or not, yet as it turned out he may have been untrained as a thespian, but this was something else he could do, not as well as his singing but he did not embarrass himself.
Watching Love Me Tender while aware of the behind the scenes shenanigans that went into retooling it as a vehicle for someone who for all the studio knew was a passing fad and you can definitely see the joins where Presley has been crowbarred in to justify his name in the billing, but it was not without its pleasures. The King had four music numbers, though this was not a musical, including the title track, two performed to his family at the shack they live in and two at a get together for the locals where he swivelled his hips to a small crowd of adoring females (whose own dancing leaves much to be desired), much as in that famous footage of Elvis on an outdoor stage during his first flush of success did.
However, we had a story to be getting on with, and Richard Egan was really the main driving force behind that as he returns home with his two siblings to learn that not only did his family believe him to be dead in the war, but youngest brother Clint has gone and married his sweetheart Cathy just three months before. What bad luck. Apart from the whole surviving the war thing, but he still has a few wads of moolah which will take some explaining should the authorities catch up with him, which is where the chief focus of the second half plays out. The gang having split up for safety, Vance thinks he can get away with it, but the long arm of the law thinks otherwise, and the excuse of the spoils of war do not apply so much now.
In the meantime, Cathy is filled with regret about marrying Clint, which was unfortunate since she was played by Debra Paget, renowned as one of the most beautiful starlets of her day and therefore a better match for Presley than the more rugged Egan. Many will tell you Ann-Margret, Elvis's co-star in Viva Las Vegas, was his ideal partner on screen (and rumours abounded that he always regretted not making her the love of his life), but Paget was at least suitable thanks to a similarity in her femininity and his masculinity with their round faces, soulful eyes and pouting lips, which may have you pondering the screenwriters here should have done a better job of bringing them together in the plot rather than have Cathy wracked with guilt pining for Vance. Love Me Tender was from the same stable as Rebel Without a Cause, and perhaps they regarded Presley as a James Dean substitute judging by the tear-stained finale, yet it is interesting to see him at twenty-one, eager to please if more petulant than his screen persona would become in the conveyor belt of movies he would wind up in.