For me, a show like “The Flame and the Arrow” (1950) represents what movies are all about - the romance of the movies, so to speak. Beautifully filmed in Technicolor, “The Flame and the Arrow” is pure entertainment without a trace of realism to be found anywhere.
Surely, medieval Italy was never populated by such All American types as Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo, who don’t even attempt anything resembling an Italian accent. I’m also fairly certain that 16th century Italy never looked so well-scrubbed. All backed by a wonderful Max Steiner score, one of his best, with those strumming mandolins playing a lilting melody in the opening credits letting us know that we’re in for a rollicking good time.
Leading lady Virginia Mayo wears a couple of outfits that look more Beverly Hills than medieval Italy. There’s a most fetching female Robin Hood-type garb she sports in a scene or two, and a scene where she washes her legs in a stream in a shorts outfit could be the greatest bit of cheesecake ever seen in a swashbuckler. (Admittedly, there are few such scenes in the genre).
Dardo (Burt Lancaster), sort of an Italian Robin Hood, tries to rescue his village from the conquering Hessian oppressors, led by Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), nicknamed The Hawk by the villagers for his heavy-handed rule.
Years ago, Dardo’s wife Francesca (Lynn Baggett) left Dardo and their young son Rudi (Gordon Gebert, about as Italian as Sabu) for a life of comfort and ease as Ulrich’s mistress. So Dardo has another reason to seek vengeance against Ulrich.
With his best friend, the mute Piccolo (Nick Cravat), Dardo embarks in thwarting Ulrich however possible, after which Dardo and his band retreat to some Roman ruins in the countryside to plan their next course of action. .
In a nod to Maid Marian of the Robin Hood legends, the Lady Anne (Virginia Mayo) is a noble woman who switches allegiances when she sees how cruel the Hessians are against the villagers and falls in love with the dashing Dardo. This is even after Dardo has captured her to trade for his son, who Count Ulrich has kidnapped and brought to his castle to train him as a nobleman.
Dardo arranges to raid the castle to rescue him. Disguised as circus entertainers, Dardo and Piccolo perform acts of high-wire acrobats as a distraction to villagers sneaking into the castle and wrest control of the territory from Ulrich once and for all.
Former circus acrobat Burt Lancaster was lucky enough to hit a home run – no, a grand slam - right out of the park with his first film, the film noir classic “The Killers” (1946). (He first filmed “Desert Fury” (1947) but that was released after “The Killers.)
For the next four years Lancaster appeared in 10 films, almost all of them of the crime and film noir variety.
As good an actor as he was, Lancaster was an even savvier businessman. Lancaster was one of the first actors to form his own production company. Directors such as Frank Capra and George Stevens did this too, for tax reasons as well as more creative freedom, but it was rare for an actor to exert such control over his own career, especially a newcomer. He teamed with producer Harold Hecht to form Hecht-Norma Productions.
The safe bet for his first film as a producer would have been to produce another noir thriller, which he did in 1948 with “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” (1948). He could have kept doing more of the same, but Lancaster was smart enough to expand his base and do something completely different for his next production – a swashbuckling adventure film.
Hecht and Lancaster first offered the project to Columbia, who turned down the project. They were only interested in Burt Lancaster, gangster. Warner Bros accepted his proposal, and Hecht-Norma Productions signed with Warners.
Warner Bros. was a good choice, as Hecht-Norman saved money by using some of the studio’s standing sets, re-dressed from earlier costume adventures like “The Adventures of Don Juan” (1949).
Like many actors today, Lancaster did projects he knew were not commercial viable, but felt he had to do. To get these projects done, he would star in movies made solely for entertainment. One for love and one for the money, as the saying goes. But Lancaster never shirked on the latter, and always made sure audiences got their money’s worth. A quote from Lancaster, the producer, is telling:
“I think that in the main the film has to be entertaining. This is an industry, and its nature is to sell entertainment. People go to the theater for the most part to relax, to escape the tensions of life and the pressures in the world. Most picture makers try to make pictures which have the broadest possible appeal, for the obvious reason they are profitable and you have to stay alive. I like to get a point across, but I don’t see myself as a crusader. I think that every honest producer tries to say something. Everything, whether we like the term or not, has a message – even if the message is nothing more than ‘sit back, we’re just going to have some fun.’”
And “The Flame and the Arrow” is fun. New York Times Critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “Not since Douglas Fairbanks was leaping from castle walls and vaulting over the rooftops of storybook towns has the screen had such a reckless and acrobatic young man….as it has in Mr. Lancaster.”
Author Tony Thomas also made the Fairbanks connection in his book “Burt Lancaster” (Pyramid Publications, 1975): “No one since Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. had vaulted, leaped, swung, somersaulted and balanced with such verve as Lancaster in The Flame and the Arrow. Warners let it be loudly known that no stuntmen or doubles were needed for this star, until an angry Don Turner spoke up, saying that he had been involved in three sequences. But Turner wanted no credit for the purely acrobatic stuff, the pirouettes in mid-air, the high-bar walking, and the high-pole balancing.”
In the late 1940s, movie fans were anxious to read more about their new idol, and were likely amused to read about Lancaster’s early days in the circus as an acrobat and trapeze artist. When he was set to begin “The Flame and The Arrow”, he called upon his old partner Nick Cravat to join him. Cravat had no acting experience, a problem remedied by having his character Piccolo be a mute.
After the movie completed shooting, Lancaster and Cravat embarked on a nationwide tour courtesy the Cole Brothers Circus to revive their circus act for four weeks, at $11,000 per week. Audiences turned out in droves to see Lancaster do his high-wire circus magic, not only in person but in the theaters. “The Flame and the Arrow” was the 12th biggest grossing film in 1950.
Audiences greatly enjoyed the new heroic Burt. Lancaster’s biographer wrote that with this film, Lancaster re-invented himself. “Instead of being methodical, he was expansive; instead of brooding, he was ebullient; instead of moving heavily and speaking slowly, he became light and graceful and lilting.”
However, as enjoyable as it is, it is not without its faults, and while it may be the first of Lancaster’s 1950s adventure film larks, for me it’s one of the weakest. I’ve always enjoyed the film, but a recent viewing left me wanting in parts.
An original running time of two hours trimmed to 88 minutes is a big factor. There are plot holes a plenty which I suspect were taken care of in that 120-minute cut.
For instance, here you have Robert Douglas (always a pleasure to see and listen to) complaining to Count Ulrich about the Count’s excessive taxation. In his next scene, Douglas is captured by Dardo (Lancaster) and his outlaw gang and Douglas throws in with them with nary a glance back at his former existence. The situation is there for a reason, but the suddenness in which it is presented is quite jarring.
I also feel there should be more tension between Dardo and Count Ulrich, seeing that Ulrich stole Dardo’s wife away from him.
The great Norman Lloyd is on hand as Apollo, the Minstrel, but it’s a disappointingly small role, and I wonder if some of his footage was trimmed
The film’s most interesting credit is writer Waldo Salt, who later wrote the scripts for “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) and “Coming Home” (1978). He was one of the victims of the blacklist during the fifties.
Despite the film’s gusto, I’m sure a pro like director Jacques Tourneur decried the missing footage. What’s left though, is quite striking. Tourneur stages a most unique duel in a darkened room. His strong compositional eye is evident in the night scenes, torch lit as Dardo and gang plan their next action.
As I said earlier, Robert Douglas is always a treat. While he’s no Basil Rathbone, he’s one of the most dependable scoundrels in the adventure film canon. I love listening to his clear, crisp diction.
The college age daughter of a friend of mine has mentioned to me she finds acting in old movies to be stagy, with actors exaggerating their line delivery. I don’t agree with her, but I think I know what she is saying.
I think she is used to what some consider the more realistic style of acting of the last several decades. For the last 10 years or so, though, I’ve noticed a lot of actors mumbling their lines, and really, no one talks like that in real life.
I didn’t like this year’s “World War Z” for many reasons, and one of them was the near inaudible levels at which some of the dialogue was spoken. I think a lot of actors feel mumbling their lines makes it more real, but if anything it heightens the unreality of the scene. I’ll take the wonderful diction of the likes of Robert Douglas any day.
Lancaster was proud of his initial foray into costume adventure, and the film looked ahead to some of the more light-hearted adventure films that would come in the decades to come. He later remarked, “I daresay we were the innovators of camping up that type of thing, which later became famous in the Bond series. We had scenes in the movie that Jack Warner threw up his hands over. As the first camp swashbuckler it had a lot of spoofing and schtick, funny bits of business.”
As I said earlier, as much as I enjoy the film, I do prefer Lancaster’s other adventures films from this decade. “Ten Tall Men” (1951) is a most engaging Foreign Legion romp; the South Seas adventure “His Majesty O’Keefe” (1954) is a blast; the western “Vera Cruz” has Burt grinning so much its like he’s doing a commercial for the American Dental Association; and his masterpiece, the pirate spoof “The Crimson Pirate” (1952) is one of the most giddily entertaining movies ever made.
But “The Flame and the Arrow” was a good start.
Background on the film taken from Max Steiner’s soundtrack CD, issued in 1998 by the BYU FMA (A Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production).