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The Flame and the Arrow

The Flame and the Arrow
Warner DVD
1950 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 88 min. / Street Date October 23, 2007 / 19.98
Starring Burt Lancaster, Virginia Mayo, Robert Douglas, Aline MacMahon, Frank Allenby, Nick Cravat, Lynn Baggett, Gordon Gebert, Norman Lloyd
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Art Direction Edward Carrere
Film Editor Alan Crosland, Jr.
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Waldo Salt
Produced by Harold Hecht, Frank Ross
Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Also available as part of the Burt Lancaster The Signature Collection, with The Flame and The Arrow, Jim Thorpe - All American,
South Sea Woman, His Majesty O'Keefe, and Executive Action
, at 49.98

Burt Lancaster reinvented himself as an action hero in 1950's The Flame and the Arrow, a juvenile costume tale with inventive, exuberant action scenes. The swashbuckling Waldo Salt script casts Lancaster as a high-spirited Italian mountaineer who, when pressed by Austrian occupiers, becomes a champion of the people. It's a far cry from his previous roles in films noir like Criss Cross and I Walk Alone. Already 33 when he made his debut in The Killers, the ex-circus performer committed himself to action films at an age when Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks were beginning to down. He proved himself to be their athletic equal, doing most if not all of his own stunts.

The Flame and the Arrow's story is just serious enough to motivate ninety minutes of daring escapes and medieval swordplay. The director is Jacques Tourneur, better known as a stylish master of intimate moods: Cat People, Out of the Past.


Count Ullrich, a.k.a. The Hawk (Frank Allenby) occupies a small town in the Italian Alps. He dispossesses the local Marchese de Granzia (Robert Douglas) for non-payment of taxes, hoping to force the now-bankrupt nobleman into a politically advantageous marriage with his fetching ward Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo). Local insurgents oppose The Hawk but are getting nowhere because the independent Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) refuses to fight. The natural leader would rather hunt and fish with his son Rudi (Gordon Gebert of The Narrow Margin). Dardo's wife Francesca (Lynn Baggett) left him for Ullrich several years before. Now The Hawk seizes Rudi as a hostage to ensure Dardo's cooperation, and also because his mother wants the boy to be raised as a gentleman. To get Rudi back, Dardo joins his sidekick Piccolo (Nick Cravat) in the rebellion. Dardo also finds himself competing with the Marchese for the attentions of Anne de Hesse.

In The Flame and the Arrow Burt Lancaster calls on his circus experience to create a romantic hero who jumps from trees, walks tightropes and swings from the rafters like The Man on the Flying Trapeze. To reverse his image as a handsome hunk who couldn't act, Lancaster would soon be alternating his escapist adventures with more prestigious film projects -- Come Back, Little Sheba, From Here to Eternity. In the next few years Lancaster would be producing films in partnership with Harold Hecht and James Hill, and even trying his hand at directing (for The Kentuckian).

Lancaster's Dardo Bartoli is combination of Robin Hood and William Tell, with a few added character twists. He prefers archery to speechmaking and is motivated less by love of country than concern for his son. Divorces are messy, even in medieval times. In one scene Dardo confronts his ex-wife Francesca, now at the side of the ruthless Hawk, passively accepting the situation in a way that an Errol Flynn hero would. Sensitive director Jacques Tourneur communicates Dardo's inner conflict without undue psychologizing. Dardo doesn't rebel until his son is taken from him, at which point we know that The Hawk's army hasn't a chance. Dardo and Piccolo's trapeze tricks and feats of acrobatics dominate the action scenes. As an added wrinkle, it's established that ace archer Dardo is not particularly adept with a sword. When challenged by a superior foe, he douses the lights: "A knife's as good as a sword in the dark." Waldo Salt also gives Dardo a classic dimension by having him 'return from the dead' after a faked hanging. Burt Lancaster earned a reputation as one of Hollywood's healthiest movie stars. He would maintain his physique for decades, playing physically demanding parts well into his sixties.

Fresh from being roughed up by James Cagney in White Heat, glamorous Virginia Mayo becomes Dardo's conventional love interest. Their uncomplicated relationship is the film's weakest aspect. More typical for director Tourneur, Robert Douglas' Marchese is a refreshingly ambivalent bad guy, at first fighting at Dardo's side and then just as easily changing loyalties. The idea that a natural democratic leader like Dardo would rise from the common folk makes for a nice fairy tale, even if it doesn't seem likely for this period in history.

Energetic acrobat Nick Cravat once shared billing as Lancaster's circus partner. Although he plays a mute both in this film and the Warners follow-up The Crimson Pirate he wasn't afflicted; the roles were written that way because of his thick Brooklyn accent. Warners veteran Aline McMahon is a suspicious peasant woman but the film's most amusing bit of business goes to noted actor Norman Lloyd. He's Apollo, a minstrel singing with a band of traveling players attacked by The Hawk's guards during a performance. Apollo calls out to the rest of the troupe: "You aren't going to let them do that to actors, are you?"

Warners' DVD of The Flame and the Arrow is a good but not perfect transfer of a film originally presented in brilliant Technicolor. The transfer tries to replicate the 3-color look but the presumed composite neg source has mis-registered shots (often involving dissolves), blacks that become pools of dark blue and distracting density fluctuations. The colors are okay on small monitors but look slightly 'off' on larger screens. The hard truth in DVD is that most Technicolor titles are not going to sell in numbers sufficient to justify the huge expense required to restore them to their full beauty. Therefore, some of Hollywood's most beautiful films exist only in increasingly rare and fragile original Tech prints.

For extras we get a 'Joe McDoakes' comedy short called So You're Going to Have an Operation and an amusing cartoon about a buzzard chick left with a pair of English Sparrows, Strife with Father. Trailers are included for The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate. Lancaster sucks in his stomach so tightly for the Pirate trailer, one would think he was auditioning to play the Academy's 'Oscar' statuette.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Flame and the Arrow rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Good -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Short subject, cartoon, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 29, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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