In medieval Italy, archer Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry) declares war against a German despot, Count “The Hawk” Ulrich (Frank Allenby, Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary), after the aristocrat kidnaps his young son.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“A man who knows what he’s dying for only seems to die.”
In Hollywood, the inevitable always happens. The odds were in favor of acrobat-turned-actor Burt Lancaster making a movie that would showcase his acrobatic skills. The unavoidable finally occurred in 1950: The Flame and the Arrow was mostly an excuse for Lancaster to show off his amazing gymnastic moves.
This was Lancaster’s second movie as a producer, and the first film in a multi-movie deal he had made with Warner Bros. Apparently, the studio expected the actor to deliver a series of brooding dramas in the vein of The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947). However, Lancaster had other plans. Tired of playing troubled anti-heroes, Lancaster decided that his next film was going to be a lighthearted action movie.
The Flame and the Arrow was intended to provide Lancaster with a much-needed change-of-pace, and, fortunately, the film was so well received by audiences that it quickly became one of the actor’s top-grossing movies. Frankly, it’s hard not to like The Flame and the Arrow — this is a tongue-in-cheek, rousing action-comedy movie with infectious energy. While not as good as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) or The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Flame and the Arrow is definitely a fun movie.
The original theatrical poster promised that Lancaster would be “performing actual feats of daring unmatched by any star.” The publicity department didn’t lie for a change. Lancaster is all smiles as he performs all sorts of crazy stunts. I did notice that the actor wasn’t too proud to use occasionally a stunt-double, specifically during horse-riding sequences. However, Lancaster did indeed most of the stunts himself.
The film was also a great showcase for Lancaster’s real-life friend and fellow acrobat Nick Cravat. Funny, now that I think about it, but when I was a kid I thought Cravat was mute in real life. Allegedly, the diminutive but feisty circus performer’s diction was poor (Cravat’s thick Bronx accent didn’t help), so he decided to play his character as a mute. It works — Cravat deserves to be listed among cinema’s best sidekicks.
I did have some issues with The Flame and the Arrow. The actor playing the main villain, Frank Allenby, lacks charisma. The role screams for someone like Basil Rathbone (Captain Blood) or George Sanders (The Black Swan). In addition to that, while I do admit that Virginia Mayo (White Heat) looks gorgeous in old three-strip Technicolor, I didn’t sense much chemistry between her and Lancaster.
My biggest disappointment was the lack of swordfights. While the film is often categorized as a swashbuckler, the truth is that there is only one fencing duel and it isn’t all that thrilling to watch. Lancaster treats the sword like a baseball bat, furiously swinging it at his opponent. The actor does handle the bow with aplomb, so it’s perhaps more appropriate to refer to The Flame and the Arrow as an archery movie.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Although I wouldn’t call The Flame and the Arrow a “classic,” I definitely think it’s a delightful piece of silly escapism. It’s also a great movie to watch with the whole family. Above all, the film gives us an opportunity to see what Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat did for a living before they became movie actors. Color, 88 minutes, Not Rated.