Just how good was Oscar winner Burt Lancaster? The man was a hell of an actor. He was remarkable in dramatic films, and in film noir and suspense, and even in comedy. He was so good and heartfelt in Field of Dreams (Widescreen Two-Disc Anniversary Edition). And, because of his circus background, it's not too surprising that he would show a decided flair for swashbuckling. Which now leads us to one particularly neglected swashbuckler. In 1950, 2 years before the sublime The Crimson Pirate, THE FLAME AND THE ARROW was released, a rollicking adventure film starring Burt and his sidekick and long-time circus buddy Nick Cravat. This one's where they first unleashed their heady brand of athleticism and acrobatics.
The plot? In the twelfth century, northern Italy is suffering under the iron rule of the occupying German forces. But, in the mountains of Lombardy, the fires of rebellion are still being stoked. We are introduced to the dashing, free-spirited Dardo (Burt Lancaster), a savvy huntsman and deadly archer (he's nicknamed "the Arrow"), whose wife had years before abandoned him for a life of ease and riches with the fearsome Hessian ruler, Count Ulrich, also called "The Hawk" (Frank Allenby). When Dardo, showing off for his son, shoots down Count Ulrich's hawk, Ulrich takes Dardo's son in retaliation. This act sets off the events which would ultimately transform Dardo into a leader of a peasant uprising against the Hessian invaders. Along the way, he also takes hostage and romances the beautiful noblewoman Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo), who is Ulrich's niece. This, in the midst of several unPC scenes of Dardo chaining up the Lady Anna. With another possible villain, the Marchese Alessandro (Robert Douglas) lurking in the wings, Dardo looks to be up against it. This just might call for a bit of chandelier swinging...
I'm a bit puzzled as to why this film isn't more well known. Yes, it borrows quite a bit from Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood (Two-Disc Special Edition) even as it holds to its tongue-in-cheek nature. And, true, it doesn't quite equal the polish, exuberance, and irresistible charm of Burt's later, more lauded THE CRIMSON PIRATE. But THE FLAME AND THE ARROW does offer its own share of lighthearted brio, colorful medeival pageantry, and, for its time, stunning action sequences. Perhaps, ultimately, the success of one and the forgetting of the other may simply come down to THE FLAME AND THE ARROW not being a pirate movie.
Burt Lancaster was definitely one of our most physical and agile American actors. He had that masculine magnetism going for him, abetted by his blinding, razzle-dazzle, con man's smile, his unruly shock of hair, and that rugged frame. And he had that bigger than life personality. Without a doubt, and with apologies to the gorgeous Virginia Mayo, Burt is the obvious centerpiece of this film. Your eyeballs can't help but track him as he smiles engagingly, waxes passionate, and performs with zeal his feats of daredeviltry. And, with him, just about step by step, somersault for somersault, and stunt for stunt is his partner Nick Cravat. Yes, they did their own stunts.
I've always been a fan of Nick Cravat, and this from only having seen him prominently in two films. Here, Nick Cravat plays another of his nonspeaking roles in Piccolo, faithful friend of Dardo's. It must be noted that Nick Cravat isn't mute in real life. It's just that he had such a pronounced Brooklyn accent, which he was never able to shake off, that giving him lines in a period piece would've been ruinous for the picure. Anyone recall Tony Curtis's horrid Brooklynese in The Black Shield of Falworth ("Yondah lies the castle of my foddah.")? Another trivia about Nick: he played the gremlin on the airplane wing of the classic Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which starred a crazed William Shatner.
Directed with flourish by Jacques Tourneur, with rousing music composed by the ever dependable Max Steiner, and an Oscar nomination for best cinematography, THE FLAME AND THE ARROW doesn't deserve anonymity. I love swashbucklers. And, while Lancaster hadn't made but a handful in this genre (again, mostly because he was so talented he could and did dip his fingers in many other film genres), I count him as one of my favorite buckler of swashes. I saw THE FLAME AND THE ARROW when I was a kid and, dang, did I enjoy its brand of chest-thumping action and acrobatics. Back then, I was very much bowled over by Burt Lancaster and his swagger. I was never gladder than when I found out THE FLAME AND THE ARROW was finally coming out in dvd. This one's more gritty than THE CRIMSON PIRATE, but there's enough mirth, romance, and derring-do to make this a must get for me. If CRIMSON PIRATE is a five star flick, then this one's just below. Let's call it, four and a half stars.
By the way, for those with more padding in the wallet, this movie is also in Burt Lancaster: The Signature Collection (The Flame and the Arrow/Jim Thorpe-All-American/His Majesty O'Keefe/South Sea Woman/Executive Action). If you're a big fan of Burt Lancaster, you might as well get that one.