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The Flame and the Arrow

Burt Lancaster spent almost a decade performing as an acrobat in the circus, an experience that gave him not only an impressive physique but incredible muscular control, tools that he drew upon when he turned to acting and rocketed to stardom in his first films. Lancaster played criminals, lawmen, hustlers, and soldiers of fortune in such dark crime dramas as The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and Criss Cross (1949), yet in those early years, no studio even considered spotlighting his acrobatic talents on screen.

The idea to make a swashbuckler came from Lancaster's good friend and former circus partner Nick Cravat. A childhood friend from their days growing up in New York during the worst years of the depression, Cravat had come out to Hollywood at Lancaster's request a couple of years before and appeared with Lancaster in a revival of their old act in a short tour. Cravat suggested that Lancaster make the kind of swashbuckling adventure that made Douglas Fairbanks a superstar. After all, Lancaster was the first movie star since Fairbanks who could actually do all those stunts himself.

Waldo Salt came up with a story inspired by the story of William Tell but relocated to 12th century Lombardy, and a script reminiscent of the 1938 Errol Flynn costume swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood. Salt was blacklisted soon after finishing the script -- it was his last screen credit for over a decade -- but Salt returned to screenwriting with a vengeance in the 1960s and went on to win Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978).

Lancaster had recently formed his own production company, Norma, with Harold Hecht, and they developed the project, which was eventually named The Flame and the Arrow (1950), as their second production. Warner Bros. signed on to finance and distribute and Lancaster and company moved to the Warner lot. To keep production costs down, the film borrowed costumes and sets leftover from the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood and a more recent Errol Flynn costumer, The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), and shot almost entirely on the Warner Bros. soundstages.

The parallels with Robin Hood are easy to find: the hero Dardo (Lancaster) is a master archer who has a personal grudge against the corrupt ruler, a Hessian Count known as "The Hawk" who occupies Northern Italy land as a conqueror. Dardo takes refuge in the mountains with a band of rebels who harass and rob the soldiers riding through the hills. Virginia Mayo plays the film's answer to Maid Marian, the niece of the Hawk who falls in love with Dardo and sides with the peasant rebels. Their merry band of outlaws even has a troubadour. Norman Lloyd, a superb character actor who apprenticed as a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre company and went on to a longtime associate with Alfred Hitchcock, plays the role as a kind of court jester or poet, providing commentary on the characters and their actions.

Lancaster coaxed Cravat into taking a key supporting role as Piccolo, the film's comic relief and Dardo's sidekick and partner in acrobatic spectacle. Cravat's East Harlem accent was too strong for a costume picture so the character was made a mute and Cravat pantomimed his side of conversations. While it wasn't Cravat's screen debut, it was his first substantial role and it showed off his physical gifts and distinctive presence. The dynamic contrast with Lancaster -- the diminutive, dark Cravat, with his shaggy beard and wide smile somewhere between wild child and little devil, next to the tall, broad-shouldered, strapping star -- made them a memorable pairing, and Lancaster revived the onscreen team a couple of years later for The Crimson Pirate (1952).

Lancaster performed most, if not all, of his own stunts onscreen and the film made a point of it. No cutting away to a stunt man here. Lancaster leaps from parapets, swings from ropes, and flips and somersaults through the air and into his next line of dialogue with such grace and command that there is little question of his mastery. For the climactic assault on the castle, where the rebels pose as traveling players and tumblers, Lancaster and Cravat revived a routine they originally performed in 1940 on the vaudeville circuit. Cravat balances a long pole on his head and shoulders, holding it straight up into the air while Lancaster shimmies up and then, with great control and upper-body strength, unfolds his body at a right angle, like a flag flying from a pole. Ten years later, after weeks of practice and physical training, they executed it onscreen without a hitch. Lancaster and Cravat even embarked on a publicity tour, where they performed some of the film's stunt scenes live for adoring audiences.

Jacques Tourneur directs, making the most of the second-hand sets and costumes with handsome Technicolor images. He fills the film with comic relief and lighthearted spectacle, capturing the essence of the project and the primacy of Lancaster's physical presence, and makes sure audiences clearly see that it is Lancaster himself performing these marvelous acrobatic stunts. But it's not all lighthearted antics and action. Tourneur casts shadows, literally and figuratively, across many of the scenes and in an ingenious twist on the grand Errol Flynn swordfights, he plunges the climactic duel into darkness and constructs a deadly swordfight in slashes of light through the set and suggestive sounds in the shadow.

"[N]ot since Mr. Fairbanks was leaping from castle walls and vaulting over the rooftops of ancient story-book towns has the screen had such a reckless and acrobatic young man to display these same inclinations as it has in Mr. L," wrote Bosley Crowther in his rave review in The New York Times. "And not since-well, we can't remember-have the movies had such an all-out spread of luxuriously romantic hokum as they have in this Technicolored film." The film was a hit, audiences embraced Lancaster as a boisterous, acrobatic swashbuckler, and Lancaster had added a new dimension to his expanding resume: action hero.

By Sean Axmaker

Sources:
"Burt Lancaster: An American Life," Kate Buford. Da Capo Press, 2000.
"Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall," Chris Fujiwara. McFarland and Co., 1998.
"The Flame and the Arrow" film review, Bosley Crowther. The New York Times, July 8, 1950.
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