Twelfth century Lombardy provides a picturesque backdrop as forest-dwelling free spirit Dardo Bertoli (Burt Lancaster) brings his young son Rudy (Gordon Gebert) to his village home. Five years before, Dardo’s aristocratic wife Francesca (Lynn Baggett), abandoned her family for a life as the pampered spouse of Hessian tyrant Count Ulrich the Hawk (Frank Allenby), leaving the affable acrobat and expert archer cynical and reluctant to interfere in the affairs of others. But when Ulrich abducts Rudy to life with his mother at their castle, Dardo gathers a band of merry men to wage a guerrila war against the invaders. Aided by mute sidekick Piccolo (Nick Cravat), Dardo kidnaps Count Ulrich’s niece, the beautiful and spirited Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo), who wins his heart amidst many swashbuckling adventures.
Burt Lancaster began a long association with producer Harold Hecht with this ebullient romp that revived the swashbuckler in Hollywood. The Flame and the Arrow basically transplants the Robin Hood story to Medieval Italy but also draws a fair amount from the legend of William Tell, particularly at the climax with Dardo aiming an arrow at a villain using his son as a human shield. With their stories of brave freedom fighters tweaking the nose of tyranny and oppressive regimes it is little wonder the swashbuckler held such appeal for American audiences both pre and post-World War Two, not to mention the European exiles who often made them. Although every swashbuckler dwells in the long shadow cast by the justly celebrated The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), film noir and horror specialist Jacques Tourneur introduced a compelling psychological dimension that set this apart from the relatively carefree exploits of Errol Flynn.
On the surface Dardo’s psychological weakness appears to be his mistrust of women, though it evidently does not hamper his active libido, but Tourneur deftly sidesteps misogyny by showing this is only a manifestation of a lack of faith in his own judgement. Having seen his wife run off with his mortal enemy, Dardo adopts a cavalier attitude towards life and relationships that is a subtle deconstruction of Errol Flynn’s stock devil-may-care persona. At the start of the film he is a self-reliant superhero too enamoured of his own carefree freedom to take much interest in other people’s problems. Gradually, with the aid of stalwart friends and a courageous love interest in Anne, Dardo grows to realise a man cannot live by himself alone. He needs not only friendship but ideals as well.
If Dardo is the titular arrow then Anne is arguably his guiding flame, a perceptive and forthright young woman who draws out his latent humanity. Burt Lancaster’s gleaming smile is well paired with Virginia Mayo’s luminous beauty which the Sultan of Morocco famously declared to be “tangible proof of the existence of God.” Her potent combination of near-ethereal eroticism and angelic sincerity provides a neat counterbalance for Lancaster’s athletic vigour. The pair re-teamed for South Sea Woman (1953) though in real life Mayo was supposedly less than fond of her co-stars none too gentlemanly behaviour in their love scenes. Aside from Mayo, The Flame and the Arrow also paired Lancaster with his onetime circus partner Nick Cravat. Cast as a mute on account of his thick New York Bronx accent, as he would be again in The Crimson Pirate (1954), Cravat steals more than a few scenes with his gregarious pantomime.
Tourneur ensures the film gallops along at a furious clip (as indeed most Warner Brothers films did back then, regardless of genre) with energetic action sequences and good humour along with some memorable characters. Robert Douglas exudes suave villainy as the Marchese Alessandro de Granazia, an aristocrat who stands as something of a moral counterpoint to Dardo in that he switches sides depending on the situation. Although the action is consistently involving the last fifteen minutes prove especially spectacular as Lancaster and Cravat perform some astounding feats and indulge in a cheeky in-joke: “I always said we should have been acrobats!”