Burt Lancaster, at his most acrobatic, takes on an Errol Flynn role and pulls it off with panache in The Flame and the Arrow, a Robin Hood-like story set in medieval Italy. Like all the best swashbucklers, it’s witty, exciting, beautiful to look at, only slightly suspenseful, totally ridiculous, and a whole lot of fun.
I’m a sucker for swashbucklers, even though I understand why they get so little respect. Unlike other period action genres, such as westerns and samurai films, swashbucklers never grew up. No one ever made a sword and tights movie with the complexity of Red River or Seven Samurai. But the genre’s fun comes from its light touch, the simplicity of obvious good and evil, fights that look more like dance than violence, and witty repartee. In some of the best swashbucklers, not a single good guy dies.
Lancaster became a star, and a top producer, in film noir–a genre about as far from swashbucklers as you can get. Yet his good looks, 500-watt smile, and pre-acting career as an acrobat made him a natural for buckling his swash. Outside of the work of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, few movies show off their star’s athleticism like The Flame and the Arrow. Lancaster climbs poles, jumps down from a tree with a graceful backflip, swings down a drapery, climbs a rope without using his feet, and does every trick of the parallel bar.
And it’s not only Lancaster. Nick Cravat was Lancaster’s acrobatic partner in their youth, and became the star’s personal trainer. Here he plays the sidekick, and the two of them do great physical feats together. In one extended sequence, they find one amazing thing to do after another with a very long pole. One holds it while the other climbs, they walk on it like a tightrope, trip bad guys, and knock out some palace guards.
Cravat wasn’t really an actor, which is probably why his character is mute. But in this over-the-top tale, he’s an enjoyable presence even when both feet are on the ground. His upbeat personality, over-the-top facial expressions, and contempt fo authority gives the impression of a bearded, dark-haired Harpo Marx.
The story borrows a number of tropes from my all-time favorite swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Waldo Salt’s screenplay always finds a variation. For instance, in both movies, the hero escapes an execution by hanging. But the escapes are as different as they can be.
Considering the fact that the film’s star was also the executive producer, it’s astonishing how much of the film’s strength comes from supporting characters. A scene between a minstrel and a tanner about civilization and working with your feet is just charming. But then Norman Lloyd, as the minstrel, steals every scene he’s in
Salt also provided something very surprising for a swashbuckler–a somewhat likeable character who could end up being one of the good guys, or one of the bad ones. By the standards of this type of movie, that’s almost deep.
I saw The Flame and Arrow only once theatrically…probably around 1980. When my son was growing up, I bought him the VHS cassette, and he watched it over and over again. It’s currently streaming in HD on Turner Archive Instant. I don’t know how long it will be there.