The Flame and the Arrow (1950)
Grade: Kinda depends
My recent review of The Crimson Pirate made me curious about TFATA. It had been years since I saw either film and I remember not liking this one *quite* as much as TCP. I found that I still liked TCP but what about TFATA? Would it stand up to a rewatch? The answer is I still feel the same about it. It’s good but not quite as good for a couple of reasons. Still, it’s a decent rainy day/Saturday afternoon flick.
Medieval Lombardy is being squashed under the thumb of Germany and the main one doing the squashing now is Ulrich, the Count of Hesse (Frank Allenby) who’s just recently come back along with his lovely niece Lady Anne (Virginia Mayo) and his mistress. Now this would be bad enough but the mistress is the wife of Dardo (Burt Lancaster) who apparently prefers to live in the great outdoors doing manly things such as shooting arrows at stuff with his son Rudi. Maybe she objected to his bathing habits. Anyway, she left them and since then all women are whores! (An attitude that, as a romance reader, just shocks me< /sarcasm>)
Dardo and Rudi (Gordon Gebert) arrive in town and are fulsomely greeted by one and all because Dardo is such a manly guy who the guys are all buds with and whom the women all love and fawn over. (He doesn’t respect women but obviously they’re okay to love up on). Learning Hesse is in town, Dardo finds he can’t resist figuratively spitting in his eye. Hesse might be an ass but he’s not an idiot and gives orders to capture Rudi. Oopsie. Dardo tries to spring the boy but only gets shot for his troubles. Seething, he swears revenge. Since his actions have branded him an outlaw, he’s forced to flee along with half the male population – including a very irritating minstrel – and take to the hills where they set up Ye Outlaw Camp doing standard outlaw stuff and probably enjoying not having to answer to their womenfolk.
Poor Rudi is now stuck in the castle wearing nice clothes and learning to dance on orders from his momma. But he’s also a young boy so guess who he’d rather be with and what he’d rather be doing. The things the dancing master mutters under his breath are funny, though. Lady Anne has taken to riding through the hills in a fetching hunting costume leading to scenes where she and Dardo strike sparks which of course means they’re falling in love. Trying again to get his son, Dardo sneaks into the castle yet – like the first time – can’t accomplish it. But this time he snags Lady Anne who hisses like a cat as he hauls her off.
More scenes follow of Dardo and Anne feeling that push/pull of love and both hating it/loving it. No, no he won’t fall for a woman because all women are whores – remember? And he’s a lowly peasant so she can’t really be falling in love with him, can she? Will Dardo get his revenge and his son back? Will the Count pay for luring Dardo’s whore wife away to a world of pretty dresses and sparkly things? Is there a possible future for a peasant and a Lady? And will there be enough swashbuckly stuff to make everybody happy?
I have to give major props for the location of Northern Italy. Lombardy! I don’t recall seeing that much in movies from the 1950s. And it’s bursting with glorious Technicolor plus there’s a rousing score by Max Steiner. I wondered if the wretched oppression of the peasants was a hark back to the Nazis of WWII or the Cold War Soviets. Dardo is like a discount version of Warner Brother’s Robin Hood complete with a deer over his shoulders but with the added bonus of marriage problems and a son with a truly atrocious bowl haircut.
Hesse is a standard arrogant villain with a sneer played nicely by Allenby. I did wonder why the climactic fight between he and Burt is done in shadows. As Anne, Virginia Mayo looks as beautiful as she ever has and gets to show some leg and some gumption. The soldiers in the castle have some truly strange costumes though. Don’t know who came up with those.
Burt heats up the screen with another movie in which he gets to wear tight pantaloons. Those alone are worth watching the movie. Like in TCP, he’s joined by Nick Cravat – as Piccolo. Together they get to do a lot of acrobatic fighting, ducking and dodging. It’s done with plenty of flare but doesn’t seem to accomplish a whole lot besides giving them opportunities to swirl around bars, whip around lighted torches and swing from chandeliers. Still the whole thing just keeps flowing and is fun to watch. The finale is cool complete with a William Tell theme going on.
After finishing the film, I thought about it a while to try and pin down why I’ve never liked it as much as TCP. In Pirate, Burt is more a lighthearted character who turns on that million watt smile a lot and is basically out for himself and a little fun while here there’s the overlay of politics that darkens the tone. Then there’s the whore wife plus the hero’s responsibilities for his son that act as mood dampeners. And the romance doesn’t work as well either. True it has much more screen time but I find it totally unbelievable that an aristocrat is going to stay with a peasant regardless of the ending clinch. Best not to think past THE END.
Comparing these films some more, I wonder if you won’t end up liking the first one you see more given the large number of similarities in Lancaster and Cravat’s actions and portrayal. I just kept getting the “I’ve seen all this before” feeling with the fights and their relationship. But be that as it may, it’s a killer popcorn movie and given the dearth of swashbucklers then and now, it’s worth a looksee.