By 1950, Jacques Tourneur had made a name for himself as one of the most versatile and economic of filmmakers working in Hollywood. He had helmed such acclaimed titles as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942) and I Walk With A Zombie (1943), garnering him much critical acclaim with critics like Manny Farber, before directing the swashbuckling blockbuster The Flame & The Arrow (1950). Warner Bros. produced The Flame & The Arrow to cash in on the success of two other pictures, The Adventures Of Don Juan (1948) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938), as well as to cash in on the popularity of rising star Burt Lancaster.
The mood and aesthetic of The Flame & The Arrow is a dynamic departure for Tourneur. Tourneur’s biggest success to date had been the Robert Mitchum thriller Out Of The Past (1947), whose use of expressionist shadows and languid plotting contrasts harshly with the Technicolor bombast of The Flame & The Arrow. But Tourneur saw himself as a craftsman, not an auteur. His duty was to fulfill an assignment to the best of his abilities and to comply with the wishes of Warner Bros. Studios.
To help make his film a success, Tourneur had to meet a tight shooting schedule on a minimal budget. This required him to recycle the sets of both The Adventures Of Don Juan and The Adventures Of Robin Hood. These sets were redressed and slightly modified to comply with the number of acrobatic stunts Burt Lancaster and his co-star Nick Cravat planned to perform.
From the outset it was clear that The Flame & The Arrow was going to make Lancaster the kind of star Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn had been. Lancaster himself had been an acrobat for many years before appearing on-screen and Cravat had been his partner. Together they not only performed their own stunts, but also designed them. With so few actors even being capable of performing such stunts, Warner Bros. decided to play up the acrobatics in the film’s marketing. To solidify Lancaster’s position as a superstar and sex symbol the studio also elected Virginia Mayo to play his love interest.
The narrative of The Flame & The Arrow concerns the free-spirited Dardo (Burt Lancaster) who forms a gang similar to Robin Hood’s Merry Men with the sole task of defeating The Hawk (Robert Douglas) and rescuing Dardo’s son. Acrobatic antics, sword fights, betrayals, and faked deaths abound in The Flame & The Arrow, yet, it cannot escape the shadow of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, even if it was a commercial smash for Warner Bros. The most interesting similarity between The Adventures Of Robin Hood and The Flame & The Arrow is the hero’s relationship to the female lead. The role of the Maid Marian character is replaced in The Flame & The Arrow by Anne De Hesse (Virginia Mayo). Stockholm Syndrome seems to be the best explanation for the direction that this relationship takes since both Maid Marian and Anne De Hesse fall in love with their captors while under duress. The civility afforded Maid Marian in The Adventures Of Robin Hood looks chivalrous in comparison to how Dardo treats Anne De Hesse; which is where the similarity ends. Once captured by Dardo and his men, Anne De Hesse is bound to a chain link leash connected to an iron collar latched tightly to her neck. When the other end of this chain is not tied around a tree, Dardo has it in his hands. This makes Dardo and Anne’s relationship far more violent and sexual than that of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Tourneur seems to have no qualms about heightening the fetishism attributed to bondage by dressing Mayo in skimpier and skimpier outfits. Dramatically speaking, this makes the sexual tension between Anne and Dardo problematic since Dardo’s motivation to “possess” Anne is predicated upon the notion that his son needs a new mother.
It was, and still is, a popular narrative construct to pit a single parent against a villain who has captured his/her offspring; going all the way back to Tod Browning’s underrated West Of Zanzibar (1928) and further. In The Flame & The Arrow the world of the parent is no better than the world of the villain. Dardo is impoverished and often starving, living off of only what he hunts in the mountains whereas The Hawk is a Count, born to majesty and privilege and susceptible to the depravities we associate with his title. The conflict of morals casts Dardo’s mock-socialist values against the Hawk’s fascism. In the wake of WWII it’s not surprising that the hero is a would-be-socialist, even if it is never made explicit, and the villain a fascist. What is perverse is that the conflict between these two kinds of political ideas is acted out in violence, sexually and physically, in such simplified black and white terms.
This simplification akin to the good guy on the white horse and the bad guy on a black horse is regularly called into question. The villagers who champion Dardo and are oppressed by the Count often have a more communal perspective, offering an alternative to the single-mindedness of the hero or villain. To Tourneur’s credit the camera often privileges these spokes-people of reason with close-ups the beg not only for Dardo or the Count’s sympathies, but those of the spectator.
Though The Flame & The Arrow has the makings of a real entertaining extravaganza, the screenwriter, Waldo Salt, delivered a rather routine and mediocre screenplay whose most original quality are a few comical lines that recall his un-credited work on The Philadelphia Story (1940). In one scene, Lancaster threatens Mayo with the line “Next time I’ll throw you over my knee and give you a spanking!” Apart from a few other comical allusions to the power plays in sexual politics, Salt’s script cannot escape being overly genre heavy and cliché’, a problem shared with his script for Taras Bulba (1962).
For a film like The Flame & The Arrow it is no surprise that it was a tremendous hit when it was first released. It cashed in on a popular genre, featured two popular leads, and boasted enough action for two films. The Flame & The Arrow solidified Lancaster’s position as a superstar just as it was meant to, and inspired a follow-up vehicle for Lancaster called The Crimson Pirate (1952) and directed by Robert Siodmak. The Flame & The Arrow’s assessment within the context of Jacques Tourneur’s career is still elusive, though it appears to be a surprisingly logical stepping-stone from films like Cat People to his later work such as the Vincent Price vehicle War Gods Of The Deep (1965).