In the region of Italy called Lombardy, Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) is a bit of an Italian Robin Hood. However, his acclaim as an outlaw is brought on by personal conviction and a blatant disregard for authority. Others are captivated by his lionhearted bravado and fearlessness that, even as a peasant, leads him to brazenly defy the local despot Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), known as “The Hawk.”
The two rivals have a muddy history embroiled in wonderfully complicated family dynamics as we soon come to understand. No, they are not related, as Dardo has no noble blood, but his former wife (Lynn Baggett) has willfully taken up as one of “The Hawk’s” courtiers. For that, the proud man has never forgiven her and entreats his young son to remember his mother so he can know the truth about what she did. The boy is played by the terribly precocious Gordon Gebert who many might remember from his memorable turn opposite Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949). He’s much more astute than his age might lead us to believe.
In an act of skill and overt cheekiness, Dardo shoots down one of the king’s prized hunting birds and must flee across the rooftops, scaling walls and scrambling away to live another day. But his son is not so lucky and he gives himself up to the guards so his wounded father can get away. He will be taken to be with his mother and trained up in the way of a nobleman. Learning how to carry himself and dance like a little gentleman. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it. He is the heart and soul over which the entire film will be fought over.
Though he received a great deal of help from quality stunt performers like industry veteran Don Turner, there’s no doubt Lancaster’s own training as an acrobat was put to good use in this swashbuckler, which even saw him partnered with one of his old company Nick Cravat.
There’s an instant camaraderie between Dardo and the mute Piccolo. It’s palpable because the two performers have, in fact, spent many years together on the road doing acrobatic feats together so the trust is by no means a fabrication. They put the real-world rapport to good use through every trial they must face together. They know amid all the treachery on hand, their friendship will hold fast.
Among other bits of mischief, they create a man-made avalanche to come raining down on “The Hawk’s” guards in a mountain pass to frighten them away. Then, the merry brigands are joined by Allesandro (Robert Douglas) who was recently scorned by the Count. He is accompanied by his bard, a very well-versed fellow with a wry wit (Norman Lloyd).
Soon Dardo is on his way to disrupting the king’s courts to collect his son and comes swinging down right into their dinner, fending off the soldier’s lances with a flaming torch. Whether or not it would be practically effective is up for debate but it sure looks cool.
Although they are thwarted in their initial objective, in the hubbub, they manage to steal the princess, the Count’s glamorous niece (Virginia Mayo), away from the castle as leverage. She’s taken back to their lair, situated on some ruins in the wilderness, far from the prying eyes of the Count, to wait it out in captivity. The next move is to bait an irresistible trap for the outlaws by taking Dardo’s feeble uncle to be hung on the gallows within the city gates. The showdown is set. And yet when that is handily dealt with a whole row of new hangings come in its place.
The Count is beyond playing nice. He wants to see Dardo squirm and he’s going to do everything in his power to end him once and for all. In fact, it looks like he’s outmatched his pesky arch-rival. Yet with the help of the townsfolk, the outlaw pulls off one of the great death-defying stunts of all time.
At its best, The Flame and The Arrow really becomes a game — a medieval fencing match with deliberate lunges to go on the offensive then feints and parries, ripostes and other countermeasures all culminating in one final victor. But it comes down to the wire.
The king’s guardsmen prove no match for hordes of villagers and carnival showman led by Dardo, in one last daring siege, rescuing prisoners and overrunning the premises in a most uproarious fashion. But the beauty of how the allegiances have been set up means in order to get to the king, who is looking to run off with Dardo’s boy to live another day, he must go through Allesandro who is compelled to hold him off.
All in all, The Flame and The Arrow lives up to its name with lively acrobatic combat sequences and an impressively agile Burt Lancaster. I must admit I had never seen him in this light as a kind of cavalier action hero cast out in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. I know now he was more than capable of the rigorous challenges.
Virginia Mayo is as feisty as she is radiant, caught between her royal blood and a man who excites her more than anyone she has ever met. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur demonstrates once again that he is one of the finest directors of genre pictures Classic Hollywood ever had moving so freely between horror, westerns, adventure, etc. He can do it all.