Friday, February 8, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Flame and the Arrow (1950)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

It's the 12th Century and the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations under Emperor Friedrich I. (aka Barbarossa) controls large parts of Europe, among them the Lombardy in what we now know as Italy. The Lombards are less than enthused about their new masters, and a resistance movement that seems to concentrate on throwing grim glances and urging people to join their cause without ever acting for said cause has come into existence.

Lombard and hunter Dardo (Burt Lancaster) is not into that whole revolution thing, though. The man prefers rugged individualism and sexual promiscuity as long as no feelings are involved (I'm being a bit more straightforward about the latter element of his character than the film can be, but it's as unsubtle about things as a film made in 1950 can be) to social responsibility, though he does take good care of his son Rudi (the atrocious Gordon Gebert) and is the sort of rugged individualist who still has friends like his childhood friend, the mute smith Piccolo (Nick Cravat who was Lancaster's real life partner as a circus acrobat as well as in the movies, and has pretty wonderful chemistry with him). Ironically, Dardo has more reason to hate the Germans than most, for the local potentate, Count Ulrich aka "The Hawk" (Frank Allenby) took Dardo's (consenting) wife as his concubine five years ago, leaving Dardo alone with his son and certain trust issues when it comes to women that do explain his sexual and emotional habits.

Things between Ulrich and Dardo finally come to a head when the hunter quite purposefully shoots one of Ulrich's hunting hawks. In retribution, Ulrich decides that it's best to take Rudi away from his father into his castle to live with his mother. Dardo disapproves of the idea quite violently, but all that gets him is a crossbow bolt in the back and a new status as an outlaw; at least he also learns that he has quite a few friends willing to become outlaws themselves to help him.

The rest of the movie does of course consist of various Robin Hood-like deeds, the difficult romance between Dardo and Ulrich's niece, the much more agreeable Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo). Important lessons are learned by the rugged individualist (the social sphere exists and can't and shouldn't be ignored unless you are a total jerk or a hermit) as well as by the lazy revolutionaries (you actually need to get off your ass when you want to get rid of Evil) alike.

Everyone reading this surely knows Jacques Tourneur as a master of subtle horror as well as the film noir, what with little, totally unknown movies like Cat People and Out of the Past on his résumé. As someone working inside the studio system for most of his career, Tourneur did of course direct films in various other genres too. With The Flame and the Arrow, the director created a fine (and pleasantly Technicolor) adventure movie/trapezoidal swashbuckler that isn't quite as deep in the Robin Hood mold as one would expect. Sure, many of the expected elements are there and accounted for, but blacklist victim Waldo Salt's script and Tourneur's sense of style give most of these standard tropes small twists and turns that keep the film more lively and surprising than expected. My description of the movie's "rugged individualism versus social responsibility" theme may sound rather sarcastic, but the film actually does interesting things with it, never forgetting that its characters are supposed to be people and not walking metaphors, which leads to more complexity in the characterisation of especially Dardo and Anne than you'd need in an adventure movie or a film arguing philosophy. As an additional bonus, Salt's script also shows a degree of class consciousness that is more than just a little useful when you want to talk about the Middle Ages yet always comes as a surprise in a US movie. One could even read the whole film as one about class struggle, if one had the intention to do so.

Because Tourneur knows what he's doing, he also never steps into the trap of forgetting The Flame's identity as an adventure movie above its various subtexts. This may be a film that wants to talk about the problems and attractions of rugged individualism but it's also one that wants to show off particularly acrobatic (at this point in his career, certainly still more of a reason why a studio would hire the former acrobat Burt Lancaster than not, as you will know) swashbuckling (historically speaking, it's of course not swashbuckling, but you know what I mean) fights, bad guys acting dastardly, good guys being clever and charming, and women having a mind of their own, in a good-natured and brilliant manner. In Tourneur's hands, this still leaves room for the philosophizing as well as for sudden bouts of directorial brilliance like a certain swordfight taking place in a very Tourneur darkness. Even better, it's a film that knows perfectly well how to do this, how to let its subtext sing and its surface action shine, probably leaving every thinkable audience with as big a smile on its face as it did with me.

My Bollywood-loving friends will perhaps be interested and surely just as delighted as I was to learn The Flame and the Arrow also contains a scene where Lancaster and Cravat disguise themselves as members of a circus troupe to enter Ulrich's castle, with all the non-existing subtlety of disguise you'd see in a Manmohan Desai film. It's a glorious thing even without a musical number. Good taste in plot tropes is obviously as timeless as it is international.

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