A Good Spanking: Tourneur’s The Flame & The Arrow

By 1950, Jacques Tourneur had made a name for himself as one of the masters of the suspenseful horror film.  He had helmed both Cat People (1942) and I Walk With A Zombie (1943), garnering him much critical acclaim in academic circles, 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 biggest moneymaker to date had been the Robert Mitchum thriller Out Of The Past (1947), whose use of expressionist shadows and languid plotting contrast 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.  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 acrobatic 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, Virginia Mayo was cast as his love interest.

Though The Flame & The Arrow has the makings of a real entertaining extravaganza; the film’s content suffers.  The screenwriter Waldo Salt delivered a routine 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 illusions 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).

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, making it highly entertaining.  Yet, it cannot escape the shadow of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, even if it was a commercial smash for Warner Bros.  The similarities between motivations and political agendas are just too similar, even if The Flame & The Arrow has better action sequences and stunts.

The most obvious 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 this relationship because both Maid Marian and Anne De Hesse fall in love with their captors.  It must now be pointed out that the civility afforded Maid Marian in The Adventures Of Robin Hood looks chivalrous in comparison to how Dardo treats Anne De Hesse.  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 shared by 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 palpable, though it also dispels any suggestion of a more classical Romanticism.

If the sexuality of The Flame & The Arrow was perverse, so is its take on social mores.  It was a motif to pit a single parent against a villain who has captured his/her child in many films, going all the way back to Todd Browning’s underrated West Of Zanzibar (1928).  In The Flame & The Arrow the world of the parent is no better than the world of the villain.  Dardo is impoverished, living off of only what he hunts in the mountains whereas The Hawk is a Count, born to majesty and privilege.  The conflict of morals casts Dardo’s socialism against The Hawk’s Fascism.  Unlike so many other films, the difference between right and wrong is not determined by financial wealth, but by politics.  In the wake of WWII it’s not surprising that the hero is a 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 this way in such black and white terms within the context of a family film.

Considering the political agenda subliminally tucked away within The Flame & The Arrow, it seems logical to suggest that the message was employed by Tourneur himself.  Tourneur’s history as an artist and filmmaker in France during the First World War suggests a political alliance with socialist sensibilities.  Whether or not Tourneur consciously chose to imbue The Flame & The Arrow with these beliefs I cannot say for sure.

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) to be directed by Robert Siodmak.  The Flame & The Arrow’s assessment within the context of Jacques Tourneur’s career is still elusive, having evaded any serious academic analysis for years.  However, upon a superficial glance, it appears to be a logical stepping-stone from films like Cat People to his later work such as War Gods Of The Deep (1965).

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2012

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