Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Italy: Jacques Tourneur's "The Flame and the Arrow"

How a tongue-in-cheek medieval adventure set in Lombardy puts forward a Cold War-Hollywood revisionist take on the Partisan War in Italy.
Michael Guarneri

Even when based on actual events, classical Hollywood movies never strive for painstaking factual accuracy. This is best exemplified by the ever-present legal disclaimer “The characters and incidents portrayed and the names used in this work are fictitious, and any resemblance to the name, character and history of any real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” which appears not only in horror, sci-fi or musical extravaganzas, but also in biopics and historical reconstructions. In the latter two cases, the contradiction is only apparent. While using the above disclaimer (or variations thereof) to protect themselves from defamation lawsuits, the studios openly acknowledge what any person of common sense knows already: in the filmmaking business, dramatization and other poetic licenses are essential to tell and sell exciting stories to an audience, since reality is too boring and complex for an evening's entertainment. In other words, a commercial film is not a slavish reproduction of life as it is, it is a show and it should be enjoyed as such, without picking on details. Just to provide one of the most blatant illustrations of this principle: if in Stagecoach (1939) the Apaches had shot the horses pulling the cart as logic suggests, we wouldn't have had one of the most gripping action sequences in the history of cinema, and—John Ford dixit—the main characters wouldn't have made it to Lordsburg for the grand finale.1

According to a certain tradition of Marxist cultural analysis inaugurated in the 1940s by some of the members of the so-called Frankfurt School, such a manifest embracing of make-believe and the spectacular is what makes the American film industry the most efficient propaganda machine on the planet. Hollywood's “trick” does not lie in having people think that made-up stories are hard facts. Hardly anybody—in the United States or elsewhere—would believe that the Old West firearm technology allowed people to hit with surgical precision distant moving targets. So how come the cinematographic exploits of lone, infallible gunfighters are the cornerstone of the American Exceptionalism mythology of yesterday and today, with its evergreen corollary of manifest destiny, God-given duties, historical missions and regeneration through violence? For Theodor W. Adorno, it is because of the good old Trojan horse strategy: by presenting themselves as innocuous, escapist entertainment, Hollywood movies manage to sneak into people's lowered consciousness “the whole obligatory hierarchy of values, the canon of the undesirable or the exemplary.”2

Definitely too simplistic in its adoption of the magic bullet theory of brain-washing (and a tad too drastic in positing most of the audience as a mass of zombies with no critical sense whatsoever), I nevertheless believe that the above theoretical framework deserves credit for having called scholarly attention to cultural industry products that had until then been dismissed as unproblematic, sheer entertainment. While watching Jacques Tourneur's The Flame and the Arrow (1950), for example, I couldn't but agree with Adorno that the soi-disant “escape” is actually full of “message.” As we will see shortly, far from being just a harmless, tongue-in-cheek medieval adventure set in Lombardy for the sake of exoticism, Tourneur's film puts forward a Cold War-Hollywood revisionist take on the Partisan War in Nazi-occupied Italy—one that refuses to acknowledge the role played by left-wing ideologies in the struggle for liberation.

In spite of the dislocation in a remote past, it isn't difficult to see the twelfth-century Lombardy that—according to the introductory title-card—“lay[s] wretched under the armies of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa” as an allegory of Northern Italy occupied by the Nazi after the 1943 Cassibile Armistice (i.e., the “Repubblica Sociale Italiana,” or “Republic of Salò,” from the name of its de facto capital city near Brescia, in Lombardy). As David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Steiger remark, classical Hollywood cinema is an “excessively obvious” one:3 in The Flame and the Arrow, not only the archer-hero played by Burt Lancaster is called “Dardo” (“arrow” in Italian) and his short, mute sidekick “Piccolo” (“small guy”), but the German villain Count Ulrich belongs to the “Hesse” family, which sounds both in English and Italian as letter S—“as in 'S.S.',” the Jean-Luc Godard of Histoire(s) du cinéma would certainly add. The already-transparent allegorical code at work is laid bare once and for all in a scene around the nineteen-minute mark, when Count Ulrich explains to an Italian aristocrat that he is leading the military occupation of Northern Italy on behalf of the German Emperor, and all local dignitaries must obey German authority: one last wink “for Slow Joe in the back row.”4

So, The Flame and the Arrow takes place in a puppet state where the German baddies exert their authority through collaborators among the Italian high-ranks. The goodies are “the mountaineers,” as the aforementioned title-card establishes right after the opening credits and the “all persons fictitious” disclaimer. In full it reads: “All Northern Italy lay wretched under the armies of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa... But the mountains of Lombardy are not easily conquered... Generations of mountaineers have passed down the legends of those dark years and the brave deeds of their forefathers who fought for freedom,” thus implying that the medieval peasants resisting against Barbarossa have passed the baton to the twentieth-century Resistenza fighting Nazi Occupation. We will return on this issue. For now, suffice it to say that Alps and Apennines are indeed a second home for the Italian rebel, as confirmed by Italian Partisan songs such as Bella ciao, Festa d'Aprile and Siamo i ribelli della montagna (We are the rebels of/from the mountain).

After such a solemn introduction, a quick scene sets the agenda of a small group of mountaineer freedom-fighters meeting among the ruins of a castle for the first time: “From this night forward,” an old man reads out loud from a scroll in front of a few men and women his own age, “we will not rest until we have gathered the strength to free ourselves of the invader.” Awkwardly enough, though, the crucial issue of why revolt against the Germans is never discussed. At some point, an Italian aristocrat says that he dislikes the occupants because they force him to pay exorbitant taxes, but tributes are never mentioned by the mountain people, nor any other reason is given for the old guard's wanting to fight the Germans so badly from the very beginning of the film. None of the deportation, requisitions, forced conscription and forced labor implemented during feudalism as well as during the Republic of Salò is ever mentioned by the villagers or shown on screen. None of the goodies ever talks about self-determination, self-government, democracy or equal rights either, so one must assume that mountaineers want to be free for freedom's sake. As a matter of fact, Piccolo mimes this very statement by setting free a white dove in front of the Count's niece Anne de Hesse, the romantic-love-interest character: mountain people are “free spirits.” But then, if they like freedom so much, why did they never revolt against the Italian feudatories that ruled over the land before the Germans came? (The film reminds us several times that there were no secret meetings of elderly peasants discussing revolution before foreign military occupation.)

In order to answer this question—or, to better put it, in order to understand why this question is never answered in the movie—we must analyze the film's hero Dardo, as all the mountain people are one. Dardo doesn't want to be a hero and lead an army to chase away the Emperor's henchmen: he just wants to be his own man, and do what he likes whenever he likes. He minds his own business (hunting in the forest, playing with his son Rudi, kissing attractive young women) and he doesn't care about politics or high affairs. Why should he? After all, the Germans do not trouble him much, if at all, as far as his activities are concerned. The only thing he has to complain about is that Count Ulrich's hawk preys on little birds in the forest in which Dardo himself usually hunts wild animals. Dardo's friends are exactly like him: they are young rascals without a care in the world, except for wine and girls. And, again, why should they and their old folks worry anyway, since all the invaders do is looking tough in a mountain castle, and their impact on the mountaineers' life is close to zero? There really seems to be no discernible reason for the peasants to embark on a possibly suicidal revolt against Barbarossa's men.

At a closer look, Dardo couldn't be further from Tourneur's iconic hero embodied by actor Joel McCrea (Stars in my Crown, 1950; Stranger on Horseback, 1955; Wichita, 1955), the “natural-born lawman” whose borderline-insane sense of duty knows no rest nor fear. In The Flame and the Arrow Lancaster plays the “reluctant hero,” an ideal brother to Owen Pentecost from Tourneur's deranged western Great Day in the Morning (1956): both characters are the “leave me alone and I'll leave you alone” kind of guy, delivering the very same lines about personal freedom (Pentecost: “I don't belong to anyone except myself. I'm not joining any parade. I like walking alone—no ties. Don't ask questions; no one to answer to...”; Dardo: “I do not depend on anyone, why should anyone depend on me?” and “People get you into things, things get you into trouble, trouble gets you mixed up with people.”), only to find themselves at the head of a rebellious army, because people like them, somehow, are never left alone by the powers that be.5 In The Flame and the Arrow, not only has Count Ulrich bought himself the love of Dardo's wife years before the events portrayed in the film, but he also suddenly decides to take Rudi away from the hero, so that the kid may live at the castle with his estranged mother. The abduction of Rudi by Count Ulrich's army in the movie's first act makes Dardo and his drinking buddies want to fight the Germans, realizing the dream of the old villagers from the first scene. After a few guerrilla actions in the mountains, the conflict escalates to a frontal assault to Count Ulrich's castle, during which the baddies and their collaborators are killed and a new family-unit (Dardo, Anne de Hesse, Rudi) is created.

However, before focusing on the outcomes of the peasant revolt, it is important to note that the mountaineers' war against the Germans is triggered by a family feud between Count Ulrich and Dardo. Therefore, the Italian War of Liberation is ideally reduced to the private affair of a furious father, and the Partisan struggle devoided of all its political premises and contents. It is a vendetta. Nothing but Dardo's vendetta. Of course one cannot expect a 1950 Hollywood film to portray Communist or Socialist ideologies as an inspiration for the all-American heroes on the screen, but the more “politically correct” Christian Democrats fought the Fascists and the Nazi occupation forces too, after the Cassibile Armistice. Indeed, at the time of the film's production and theatrical release (and for many decades to come), Christian Democracy was Italy's ruling party and a faithful ally of the United States against Moscow. Why insisting exclusively on Dardo's personal motives, then? Probably, in order to avoid even the slightest reference to the left-wing while tackling a difficult subject such as people's struggle for emancipation, anything ideological had to be eliminated, including Roman Catholicism, with the rather curious effect—among the already-listed inconsistencies—of turning Medieval Lombardy peasants into Hellenic pagans.

Given this ideological sterilization for anti-Red revisionist purposes, it is not surprising that the title-card at the beginning of The Flame and the Arrow states that the Italian Partisans are the heirs of the twelfth-century mountaineers fighting Barbarossa: by affirming that freedom-fighting is in Italian people's DNA, the decision to take action against the oppressor is dismissed as a “natural” thing, unworthy of discussion and investigation. As a result, the social and political complexity of the Partisan struggle (as best expressed by the parties running for the 1946 Italian general elections) can be concealed, and the country's past and future remain largely unquestioned. Coherently, the film abruptly ends right after the villain is killed by the hero, and Dardo, Anne de Hesse and Rudi embrace: the happy ending is designed to prevent questions about the future from arising (for example, the new form of government that the mountaineers presumably have to choose, possible retaliation from Barbarossa, and so on), just like Count Ulrich's acts of cartoonish villainy are designed to avoid embarrassing questions about the past (e.g., why did the peasant never rebel before?).

Little, if anything, we know about Tourneur's political beliefs. We do know that in 1944 he made anti-Nazi movie Days of Glory, where a bunch of gallant Russian partisans defend their homeland from German assault in the early days of Operation Barbarossa, and both “comrade Stalin” and “Socialism” are mentioned once in the dialogues.6 We do know that, right after World War II, Tourneur directed Berlin Express (1948), in which there seems to be hope for the United States and Soviet Russia to overcome their differences and cooperate for world peace. But we have also seen how, a mere two years after Berlin Express, the allegorical The Flame and the Arrow contains elements of anti-Red propaganda, and so does Tourneur's The Fearmakers (1958), one of the most virulent anti-Communist movies ever made (a film so hysterically anti-Communist that the word “Communism” is never uttered, nor the identity of the foreign country infiltrating the United States' Senate ever made explicit).

It cannot be excluded that the above films reflect Tourneur's political convictions. However, as reported by film scholar Chris Fujiwara, throughout his career in Hollywood Tourneur accepted to direct many films (including The Fearmakers) for simple economic reasons. Hence, it makes sense to see him as a professional who had to adjust willy-nilly to the diktats of various entities for the ideological control of the American movie industry (Hays Office, United States Office of War Information, House Un-American Activities Committee...), if he wanted to keep on earning a living as a filmmaker. From this point of view, the case of The Flame and the Arrow's screenwriter Waldo Salt is quite telling, Tourneur's medieval adventure being the last film for which he received credit before being blacklisted.7 Did the censors find the scene in which Dardo and friends fight the oppressors by using their working tools as weapons a little too Marxist-revolutionary-like? We don't know. What we know is that The Flame and the Arrow is not and never was “sheer entertainment,” no matter what the producers state at the beginning of the film.


1. Edward Buscombe, Stagecoach, London: BFI Publishing, 1992, pp. 66-70.

2. T.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, Verso, 2005, p. 202.

3. D. Bordwell, J. Staiger, K. Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film, Style and Mode of Production to 1960, London: Routledge, 1988, pp. 2-11.

4. Ivi, p. 31.

5. Cfr. Chris Fujiwara, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., p. 178: The Flame and the Arrow and Great Day in the Morning trace “how the hero comes to renounce his extreme individualism to associate himself with a minority rebel movement.”

6. The historical and political context in which pro-Russia movies such as Days of Glory, Mission to Moscow (1943) and The North Star (1943) were made in Hollywood under the watchful eye of the United States Office of War Information is summarized by Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard's excellent essay "Days of Glory ou le couple Eros et Thanatos revisité." See Gilles Menegaldo (edited by), Jacques Tourneur, une esthétique du trouble, Condé-sur-Noireau: Corlet, 2006, pp. 132-134.

7. C. Fujiwara, op. cit., p. 178

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