Burt Lancaster spent almost a decade performing as an acrobat in the circus, an experience that gave him not only an impressive physique but incredible muscular control, tools that he drew upon when he turned to acting and rocketed to stardom in his first films. Lancaster played criminals, lawmen, hustlers, and soldiers of fortune in such dark crime dramas as The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and Criss Cross (1949), yet in those early years, no studio even considered spotlighting his acrobatic talents on screen.
The idea to make a swashbuckler came from Lancaster’s good friend and former circus partner Nick Cravat. A childhood friend from their days growing up in New York during the worst years of the depression, Cravat had come out to Hollywood at Lancaster’s request a couple of years before and appeared with Lancaster in a revival of their old act in a short tour. Cravat suggested that Lancaster make the kind of swashbuckling adventure that made Douglas Fairbanks a superstar. After all, Lancaster was the first movie star since Fairbanks who could actually do all those stunts himself.
Waldo Salt came up with a story inspired by the story of William Tell but relocated to 12th century Lombardy, and a script reminiscent of the 1938 Errol Flynn costume swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood. Salt was blacklisted soon after finishing the script — it was his last screen credit for over a decade — but Salt returned to screenwriting with a vengeance in the 1960s and went on to win Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978).
Plays on Thursday, November 7 on Turner Classic Movies