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Chris Hicks: New DVD collection showcases Lancaster's versatility as actor

Burt Lancaster was a rugged individualist, and it showed in his big-screen roles. He was also an athlete, having worked as a circus acrobat before getting into movies.

His career spanned 45 years and 75 pictures, and he often made films that reflected his liberal beliefs, such as "Executive Action," a conspiracy-theory fiction about the Kennedy assassination.

He was also a hunk, as demonstrated in the two swashbucklers "The Flame and the Arrow" and "His Majesty O'Keefe."

And he was a first-rate actor, as demonstrated in "Jim Thorpe — All American."

These titles don't represent Lancaster's best work — to see the performer at his peak, look for DVDs of "The Killers" (1946), "From Here to Eternity," "Elmer Gantry," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Sweet Smell of Success" and "The Birdman of Alcatraz."

But the films in a new box set released this week do offer a wide variety of primarily 1950s examples that demonstrate his versatility, even when the quality of the material wasn't quite at the same level as the star.

"BURT LANCASTER: SIGNATURE COLLECTION" (Warner, 1950-73, b/w and color, five discs, $49.98)

"The Flame and the Arrow" (1950, color) catches Lancaster early in his career — his 10th film in four years. This was also a vehicle designed to break him out of the film-noir stereotype where he felt he had been pigeonholed.

He plays a Robin Hood-type character in 12th-century Italy, flexing his gymnastic muscles and preparing for top-dog, leading-man status. And it helps that this film is so darn entertaining from start to finish.

Virginia Mayo co-stars.

"Jim Thorpe — All American" (1951, b/w) was an American Indian Olympic gold medalist who was stripped of his titles when it was discovered he had played professional baseball, thereby eliminating his amateur status.

The film is told in flashback, as we see Thorpe from childhood, a natural athlete with amazing ability. When he reaches adulthood, Lancaster is excellent in the role, convincingly portraying Thorpe's heartache during public disgrace and then in a series of tragedies that followed.

Very well done all around, with special kudos to Charles Bickford as Pop Warner, Thorpe's longtime friend and coach.

"South Sea Woman" (1953, b/w) begins with Lancaster as a U.S. Marine in 1942 being court-martialed as a deserter during the Pearl Harbor attack. His story unfolds in flashback as various witnesses take the stand.

This may sound grim, but the film is primarily a rowdy comedy, something akin to the brawling humor that often shows up in John Ford-John Wayne pictures. Lancaster and fellow marine Chuck Connors square off in a three-way romance with Virginia Mayo, then team up to take on the enemy. At one point, Lancaster dances in a grass skirt!

"His Majesty O'Keefe" (1954, color) is another semicomic swashbuckler, as Lancaster plays a ship's captain who survives a mutinous crew. He then lands on his feet at a nearby South Seas island where he finds riches in coconut oil and is made a king.

The film is loaded with action and comedy, and Lancaster — all teeth and muscles — seems to be having the time of his life.

"Executive Action" (1973, color, PG, widescreen). Made 10 years after the Kennedy assassination, and nearly two decades before Oliver Stone's "JFK," this conspiracy-theory thriller about the Kennedy assassination tells a fictional "what-if?" story with a few real-life characters portrayed by actors, supplemented by newsreel footage.

A group of wealthy and powerful men — led by Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Will Geer — come together to orchestrate the assassination. Chilling in its gradual build-up.

Extras: Vintage featurette (on "Executive Action"), short films, cartoons, trailers