By the end of his career, Rutger Hauer would be fairly well pigeonholed as a guy you call when you want to do something a bit cyberpunk. Everyone remembered his turn in Blade Runner, of course, and though he made a game attempt to get away from that niche, by the mid-1990s his career was slowing down and he realised he could make a steady paycheque in appearing in B-grade material like Split Second and Omega Doom.
In the midst of his mid-career attempt to pull away from modern-day thrillers and near-future dystopias as his main source of work, he did take on a broader range of projects, and one of the oddest years on his CV was 1985 – in which he appeared in not one but two medieval adventures, playing characters who neither toted guns nor employed cybernetics. Tonally speaking, the two projects could not be more different – for whilst one was a family-friendly fable, the other was Paul Verhoeven going full Verhoeven on the Middle Ages…
Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) is a wise-cracking, roguishly charming thief in medieval Italy – known as the Mouse. After escaping from the dungeons of the Bishop of Aquila (John Wood), the Mouse ends up falling in with Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer), formerly the captain of the Bishop’s guards, but now just as much of a wanted man as the Mouse is, and Isabeau of Anjou (Michelle Pfieffer), a nobleman’s daughter and Etienne’s lover.
From his perspective, though, it may be better to say that he alternatingly falls in with them, at least at first – for he seems to never meet the two together. By day he travels with Etienne, who is accompanied by a fine hawk worthy of any falconer’s admiration; by night he travels with Isabeau, who is protected by a fierce wolf. Then he discovers the astonishing truth: Etienne is the wolf, and Isabeau is the hawk, for the Bishop is a dabbler in magic, who placed upon Etienne and Isabeau a curse that only one of them would have human form at any particular time, with Etienne transforming to a wolf just as Isabeau transforms to a hawk at sunset and the reverse process occurring at Dawn.
It’s an astonishing turn of events, preventing the two lovers from consummating their passion unless they resort to bestiality – and it’s clear that Etienne, Isabeau, and the Mouse will never know peace as long as they do not settle the score with the Bishop. But even if they do, can they force him to lift the curse, or is Etienne doomed to the life of a werewolf – and Isabeau that of a Ladyhawke?
1985’s Ladyhawke is a big, fun fantasy adventure movie with just enough historical flavour (both in the setting and its folkloric roots) to save it from being utterly generic. Compared to much 1980s fantasy fare, it’s held up remarkably well; the aspect which has dated the worst is probably the soundtrack by Andrew Powell, keyboardist and orchestral arranger with the Alan Parsons Project. It’s not bad as such – but it’s, shall we say, a little variable.
The orchestral sections are fine, but the keyboard dominated parts are very hit-and miss – at their best, they offer the same sort of 1980s fantasy neo-prog tone of, say, the soundtracks to Hawk the Slayer or Robin of Sherwood, and broadly suit the onscreen action; at their worst, they sound more appropriate to the weekend sports roundup than a romantic fantasy movie. A bigger issue arises with the film’s tendency to overuse the most incongruous musical cues, aggravating this aspect.
The other thing about the movie which is a bit Marmite-ish is Broderick himself. The film perhaps lands best if you keep in mind that it’s essentially being told from the point of view of the comedy sidekick – the Mouse – rather than either of the actual protagonists. The heart of the story is really the romance between Etienne and Isabeau, the agony they feel at their magically-enforced separation, and their quest to overcome the Bishop and undo the curse that keeps them apart, but by keeping the focus of the action on the Mouse rather than either of the main characters, director Richard Donner keeps us slightly away from the centre of gravity of the action. Some may find this frustrating and needlessly obfuscatory, but I think it’s a fun storytelling motif.
Perhaps a bigger issue is the pacing – incident follows incident and the film occasionally comes across like it’s jumping over some of the connecting tissue which would make them flow better. There’s also some issues with the sets and locations – some of them are very nicely executed, but others are less convincing, like the “village” which seems to be situated square in the middle of land which has never been used for any agricultural purpose whatsoever.
Despite all these stumbling blocks, though, I have a lot of affection for Ladyhawke. The central story, despite being obscured for about half the running time, is grand; Broderick’s far from the most irritating comic sidekick in a fantasy movie out there, and actually does a good job in some respects of getting across the sense of being this kid who’s in over his head, and Hauer and Pfieffer are great as our protagonists. The supporting cast is great too – John Wood as the villainous Bishop is a lot of fun, and there’s a clutch of great supporting roles too. Alfred Molina has a fun turn as Cezar, a wolf trapper sent by the Bishop to eliminate Etienne, whilst the monk Imperius offers a fantastic role for for Leo McKern, perhaps the best of the Number Twos from The Prisoner. There might not be that much depth to it in the end, but it’s a delightfully pretty film with a very cute romance angle for all that.
Flesh + Blood
In late medieval Italy, the lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) hires a company of mercenaries captained by Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) to regain control of a city that has risen against him. They fight bravely and grimly amidst the roar of the canon and clash of the halberds – but when Arnolfini balks at paying the mercenaries and wants them out of the city, he persuades Hawkwood to betray his own men. Embittered by the betrayal, some of the survivors form a band of renegades, led by the swaggering, popular warrior Martin (Rutger Hauer) and advised by a blustering priest they ironically dub “Cardinal” (Ronald Lacey), who is prone to visions and wild claims.
Turning to banditry, the group is able to exploit the chaos of the era to exact some measure of revenge; they abduct Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is betrothed to Arnolfini’s son Steven (Tom Burlison), at which point Martin rapes her and the group strongarm her into helping them seize control of a castle which they intend to use as the fulcrum of their depredations of the land. Steven, however, is a learned young man who might turn his superior scientific knowledge against the bandits – and plague is burning its way through the land, throwing a wildcard factor into the situation.
Amidst all this, Agnes feels a contradictory pull – both duty and her sense of morality say she should be true to Steven, but her sexual desire cries out for Martin. The three end up locked in a terrifying conflict of Flesh + Blood…
This was Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood debut, produced at a time when the controversy stirred by his earlier works had made it hard for him to get Dutch public funding for his work. Back home in the Netherlands, Verhoeven and Hauer had worked together on the 1969 TV series Floris, and Flesh + Blood was based in part on unused ideas from that show. Hauer, apparently, was expecting that the project would essentially be a big-budget take on Floris, giving him an opportunity to play another heroic role.
Verhoeven, on the other hand, wanted to make an ostentatiously grimdark take on the Middle Ages, having become tired of the glut of sunnier medieval-themed fantasy movies that had been coming out in the 1980s, and so deliberately made the film as morally and aesthetically grimy as possible. There’s nobody you can get behind here, everyone is terrible to each other, and they are usually terrible whilst coated in mud; thanks to the likes of Game of Thrones this sort of grimy, colourless, drab medieval aesthetic has now, of course, become the norm, but it was a break from the ordinary here.
That’s all very well in theory, but it’s not what Hauer wanted. Though Martin is meant to be cool and dangerous and attractive, there’s no danger of him coming across as anything other than villainous. He rapes Agnes, for one thing; worse yet, this is a gambit to stop his ill-disciplined men from gang-raping her, which means that the kindest and most charitable thing he does through the entire movie is an act of violent sexual assault. Whilst Verhoeven succeeds at his aim of depicting a world where there’s no heroes, he absolutely creates a world where there are villains, and Martin fits that smartly.
Hauer was not the only unhappy party. Verhoeven’s original plan for the movie was that it would all be about a power struggle between Martin and Hawkwood; one can sort of squint and see the rough outline of what this story might have gone like in the final product. You’d have still started with Hawkwood siding with his employer against his own mercenaries, you’d have still had Martin gathering together survivors in a bandit group, you’d have probably had the castle that the bandits seize control of be specifically a castle belonging to Arnolfini, so as to force Hawkwood to ride out and try and settle the situation so that Martin and his brutal band can have a chance to get bloody revenge against him.
The studio, however, demanded changes, and insisted that there needed to be a significant romance plot. This inspired the addition of Agnes in the first place, and shifted the emphasis of the story to the love triangle between her, Martin, and Steven, rather than the feud between Martin and Hawkwood. At the hands of any other director, this would significantly impact the direction of the piece and compromise the core artistic vision; with Verhoeven behind the camera, this development played into his most controversial instincts, encouraging him to be enormously explicit with much of what was going on on-camera.
This is Verhoeven at his most unabashedly horny, creating a vision of uncomfortably violent sexuality playing out in a historical setting with starkly delineated gender roles; at its best, Agnes’ attraction to Martin could be seen as being in the same vein as countless other bodice-rippers of years gone by, but unlike in the type of romance fiction where the borders of consent are skirted, there is absolutely no sentimentality in Verhoeven’s direction here. People aren’t lovey-dovey or sweet on each other – they’re passionately horny, and unabashed about it. At its worst, however, the film seems to relish in depicting sexual violence and Stockholm Syndrome as being edgy and cool and punk rock.
This would work much better if Steven weren’t involved. Out of all the major characters in the film, he’s the one who seems the most incongruous. Though Agnes was imposed on the production by the studio, Verhoeven at least seems to have had an idea of what to do with such a character – even if that sometimes feels a bit grim and lascivious. I don’t get the impression that there was such a clear vision for Steven. He’s got these inventions and this scientific understanding, but such a background and skillset feels like it’d make him more appropriate as a protagonist of a more light-hearted story, a yarn about a proto-Da Vinci trying to make his way in a medieval world which doesn’t yet appreciate the value of his philosophy.
Moreover, it’s established early on that he’s actually quite bad at this very schtick. He’s introduced at the siege of the town rolling up with a new weapon – a barrel of gunpowder with a long fuse, set up to be wheeled up to the walls like a wheelbarrow and then detonated. The weapon fails because he hands it off to someone else, who has a good go of running it up to the walls, but then Steven lights the fuse when the chap is still a fair bit away from the walls, and the fuse burns too fast and the bomb explodes early. This was a totally pointless action on Steven’s part – why not wait until the guy had got to the walls? – and suggests he understood his weapon so poorly that he didn’t even have a good idea of how quickly the fuse would burn. It just makes him look faintly rubbish.
Things are made worse by Verhoeven’s insistence on making everyone an at least somewhat ambiguous character. If the film got behind Steven as its clear hero and protagonist, that would be one thing – but as it stands it can’t afford to do that without totally undermining what it’s going for. At the same time, Steven doesn’t really have much opportunity to do things which are genuinely horrid, nor much in the way of motivation to do so; the worst he does is contaminate the well water in the castle with plague, but he does this right in front of Agnes and lets it be her call as to whether she warns the bandits or not, and he’s in a desperate edge-of-survival situation when it happens at that.
This means that in order to make him an ambiguous figure, Verhoeven has to do a character assassination on him; since he’s not going to look too shabby to the audience solely on the strength of his deeds, he needs to look rubbish on the basis of his personality. He’s just a kind of alternatingly boring and annoying dude, the sort of guy where yes, maybe it probably is more sensible to hang around with him than a murderous rapist, but good Lord would it be soul-destroying to do so.
The last problem with the film, to my mind, is the running time. It’s over two hours long, and honestly by the time the mercenaries take the castle there just ain’t that much satisfying plot left. The remainder of the movie is an exercise in keeping the wheels spinning long enough until the status quo finally collapses at the end.
On the whole, Flesh + Blood is a frequently compelling vision – Verhoeven keeps sneaking in little visuals here and there like Martin with a burning wheel behind him looking like a halo which adds a little something to the look of the thing – but it’s striking visuals and a grand Basil Poledouris soundtrack disguising what is ultimately, once you get past the initial shock value, a lack of substance.