Most of the books belonging to Fantasy genre tend to base their imaginary worlds on medieval Europe, often painting them in most positive light and portraying Middle Ages as simpler, kinder and gentler time than our own. This perception of Middle Ages seems to be dominant in popular culture including Hollywood, despite plenty of historical books that use another, more appropriate term for that period - Dark Ages. Although Hollywood had its share of films that approached medieval Europe with more realism, hardly anything can surpass FLESH & BLOOD, 1985 historical adventure by Paul Verhoeven, Dutch director known for large quantities of naturalistic sex and violence in his works. |
The plot begins in some unidentified country of Western Europe in 1501. Arnolfini (played by Fernando Hilbeck) is nobleman who had been exiled from his city. He returns with an army and takes the city back with a help of cutthroat mercenaries, led by Captain Hawkwood (played by Jack Thompson). Those mercenaries get carried away while raping and plundering after the successful battle, so Arnolfini decides to get rid of them with the help of treacherous Hawkwood. Among mercenaries forced out of the city without arms and loot is a band led by experienced Martin (played by Rutger Hauer) who swears revenge on Arnolfini. Opportunity for that arises when Arnolfini arranges political marriage between his young bookworm son Stephen (played by Tom Burlinson) and princess Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Future spouses are to be introduced to each other during the hawking trip, but their caravan gets attacked by Stephen's band. Before Stephen can do anything about it his father is seriously wounded and future bride abducted, so he must again use Hawkwood's services against his former comrades. In the meantime, Stephen falls in love with his beautiful prisoner, while his band takes shelter in isolated country castle.
FLESH & BLOOD is the last Verhoeven's film made in Europe and it shows. Unbound by Hollywood standards of censorship, he filled the movie with incredible amounts of extremely graphic violence and gore (which probably didn't cause much problems with MPAA censors giving it R rating for American distribution) and equally large amounts of sex and nudity (which probably did). But large amounts of such scenes, and some of them might be quite revolting (for example, one of the most romantic scenes in the film happens bellow two decomposing corpses), isn't exactly gratuitous. The idea of Verhoeven and his co-screenwriter Gerard Soeteman was to present Middle Ages as times when the human life was short, hard and in constant danger of famine, plague and war (which would, in one form or another, hit protagonists of this film). Soeteman and Verhoeven argue that it was quite natural for people to make some sense out of their miserable lives by succumbing to all possible forms of self-gratification, even those that might be most deplorable to us who live in more civilised and enlightened times. Same goes for the alternatives that went into another extreme in the form of religious fanaticism. In order to present those times with as much authenticity as possible, great deal of work was invested in creation of late 15th Century costumes and props, and Spanish locations provide very good scenery. Basil Poledouris, author best known for his work on another quasi-historic epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN, provided excellent soundtrack. On the other hand, Verhoeven took too much poetic license with some medical issues, thus compromising credibility of the events in the last segment of the film.
However, medieval characters by being authentic created certain problem for Verhoeven. Since all of them were, from our standpoint, bad, it was hard to create believable conflict. Verhoeven solved this problem by setting the plot in time of Renaissance, when the old medieval world collides with the forces of science and enlightenment. Those who are familiar with this period of European history might find plenty of references to the people and events of Renaissance Italy - Stephen mentions Leonardo da Vinci as his role model, Arnolfinis are based on Medicis, Hawkwood on real life English mercenary leader of the same name, and Agnes is described as "Prince Niccolo's" daughter - reference to Niccolo Machiavelli and his "Prince", the book that seems inspired by Agnes' actions in this film. This conflict between Dark Ages and Renaissance is transformed in the conflict between Stephen, noble who represents law, order and civilisation on one side, and Martin who represents primordial human instincts on the other side. Two of those men are fighting for the love of Agnes who can't really make up her mind until the very end of the film.
The acting in this film is very good. Rutger Hauer, who used to play in many early Verhoeven films, has rather difficult task of bringing complex and not very likeable character closer to audience. His Martin might look superficial and not very well written at first sight, but in a relatively short time he must pass through various transformations - from loving father to bloodthirsty soldier of fortune; from passion to jealousy and murderous rage and vice versa. However, this role relies more on Hauer's Bad Boy charisma acquired in BLADE RUNNER than on some genuine breathtaking acting effort. Naturally, his job was definitely overshadowed by young Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her role of Agnes was one of the first in which she displayed not only her remarkable talent but also her taste for the roles of women subjected to terrible ordeals. While most of the male audience would appreciate her willingness to appear completely nude in front of the camera, those who appreciate good acting would be pleased even more. Her Agnes is one of the most unconventional female characters we had opportunity to see in modern cinema - young, innocent virgin who suddenly becomes forced to make some rather practical decisions and whose feelings take second place to her interests. Tom Burlinson as the third part of love triangle, seems somewhat shallow in comparison with Hauer's charisma and Leigh's intensity, but this is all compensated with great supporting cast where late Brion James and Bruno Kirby are doing nice job, as well as almost unrecognisbale Jack Thompson.
All in all, FLESH & BLOOD is not the film for the everyone, but those who are able to overcome their squeamishness would be awarded by one of the most underrated gems of 1980s.