ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Flesh + Blood (1985) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
A gruesome medieval love triangle
This gory historical tale is set in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. It starts with a huge battle where an army of mercenary soldiers, employed by Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) on behalf of lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck), is sent to retake a fortified city from which the latter was banished. In exchange, they are freely allowed to loot and pillage from the homes of the wealthy inhabitants within the citadel walls.
However, while the siege proves successful, Arnolfini has a change of heart and coerces Hawkwood into forcing the fighters to turn over their ill-gotten gains before sending them on their way. One group of such mercenaries, led by Martin (Rutger Hauer), decides to take revenge by attacking Arnolfini’s caravan while they are out hunting. By chance, Arnolfini has brought along his inventor son Steven (Tom Burlinson) on the hunt so that he can contrive a meeting between the latter and Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a wealthy heiress with whom he has been arranged to marry. In the ensuing fracas, the mercenaries severely injure Arnolfini and make off with the caravan, a large amount of loot and Agnes herself.
During their flight, the mercenary group decides to stop for the evening, where they entertain themselves by attempting to gang rape Agnes. She’s a feisty one and puts up a fight when the first of these rogues, named Summer (John Dennis Johnston), tries to have his way with her. However, when Martin takes his turn, she seems to enjoy the experience. When another member of his gang has a go, Agnes once more expresses her disgust - so Martin decides to save her by setting fire to the cloth covering the caravans, thus causing a distraction. During the frenzy, a statue of St. Martin which the group’s deranged Cardinal (played by Ronald Lacey) has taken along with him, falls out of the caravan, resulting in its sword pointing in a specific direction. Believing it to be a sign from God, the group heads that way until they come across a castle, which they decide to raid and call their home.
Steven, meanwhile, manages to persuade Arnolfini’s lieutenant Hawkwood to accompany him on a mission in order to rescue Agnes from their clutches. While Steven lacks in combat skills, he finds that his resourcefulness when it comes to science and gadgetry enables him to put up a formidable challenge in winning back his betrothed’s wavering allegiance.
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Paul Verhoeven steps across the pond
A Dutch-Spanish-USA co-production funded largely by Orion Pictures, Flesh + Blood marked the time when controversial Dutch director Paul Verhoeven lifted one foot out of his native Netherlands, taking a giant step across the pond into Hollywood and the opportunity to make films on bigger budgets. Over time, it has become something of an overlooked entry in his filmography, partially because it was a major box office flop and partially because it has become overshadowed by his subsequent and most well-regarded film, Robocop (1987).
However, while it’s not quite up to the same level as the latter classic, it’s still a truly cinematic affair which, in the style of a number of Verhoeven’s other films, can be enjoyed on multiple levels ranging from the primal to the intellectual.
On one level, it pulls no punches as a depiction of the unforgiving brutalities of medieval life. As other critics have pointed out over the years, both flesh and blood do indeed feature heavily here, as do rape scenes, a stillborn baby, and infections of bubonic plague which spare nobody - be they man, woman, child or animal. At the time, its shocking nature caused it to be rated 18 in the UK, even after heavy cuts courtesy of the BBFC. Nowadays, with the cuts restored, its more extreme moments are no more shocking than stuff that gets shown regularly in Game of Thrones. In fact, in one or two aspects Flesh + Blood is rather more coy than that phenomenally popular series, an example being the depiction of two gay characters named Miel (Simón Andreu) and Orbec (Bruno Kirby), who do nothing onscreen beyond occasionally snuggling up to each other. One suspects that Verhoeven (who had previously displayed more graphic depictions of homosexuality in some of his Dutch-language films such as Spetters) was forced by Orion to tone their relationship down so as to appease conservative American audiences.
On another level, it’s a bit of pulpy, old-fashioned historical swashbuckler cum bodice-ripping love triangle melodrama. Think The Vikings (1958), but with Rutger Hauer instead of Kirk Douglas, Tom Burlinson instead of Tony Curtis and Jennifer Jason Leigh instead of Janet Leigh (no relation). Paul Verhoeven gives us several rousing action sequences, including a large-scale opening assault on a fortified city (complete with plenty of extras, smoke and explosions), a spectacular attempt to scale a tall castle using an incredibly elaborate wooden siege engine, and a series of bloody climactic confrontations within the latter edifice’s warren of rooms and staircases. In between, the director whips things along at a lively pace and fills each given scene with enough movement and earthy panache to avoid any major lulls.
On its third and deepest level, Flesh + Blood also exhibits Verhoeven’s distinctive satirical bent. He takes jabs at the folly of leaving everything to blind faith; while Martin and the clearly bonkers Cardinal who accompanies his band insist that a statue of the former’s patron saint (St. Martin of course) be the guiding hand for their decisions, they gradually come a cropper once their adversaries catch up with them. At the same time, the pursuing military force itself is largely decimated because their doctor insists on treating the Bubonic Plague via the Christian method of blood-draining rather than the Islamic method of boil-cutting (irony: in modern-day medical terms, neither method has been deemed effective). There are also discussions on the hypocrisy of civilisation and social classes, most notably during a colourfully gross banquet scene. While Agnes teaches the uncultured Martin how to eat with a golden knife and fork, underneath the table she goes about stimulating his groin area with her foot.
If I was to include a fourth level on which this film might be appreciated, it would be the visuals. Cinematographer Jan de Bont (a compatriot to Verhoeven who went on to his own successful Hollywood career in both cinematography and directing) shoots everything in a painterly, Dutch Master style. Costumes and production design are suitably extravagant, albeit not always historically accurate. Director Verhoeven mixes in tracking shots around tightly-enclosed corridors with grand and sweeping exterior sequences.
A lack of sympathetic characters
At the same time, there’s something missing from Flesh + Blood which would have landed it amongst top-league Verhoeven. Unlike Robocop, it lacks any genuinely appealing central character. While Tom Burlinson’s Steven is the film’s closest analogue to an actual hero, he still comes across as being a rather arrogant and unsympathetic human being. Burlinson also lacks charisma; he does improve during his more anger-laden third act scenes when he finally confronts Rutger Hauer’s Martin head-on, but up until that point, he is far less interesting an onscreen persona than the latter. This is a shame since, on paper, it’s quite a refreshing idea that he uses brawn as much as brains during his quest. Hauer turns in another fantastically spirited performance but his character is ultimately little more than a narcissistic brute who never quite makes a hinted-at transition to Roy Batty-style redemption. Agnes herself, while well played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, isn’t that appealing either: she’s a stubborn and fickle manipulator who is more than willing to pit the two men in her life off against each other when it’s in her own interest.
The film also suffers from that eternal co-production issue whereby it features a bewildering array of multinational actors and accents, regardless of whether or not they seem out of place. We get accents which distinctively hail from England (Ronald Lacey), Australia (Tom Burlinson), The Netherlands (Rutger Hauer and, for some reason, a faked one from Jennifer Jason Leigh), Spain (Simón Andreu) and even New York (Bruno Kirby). Nonetheless, the array of quirky character actors, who often function together as one raucous on-screen unit, makes up for these inconsistencies. The likes of Ronald Lacey, Susan Tyrell and Hauer’s Blade Runner co-star Brion James turn in suitably delirious, over-the-top performances which really stand out amid the gritty mayhem.
Flesh + Blood proves to be an engaging halfway house between the grimly realistic take on Medieval life as seen in the likes of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and the more escapist style of historical melodrama which was popular during Hollywood’s golden era.
Runtime: 128 mins
Dir: Paul Verhoeven
Script: Gerard Soeteman, Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson, Jack Thompson, Fernando Hilbeck, Susan Tyrrell, Ronald Lacey, Brion James, John Dennis Johnston, Simón Andreu, Bruno Kirby
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Some shots look very good indeed, whereas others are overly grainy. The orange saturation seems a little overdone on some of the candlelit interiors. Basil Poledouris’s soundtrack sounds majestic here.
Audio commentary with director Paul Verhoeven
The director talks about the film’s themes as well as some of its production challenges. He admits that filming in the castle location (the Castle of Belmonte in Spain) was “the worst shoot of his life” due to the fact that it was cold and lacking in personal privacy, resulting in flared tempers amongst the cast and crew. The American actors (such as Jennifer Jason Leigh) also initially found his directing style difficult to deal with since the norm on that side of the pond is to ascribe character motivations and allow them to work within that, whereas Verhoeven was used to giving direct instructions of the “smile during this scene” variety.
The siege machine which turns up later on in the film was based on a Leonardo da Vinci concept but features the addition of a disguised extending fire engine ladder. He originally planned to have 15 soldiers on the ladder at once but it could only take the weight of three. Since they didn’t have the budget to work around the limitation, the sequence ended up being less spectacular than he had hoped it would be.
The relationship between the mercenaries was based around examples of proto-Communist dictatorships taken from Dutch history, such as John of Leiden’s rule of the city of Münster. The script also made use of some historical research that screenwriter Gerard Soeteman had carried out for Verhoeven’s 1969 historical TV series Floris, including some details which couldn’t be used back then because of that show’s family-friendly format. Originally, the film was going to be based around a friendship between Hawkwood and Martin ultimately turning to animosity after the former betrays the latter. However, the initial American producers - The Ladd Company (who ultimately backed out, with Orion stepping in to replace them) - felt that a love triangle dynamic would be more interesting for American audiences, so the focus of the story was changed to the relationship between Martin, Agnes and Steven.
Verhoeven Versus Verhoeven
This superb French-made documentary covers the director’s career from childhood up to his recent film Elle. He starts off by mentioning that the most dominant forces in human existence are sex, violence and religion - three subjects that he bases most of his films around.
We learn of his childhood influences: he grew up during the WWII Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, his demanding father moulded him into being a perfectionist and he drew inspiration from the comic books of Dick Bos - even to the point of unconsciously reproducing a car chase featured in one of the strips for Basic Instinct.
The documentary features footage from many of his works, including a couple of largely unseen 1960s shorts and his breakthrough TV series Floris. However, due to licensing issues, scenes from his later film Starship Troopers has been conspicuously removed (you can hear jumps in the soundtrack from where it was originally placed). Nonetheless, it provides a highly entertaining portrait of this eternally idiosyncratic and controversial Dutch director.
Paul Verhoeven in the Flesh
This making-of interview with the director naturally overlaps with some of his audio commentary. Nonetheless, there are interesting revelations here. During the original draft of the script focussing on the animosity between Hawkwood and Martin, there was a proposed bathhouse scene featuring a tense negotiation between the two characters. However, when the story was repurposed into its love triangle format, this scene was reworked into the Agnes-Martin bath sex sequence featured in the final film.
Verhoeven also talks frankly about his own views on Jesus (while he believes that he did exist, he - quite correctly - states that his miracles are nothing but fantasy) as well as the miserable experiences of both cast and crew while making the film. Rutger Hauer ultimately fell out with the director because, having played a hero in the same year’s Ladyhawke, he was losing interest in villainous roles at this point.
Another interesting revelation is that Italian audiences disliked the fact that Agnes was a manipulative woman who never fully committed her love to one man during the course of the film.
Audio Interview with Rutger Hauer
The Dutch actor starts off by telling us about a stunt that he was involved in while making Robert Harmon’s film The Hitcher. He went through a car windscreen while carrying a prop gun but ended up knocking one of his teeth out. He had to fly his own plane to Santa Monica to get it replaced and then flew back in the evening!
He discusses a career which has encompassed A and B movies, arthouse films, TV series, producing documentaries, directing short films as well as running an HIV awareness charity called the Starfish Association. It’s quite interesting to hear about what the actor has got up to in more recent years, since he has long slipped off the radars of most mainstream movie viewers (the odd supporting role in the likes of Batman Returns and Sin City notwithstanding).
Interview with Screenwriter Gerard Soeteman
Gerard talks about how the script was developed over time. It used material from the memoirs of Spanish soldiers who fought during the Dutch War of Liberation. This included the film’s plot details related to a religious statue being found in the mud and becoming a symbol of hope. Interestingly, he mentions that Martin and his band of mercenaries were based on Hitler and other figures from the Nazi hierarchy - and the film as a whole was a metaphor for fascism. This is in contrast to Verhoeven, who mentions during his commentary that the film was based around a couple of examples of Communist-style dictatorships taken from Dutch colonial history. Two sides of the same coin, I guess.
Composing Flesh + Blood
An archive interview with composer Basil Poledouris, who reveals that he was employed by Verhoeven because the latter liked his soundtrack for Conan the Barbarian. They would work together again on Robocop and Starship Troopers.
A trailer and collector’s booklet round out the extras.
While not without its flaws, Flesh + Blood is an intelligent and brutal entry in Paul Verhoeven’s filmography. The collection of extras is truly spectacular with some memorable contributions courtesy the director himself.