Flesh and Blood (1985) is neither high art nor Paul Verhoeven’s best film, but it does contain flashes of genuine magic and an exceptional eye for the grime and grit of Medieval Italy. It also carries its fair share of star power thanks to the presence of Rutger Hauer, Verhoeven’s frequent co-conspirator, as mercenary soldier Martin.
The plot in a nutshell: Martin and his band of trouble-making friends are part of Hawkwood’s Army (though which of Hawkwood’s many armies is allowably unclear), but soon enough Hawkwood turns on his scruffy, ill-mannered war-hounds, stripping them of their pay and their pickings. Demoralized but determined, Martin and company make a break for the countryside, where they kidnap Princess Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), then hole themselves up in a rural castle in which Agnes teaches her captors, as best she can, the fine arts of civilized behavior. But of course Hawkwood comes calling, paid now to recapture the princess. The clash that follows pits swords against fumbling attempts at science, with bubonic plague waiting in the wings.
Flesh and Blood proves to be a trifle cartoonish at times, a la Robocop, but one thing Verhoeven never lacks is energy. He’s a naughty schoolboy, yes, and at times his fondness for splatter, gore, and, well, flesh, threatens to undermine the film’s highbrow, philosophical script, but he’s also a craftsman with the heart of an animator –– both the camera and its subjects are in almost constant motion –– and provided you’ve got a strong stomach, Flesh and Blood provides ample period entertainment and many a fine battle.
He achieved his greatest fame in Italy, but also plied his double-crossing trade in France. Had the Hundred Years’ War not already been raging, one suspects he might have started it himself, simply for his own amusement; he fought both for and against various popes, mostly via Avignon, that period’s on-again, off-again seat of the Holy See.
Largely a forgotten (or at least ignored) figure in the history books, Hawkwood’s name still catches its share of the popular imagination. In 2006, Fairport Convention even released a song, “Hawkwood’s Army.” Penned by Pete Scrowther, the first half of the chorus reads:
We ride with Hawkwood’s army, hear the churchbells ring.
With fire and sword we swarm abroad, and deadly is our sting.
Hauer’s Martin is the lynchpin of the story, the axis around which Verhoeven and Soeteman negotiate a tale not just of mercenary hijinks, but of civilization’s slow road to progress. The various characters vying for supremacy in Flesh and Blood represent both the Medieval world in which the story is set and the Renaissance to come.
Martin becomes leader of his troupe precisely because he is willing to change, to adapt, to imagine higher ideals both for his material sense and for his ambitions. That he eventually loses to Stephen, a young scholar bent on recapturing Agnes, is not so much a measure of his faults as it is a sign of the times.
Martin is clever, ruthless, and capable, but his cronies, especially, are a product of their dying era; in a film where anyone shown to be inflexible is doomed to a painful death, how long can Martin himself possibly hang on? Soeteman has clearly read his Darwin; Flesh & Blood makes survival of the fittest a dramatic imperative.
Verhoeven’s extraordinary fascination with naked women (and the female breast in particular) has never been clearer. The film’s female characters are generally quite well drawn, specific and clearly motivated (for this, let’s thank Soeteman), but the next bare chest is never far afield.
An accurate depiction of the times? Likely not. As for the men, Verhoeven provides bare chests and naked buttocks; if you’re looking for more, do check out Verhoeven’s best outing, Keetje Tippel, where full frontal male nudity is used to frightening (and artistic) effect.
The cloud that hangs over Flesh and Blood is its rape scene. I would say “infamous” rape scene, because it ought to be. It’s protracted, complex, and disturbing largely because Agnes’s victimhood is forcefully called into question.
Newly captured by Martin’s band but already bent on survival, Agnes realizes that she might have something to gain by pretending to enjoy herself during the assault. She proceeds to do exactly that––and then, depending perhaps on one’s reading of the film, she goes well beyond pretending.
Had Flesh and Blood been a) the work of an American director, b) set closer to the present day, or c) more of a popular success upon its release, this scene would have been a critical flashpoint, a bone of contention for years to come. Consider Sam Peckinpah’s widely castigated Straw Dogs (1971), which depicts much the same thing, albeit in a contemporary Cornish country home.
That film, starring Dustin Hoffman, sparked controversies that rage still in cineastic circles across the globe. Was Peckinpah a virulent misogynist, or was he merely holding up mirrors to what civilized society would rather not see?
If you can navigate or perhaps simply bull past this scene, and if you can scoop your jaw off the floor following a brace of truly preposterous lightning strikes, the film has definite rewards. As a drama of shifting loyalties and betrayals, the film ranks with John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). As a sword-slashing adventure, complete with fanciful siege engines and fully functional castles, it’s a visual, detailed feast.
Watch for American actors Bruno Kirby, best known for When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), alongside Brion James, who had recently appeared with Hauer in Blade Runner (1981––he’s the replicant interviewed to deadly effect in that film’s prologue).
Journeyman pro Jack Thompson plays Hawkwood; you can find Mr. Thompson in everything from Breaker Morant (1980) to Attack of the Clones (2002), also this year’s Baz Luhrmann outing, The Great Gatsby.
Flesh and Blood: not for the faint of heart, no––here there be dragons, and not of the easier to deal with, literal kind––but a film to be reckoned with, and every inch an adventure.
Mark Rigney’s latest story for Black Gate was “The Find,” which Tangent Online called “reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… A must read.” You can see what all the fuss is about here.