Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: Paul Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Thompson, Tom Burlinson
Duration: 128 min
BBFC Certification: 18
Paul Verhoeven was one of Hollywood’s most successful directors of the 1980s, producing hits such as Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct until his career was derailed by the commercial and critical flop, Showgirls. Starting his career in The Netherlands, Flesh and Blood was his breakthrough film in the US.
Flesh and Blood begins in Western Europe of 1501, as nobleman Arnolfini lays siege to a foe’s castle. Among his soldiers are a band of mercenaries (including a crazed cardinal and some prostitutes) led by Martin (Rutger Hauer), who are told that if they take the castle can spend 24 hours plundering the houses of the rich. After successfully winning the battle, the mercenaries are betrayed by Arnolfini and his captain, Hawkwood (Jack Thompson), and they are stripped of their loot and weapons and cast out into the wild.
The group shelter in the ruins of a church, as one of the prostitutes, Celine (Susan Tyrell) gives birth to Martin’s stillborn son. When they bury the baby in the mud they uncover a statue of St. Martin of Tours, which the cardinal declares as a sign, and they should travel whichever way the statues sword points. Following the saint’s will, the group come across Arnolfini and his son, Steven, who are transporting his fiancée, Agnes, and her dowry. Martin and his motley crew, defeat the soldiers, injure Arnolfini and escape with Agnes and her gold. After subjecting her to gang rape, Martin takes Agnes as his ‘bride’ and the mercenaries hole up in a nearby castle. Steven, meanwhile, enlists the help of Hawkwood in saving his fiancée and taking his revenge on Martin.
Paul Verhoeven manages to portray the Middle-Ages pretty accurately – it’s all filth, mud and blood. Most of the cast look they haven’t washed in years, and we’re even treated to close-up shots of plague-riddled dogs defecating. This version of the middle ages is a long way from the knights in shining armour films of Hollywood’s golden age.
Flesh and Blood is all about its star, Rutger Hauer. After his breakout role as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Hauer had more than his share of film offers, but it is testament to his loyalty to Verhoeven (the pair had made a number of films together in their native Netherlands) that he chose to star in the director’s English language debut. However, disputes on set led to the two never working together again. Hauer’s portrayal of Martin is pretty nuanced for what is essentially a big budget grindhouse film. Martin is effectively the film’s villain, but Hauer manages to make us sympathise and root for him (despite the fact the character is a ruthless murderer and rapist).
The rest of the cast fair less well. Leigh’s performance as Agnes is a little hammy, but then the character is pretty unlikeable. She is quite possibly the most manipulative person on screen, as she plays each side off each other to ensure her own survival. Unfortunately, Jack Thompson is wasted as Hawkwood. One of Australia’s finest actors, he came to Flesh and Blood having had enormous success in 1983’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. However here is character his underused leaving me to wonder if script rewrites led to a smaller role than Verhoeven originally envisioned. Susan Tyrell’s prostitute, Celine, is the film’s comic relief, but it feels like she is trying too hard which at times gives the impression that her character is in the wrong film. And finally we have Tom Burlinson’s Steven, who is far too effeminate to be believable as the romantic hero.
Despite the grim setting and its portrayal, Flesh and Blood is an enjoyable medieval romp if you’re prepared to check your brain in before viewing. That being said, Verhoeven’s alleged misogyny can be seen throughout the film, at its most uncomfortable during the gang rape scene which is shot in a totally unacceptable light hearted manner.
Heavily cut on its initial release, Flesh and Blood makes its UK Blu-ray debut with this uncut dual format edition from Eureka Entertainment, featuring a host of additional features including commentary from Paul Verhoeven and a number of new interviews and featurettes.
Verhoeven vs. Verhoeven is a 46 minute Documentary on the work of the Dutch director, in French and Dutch with subtitles. Focusing on his entire career, there is minimal focus on Flesh and Blood.
Paul Verhoeven – In the Flesh is a 22 minute featurette specifically focussed on the film, with Verhoeven speaking in English. Including a plethora of stills and behind the scenes footage, the director talks about Hauer’s resistance to play a villain which led to the end of their friendship and working relationship.
An audio Interview with Rutger Hauer is a nice overview of the actor’s career. And finally there is a featurette about the film’s score plus the original trailer.
Flesh and Blood is out now on dual format Blu-ray and DVD from Eureka Entertainment.