Not the Pete Walker film, this is an entirely different type of Flesh And Blood Show and one that takes us right back to 1502 AD. The 80’s had seen a deluge of all things sword and sorcery and films like Hawk The Slayer (Terry Marcel 1980) Clash Of The Titans (Desmond Davies 1981) Excalibur (John Boorman 1981) & by Crom of course Conan the Barbarian (John Milius 1982) had opened the floodgates for all manner of epic fantasy movies cleaving their way across the silver screen. The Italians loved them and indeed with sword and sandal peplum movies had been there first and were bound to jump on things and bring out stacks more. The gorier the better as far as a young teenage audience was concerned and with Albert Pyun’s The Sword And The Sorcerer (1982) and Giacomo Battiato’s incredible and unreleased since video days Hearts And Armour (1983) we really did get the blood splattered goods. By the mid 80’s the scene was pretty much saturated and no doubt it was one that Dutch director Paul Verhoeven had been keeping a close eye on. He had made his mark in his home country and gained a respectability and even arthouse acclaim and a certain amount of infamy with the likes of Turkish Delight (1973) and Soldier Of Orange (1977). Of course he would go on to cult film stardom later with well-remembered movies such as Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) and Starship Troopers (1997). Before this he bridged home-grown career and Hollywood with Flesh And Blood (1985) a film that even if you don’t remember from the cinema itself, you will, if you lived through the era have probably picked it up from the video shop shelves, taken home and had a right good time with it over the next couple of hours.
Verhoeven did a slightly odd thing to buck the trend and pretty much dispensed of the sorcery going for the sword side of things with what resembled more in the mould of something alluding to historical accuracy. Fantasy fans won’t feel short changed though as there is plenty of superstition to be found beneath the layers here as well as a plot driven partly by religious mania and quests being followed at the behest of the saints. Beyond that there is a clash between religion and emerging science that is very much central, of course as per the title there are lashings of flesh and blood and a central romance too giving this one plenty of crossover appeal.
One of the reasons that the film works so well is because the director fleshed out the main role with another fine Dutch export, namely Rutger Hauer who he had worked with on Spetters (1980) and who had shot to fame in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982). It was actually one of two similar films the star worked on in that year, the other being Ladyhawke (Richard Donner 1985). Hauer plays Martin, a soldier of fortune and a right savage mercenary, romping around medieval Europe and winning bloody battles for the likes of Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) a ruler who had lost his kingdom and needed help winning it back. The opening scenes are full of the madness of battle and really set the stage for what is come. The brigands have been offered free looting (along with raping and general pillaging) for winning the battle but in a normal double cross this is taken back and these bastards and dogs of Europe find themselves with no loot and exiled. Martin’s group consist not just of men but women including one with his soon to be stillborn sired child and a right rag tag group they are and one who you really wouldn’t sensibly want to double cross. Alfoni’s own son Steven (Tom Burlinson) is a modern scholar who loves his books but his dad has set him to be married to princess bride Agnes (a young Jennifer Jason Leigh) and you can no doubt guess that Martin and his wronged crusaders snatch her from under his very nose. Her plundering and rape is not at all pleasant and indeed as Martin deflowers her there are shades of the contentious scene in Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah 1971) where she seems to enjoy it and even takes control to a certain extent. She goes off with the rebels who take another local castle for their own, with Steven and his dad’s forces hot on their trail to win her back, whether she wants to be won back or not is one of the many premises of the narrative. As the two forces clash there is another at play and even if historical accuracy is flirted with this 3rd party is going to cause no end of havoc for all concerned.
The film has both merits and criticisms depending on your view. It is a fine action packed saga but perhaps could be considered a bit too drawn out. It could also be looked upon as vulgar and tasteless and indeed it is but that is also one of its great pleasures. The scenes and attention for detail are fantastic really putting you back in history but then again some of the liberties taken are preposterous, look at the speedy erection of a fantastic castle siege implement for example. The acting is great; we see plenty of a young and very innocent Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hauer commands every scene. There is a certain irreverent sense of humour at times and fans of Monty Python and The Holy Grail are bound to find themselves sniggering occasionally. There’s also a curious subtle gay love affair between a couple of the rebels and it is obvious Verhoeven had plenty of ideas and messages he wanted to cram into the film. Deaths become all the more inventive and there are some genuine shock gore set ups. Obviously due to the setting the film has aged brilliantly and looks fantastic on its Blu-Ray debut. It’s a film I have already upgraded from video to DVD and fans and those who have never seen it before and are interested should certainly pick up this version. Naturally there are a host of extras to explore too.
It’s all about the director at first who provides a commentary track as well as a couple of features. 1st of these is Verhoeven vs Verhoeven a featurette on the director’s career (46:11). I was particularly interested in getting more insight to his earlier films which I have not seen. I’m divided on the latter, enjoying Flesh And Blood, Robocop and Starship Troopers immensely but thinking Total Recall and Hollow Man (2000) a bit of a mess and as for Showgirls (1995) it’s been rightly lambasted by many. We are told that the ‘Sultan Of Shock’s key film elements are narratively sex, violence and religion and that’s certainly true of Flesh And Blood. I’m not sure I would label the 77 year old as a transgressive cineaste or even an auteur as his films are neither that shocking or congruent in my mind compared to the likes of say David Cronenberg, Gasper Noe or Lars Van Trier but I get the impression here that many others who have worked alongside him have differing views. We follow the director from war time childhood to discovery of the new wave of French cinema when sent there to study and then to his short films and employment at furthering his craft in the Dutch navy From there it’s about marriage to wife Martine who was a philosophical muse to him and then a “mystic spiral” looking for meaning and discovering the Pentecostal church. An interesting journey to say the least. I hadn’t realised affiliation with Hauer started quite so early, on a Robin Hood like series in fact, a long way from Sherwood Forest and then onto Turkish Delight a controversial film with many of the themes that had fixated him during life spilling over onto the screen. Although there isn’t time to go into each film in huge detail one gets a good overview and insight into things here and as well as providing me with some gaps to fill in it also unveils that perhaps I had overlooked some things certainly with his earlier works and perhaps was hasty in saying that themes and narrative were incongruent. The documentary describes Flesh and Blood as the directors ‘Apocalypse Now’ and a film that everything that could go wrong pretty much did. There’s more insight into this next with Paul Verhoeven in the Flesh” featurette (22:44). It’s the normal story of studio script interference making the vision of the film and story not as originally intended. Scenes and indeed nipples were tweaked with causing frustration and censorship problems, not to worry too much all scenes are reinstated here and the film itself is uncut. The hinted drama and information about the actual shoot isn’t really forthcoming though and Verhoeven spends much of the time philosophising about his ideas on God. Finally he talks about lack of money and then drops the bombshell that the part in hindsight was not a good move for Hauer and that they actually fell out after the movie. Crew, cast and language barriers put things in conflict too but it’s hardly Apocalypse Now, indeed comparing the two films could quite rightly be considered blasphemy.
That’s enough of him anyway and it’s time to hear from others, 1st is an audio Interview with actor Rutger Hauer (23:59). It’s not completely on topic and indeed starts with talk about The Hitcher (Robert Harmon 1986) which is a fan favourite that Arrow Video are constantly being plagued about releasing (and seems to be in rights limbo). Salute Of The Jugger (David Peoples 1990) is another he likes and the post-apocalyptic film is admittedly very odd and probably well worth reappraisal. It’s quite an informal phone conversation but luckily precise and clear and Hauer seems forthcoming although visually there is nothing on offer apart from a still. Personally I last saw him in creepypasta series Channel Zero and he certainly added character to it as he always does and it’s good to see that he has plenty in pre-production at the moment. Finally conversation turns to “film father” Verhoeven and there is no big drama or animosity between them, they just don’t cross paths very often. It’s interesting to hear that Rutger was 1st choice for the part of ‘Robocop’ but didn’t want to play a role in a big metal suit. ‘Flesh And Blood’ basically doesn’t get a mention. Next is an interview with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (18:27). Apparently a lot of the script is based on diaries and chronicles of Spanish officers during the war of Liberation; so obviously historical accuracy was a key ingredient at the time the script was put in development. A potted history lesson does give a lot more context to the film, making this a very useful addition. About the only thing unmentioned so far is the score which is discussed in final feature “Composing Flesh + Blood,” interview with composer Basil Poledouris (13:10). Having already worked on Conan’s stirring soundtrack he was indeed an obvious choice and tells us about what was expected and his way of working to put together the various themes from love to heroism complete with some of the traditional instruments of the time. Obviously the co-operation worked well as he was back for Starship Troopers with another great evocative, orchestral soundtrack.
And that is as they say a wrap, complete with trailer and in 1st edition booklet and one of limited edition o-card slipcases that collectors can’t seem to live without. Welcome back Flesh And Blood, it’s been a pleasure.