Flesh + Blood (1985)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson
Runtime: 128 mins
Format: Dual Format
Release Date: 6 August 2018
Jamie Havlin tales a look at the first English language film from controversial director Paul Verhoeven, 80s action adventure Flesh + Blood.
Having established himself as one of the most exciting directors working in the Netherlands, Paul Verhoeven took the Hollywood plunge with this lavish tale set in the early days of the 16th century.
Here Rutger Hauer plays Martin, a swaggering brigand who assumes leadership of a band of amoral mercenaries after they have been double-crossed by a nobleman named Arnolfini. As revenge, Martin’s men ambush Arnolfini’s forces. During the skirmish, they accidentally kidnap Agnes, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the fiancée of Arnolfini’s son Steven (Tom Burlinson), a young man who dreams of becoming a scientist and scholar.
Being a Verhoeven film, Flesh + Blood is often wildly over the top. He makes no attempt to romanticize the middle ages and gives us instead an epic featuring sex and savagery, religious zealotry and rape, betrayal and even the bubonic plague.
For a scene where Steven and Agnes meet and eat a mandrake root that supposedly means they will always love one another, he chooses as his location a spot of grass below a tree. A tree from where two rotting corpses hang above where they sit. Equally charismatic and loathsome, regular Verhoeven collaborator Rutger Hauer, by this point already a star after his role as the replicant Roy Batty in Bladerunner, shines from the moment he appears onscreen.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, at the time best known for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, is every bit as good. Seeing her as a medieval Patty Hearst, Verhoeven really puts her through the mill. Necessarily opportunistic due to her circumstances, it should be remembered while watching the highly unsettling to rape sequence that this is an actor playing the role of someone herself acting a part. Her survival possibly depending on pleasing the man who is violating her. While these two impress, some of the actors in smaller roles veer towards caricatures, especially Susan Tyrrell as Celine, the drunken prostitute.
There are other niggling problems too. Steven’s hairstyle looks suspiciously like a 1980s mullet and the expanding siege tower he designed, struck me as almost impossible to construct back in the medieval era, let alone in such a short period of time.
The main issue the film faces, though, is the fact that neither of the two battling factions are at all likeable. Even Agnes displays a nasty streak towards her maid in the first scene she appears in. As Verhoeven acknowledges in his commentary: ‘There is some hope in the film, but very little.’ Despite its faults, it is certainly never boring.
Although something of a box office flop upon release, Flesh + Blood demonstrated enough potential to allow Verhoeven to continue his Hollywood adventure. He would go on to helm blockbuster hits like Robocop and Total Recall although his more recent Dutch drama Black Book is artistically far superior to anything he’s made in America.
Since the 1980s, Flesh + Blood has slowly built up something of a cult following. Now in an age where an even more brutal vision of the world can be portrayed in a massively popular TV series like Game of Thrones, many critics are also looking on the film more favourably.
Heavily cut on its initial release, the film makes its UK blu-ray debut with this uncut dual format edition from Eureka Entertainment.
Extras include an audio commentary by Paul Verhoeven; Verhoeven versus Verhoeven – the definitive documentary on his career and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film (first pressing only)
For more on the film: https://www.eurekavideo.co.uk/classics/flesh-blood
All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.