What is it with Danish filmmakers and themes of life and death? I had this conversation with Melody Stewart, founder of Act.Land, recently.
Flesh and Blood, (also known as The Rose and The Sword) begins in Western Europe in 1501. Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) is a nobleman who has been exiled from his city. He returns with an army, and takes the city back with the help of cutthroat mercenaries, led by Captain Hawkwood (Jack Thompson). The mercenaries get carried away while raping and plundering after the battle, so Arnolfini decides to get rid of them with the help of a reluctant Hawkwood. Forced out of the city without arms and loot, the band led by battle hardened Martin (Rutger Hauer) swears vengeance on Arnolfini.
Arnolfini arranges a marriage between his scholarly son Stephen (Tom Burlinson) and princess Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The future spouses are to be introduced to each other during the hawking trip, but the caravan gets ambushed by Martin’s gang. Before Stephen can do anything about it his father is seriously wounded and future bride abducted, so he must again use Hawkwood’s services against his former comrades. In the meantime, Martin falls in love with his beautiful prisoner, while his band takes shelter in an isolated country castle. An attempt to save the princess ensues.
Rutger Hauer, who has played in many early Verhoeven films, has the task of bringing a villainous character closer to the audience. His Martin might look superficial and not very well written at first sight. However, he transforms from father to a soldier of fortune; from lust to jealousy with murderous emotion. However, this role relies more on Hauer’s charisma acquired in Blade Runner than on a disciplined acting effort.
Naturally, his job was definitely enhanced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was one of the first in which her taste for the roles of women subjected to unsavory circumstances was made apparent. While some audiences would be pleased in her willingness to appear sensual in front of the camera, those who appreciate great acting would be more appreciative. Agnes is one of the most non-type cast female characters we had opportunity to see in modern cinema – a young virgin who suddenly becomes forced to make survival based decisions, and whose feelings take a back seat to her instincts.
This is the last Verhoeven film made in Europe, just before Robocop and it shows. Not restricted by Hollywood censorship, the movie has graphic violence, gore, sex, nudity and rape. A hard R rating for American distribution, naturally.
But large amounts of such scenes, and some of them might be quite revolting, aren’t exactly gratuitous. Verhoeven and his co-screenwriter Gerard Soeteman wanted to present Middle Ages as a time when the life was short, hard and in constant danger of famine, plague and war. This made people indulge their every desire, both dark and light. Not exactly The Princess Bride.
In a way, this film is almost an exact opposite to another film with Rutger Hauer called Ladyhawke (1985), a film that came out the same year. In medieval France, a young, nebbishy pickpocket befriends a knight who has fallen under a strange curse. It is a romantic fantasy film. Ladyhawke is more in line with idealistic PG rated fantasy, where as Flesh and Blood is ugly and dark. Some people call it an underrated gem. I disagree somewhat. While there are moments of tension, they are sometimes defused by overacting. This was an international cast, and apparently, there was some strife on the production, including changing some of the plot by Orion Pictures. It doesn’t help the film, but it doesn’t take away from the brutality either.
Overall, I would suggest this one as a curiosity about Verhoven, and an early Jennifer Jason Leigh effort. Verhoven’s best film to me is Robocop, and always will be. But it is interesting to see where his roots are planted, even if the film is a bit of a mess in some regards. The trailer is only partially misleading, as it shows some of the more sensational moments in the film, made all the more grand by Basil Poledouris and his impressive score. Watch this one if your expectations are prepared for something not PG fantasy at all.