Sunday, September 6, 2015

Flesh + Blood (1985)

Director: Paul Verhoevan
Screenplay by: Gerard Soeteman and Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson, Susan Tyrrell, Brion James, Ronald Lacey, Jack Thompson
Running Time: 2 hours and 8 minutes. (Unrated Edition)
Tagline: “Betrayed by power. Corrupted by love. Bound by honor.”

Hop in the Way-Back Machine and set the dial for the summer of 1987. Little Bill Smiley is living with his parents and two older sisters in Union Grove, a wide place in road somewhere in the hills of rural Alabama. He loves watching movies, has ever since his family took him to see a re-release of STAR WARS in theaters, and right then there was one movie that he wanted to see more than anything. You can imagine how happy he was when his mom informed him that a friend of the family, her name forgotten thanks my increasingly fuzzy memory, was going to be taking her son and couple of his friends to the movie theater over in Huntsville and asked if he would like join them. No question what his answer was. Once he was in the car and couldn’t back out, though, he was given some disappointing news. See, she was concerned that the movie he wanted to see may have been “too scary” for her kids to watch and wondered if he was open to the idea of seeing a different movie. This was a big let down for Little Bill, he really wanted to see that other movie, but the one they suggested sounded cool. Something about a robot cop.

It’s a shame that I don’t remember who that woman was and neither would anybody else who’s still around for me to ask. Even if, I doubt that she would remember that day anyhow because that’s close to thirty years now. Good God. But I’m still curious to know that if at any moment sitting in that Hunstville theater, watching ROBOCOP, she ever considered that maybe we should have gone to that other movie I wanted to see. ROBOCOP was not, as we assumed, some safe action adventure full of wacky hijinks to please the popcorn crowd and little else. The violence was bigger and messier than everything else, the level of excess wasn’t so much turned all the way up as it was somebody tore the dial off, and the humor was of the pitch black variety. Within fifteen minutes, we witness our hero getting tortured and cut to pieces with shotguns. Corporate executives talk about an accident that resulted in a horrific death more in terms of what it would mean to them financially rather than show concern for the schmuck that got turned into paste. A rapist takes a bullet in a very uncomfortable but deserving place, an executive is snorting coke out of a model’s cleavage before he’s executed by his rival’s henchman, and one goon ends up doing an extremely unhealthy impersonation of the Toxic Avenger. She must have been horrified, or maybe she wasn’t, since we stayed through the whole movie. We’ll never know. I can tell you what I thought of it and what the other kids thought of it, we thought it was the greatest thing we had ever seen. It warped my fragile little brain in the best possible way. Naturally, when my sister Susan wanted to go to the mall a couple weeks later, you can guess who convinced her to take him along and what movie he wanted her to take him to see. I wish could say this was the story of how ROBOCOP is the only movie I’ve seen more than once in the theater but that would be a lie. I really don’t like to advertise that I also saw CROCODILE DUNDEE II twice, you understand.

Such went my introduction to director Paul Verhoeven, seen here being his usual restrained self on the set of ROBOCOP:

If you want my opinion, it’s a crime that we’re no longer getting a new movie from Verhoeven every two or three years. Like John Milius before him, he was a filmmaker who managed to find mainstream success making movies that grabbed their audience by the throat and didn’t give a flying damn whether or not their precious sensibilities got offended in the process. Back then, discovering a film like that was like taking a big hit of the strong stuff when all you’ve ever had was flat soda, and even today, with too much of our popular genre entertainment made up of PG-13 no-risk safe bets, revisiting Verhoeven’s filmography feels particularly revelatory. Come to think of it, it’s a crime that Milius isn’t making movies any more too or, though he had a major hand in DEADWOOD, my favorite TV show, the only thing of Walter Hill’s that’s made into cinemas in the past decade and change was the simply adequate buddy actioneer BULLET IN THE HEAD. That could have been directed by anybody, climatic STREETS OF FIRE-style axe duel between John Rambo and Khal Drago aside. When these men stopped making movies or were forced to find work elsewhere, testosterone cinema got a good deal less interesting, now mostly a home for aging action stars to show that grandpa can still hang with the cool kids. Said he, with a knowing nod to the copies of THE EXPENDABLES 1 & 2 he owns on blu-ray. Yes, I’m eyeing the Unrated edition of the third one too. Anywho, back on topic…

A disposition for splashing more blood around and showing off more bare breasts than the other guys is appreciated but that’s not all that Verhoeven has going for him. I may not have been able to put into words why, but even back then, I kept wanting to return to ROBOCOP and his other efforts for reasons that went beyond just tickling my reptile brain. A movie doesn’t leave the impression on somebody that this one did me if all it’s going for is simply being edgier-than-thou. There’s the funhouse mirror effect the movie has, highlighting the insane bullshit of the nineteen eighties and American culture by distorting the hell out of it. Like I said in my review of COBRA, Robocop is the Reagan-era action hero taken to its most logical extreme: an actual killing machine programmed to spout inane catchphrases while blowing people away. Tip of the ice berg. The film is interrupted by news breaks where anchors with fake smiles cheerfully report that dozens of people died when a satellite laser malfunctioned or commercials where families bond over a Battleship-clone based around thermonuclear war. Criminals discuss their drug empire using the same jargon that the corporate executives do. Violence that’s horrific when inflicted on the hero becomes triumphant when aimed at more deserving targets. Verhoeven makes it clear that he’s in on the joke and it carries over to his other movies as well. Of course, TOTAL RECALL’s Doug Quaid is really an invincible secret agent who can wipe out small armies single-handedly, he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger! STARSHIP TROOPER’s cast being made up of so many bland pretty people is a feature, not a bug, no pun intended. I haven’t seen SHOWGIRLS but I have seen BASIC INSTINCT and just going by the latter I could tell both were made with the understanding that the best way to goof on Joe Ezsterhas’s coked up screenplays is to let them speak for themselves. It’s not just satire and excess though. For big budget blockbusters, they can be strangely personal movies. Verhoeven grew up in the shadow of WWII in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and what he experienced there informs not only STARSHIP TROOPERS'S farcical spin on facism but his whole filmography. When Verhoeven discusses how a religious experience left him doubting his sanity and he took up filmmaking to keep himself grounded, TOTAL RECALL suddenly looks like a bit of wish fulfillment, a man solving his own upset mental state via simple brute force. Underneath all the blood, guts, feathers and eyeballs flying everywhere, ROBOCOP’s story is tragically humane. A family man has his life and soul stripped from him, rebuilt as a walking coffin with a knight-in-shining-armor exterior, all so some yuppie can stick it to his business rival and get a cushier office. What follows is his fight to get something of that back and I never fail to do a little fist pump when, at the end, a smile crosses Peter Weller’s face as he answers “What’s your name?” with “Murphy.” That the moment is punctuated by Basil Poledouris’s fantastic score immediately kicking in helps.

But I’m not actually here to talk about any of those movies. The last couple of pages you just read there was an introduction that grew in the telling. See, Verhoeven made several films before he hit it big, most in his native homeland which can be frustratingly hard to get one’s hands on over on this side of the pond. He did make one English-language movie before ROBOCOP and I think it deserves a good bit more attention than it’s received. Like everything the man does, it’s an unusual and unique movie that as it turns out, was even a little ahead of its time. From 1985, Verhoeven’s medieval action-drama FLESH + BLOOD.

The year is 1501 and we’re somewhere in Italy, dropped in the middle of the siege of some nameless city by the forces of nobleman Arnolfini. (Fernando Hulbrek) See, Arnolfini used to rule over this city and I think it can be deduced by the good sized army of soldiers and mercenaries he’s brought with him, he’s somewhat displeased with his being ousted from it. Capture the city before the end of the day, he informs the troops, and you’ll get free reign over it for the next twenty four hours. Goes without saying that the offer of a full day of unrestrained looting and pillaging is all it takes to motivate Arnolfini’s forces, lead by Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) and the ruthless Martin (Rutger Hauer), to finally break the siege and begin the attack proper. One other person of note we’re introduced to here is Arnolfini’s son, Steven (Tom Burlinson), an engineering genius in the DaVinci mold, who is taking part to show off some of the siege weaponry he’s invented. (There are still a few minor problems he hasn’t worked out yet, as that sap who volunteers to test his mobile bomb finds out the hard way.)

Arnolfini soon comes to regret his offer when he sees the alacrity with which the mercenaries take to their sacking of the city. There’s a good chance that there won’t be much of the place left before the day’s even half over and he’s not about to let some sellsword rabble tear apart what he worked so hard to reclaim. When he learns that during the battle that Hawkwood injured a young nun and the old soldier is willing to do anything to help the girl, he seizes the opportunity. Using the girl as leverage, Arnolfini convinces Hawkwood to turn on his former comrades. Forced to surrender, Martin and his mercenaries are stripped of their weapons and loot and then driven out of the city. When we rejoin them later, their numbers have dwindled down to only a handful of thugs and camp followers. When Selene, a prostitute who is pregnant with Martin’s child, gives birth, the child ends up dying. While digging a grave for the baby, they discover a statue of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint that Martin himself was named offer. One of Martin’s men, a loony nameless Cardinal (Ronald Lacey, the creepy Peter Lorre-esque Nazi from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) takes this as a sign from God that Martin is a chosen one who will lead them to glory. Now, one gets the impression that Martin doesn’t completely buy into this but the man is itching for revenge against Arnolfini and Hawkwood and as history has proven over and over, saying God is on your side with enough conviction gets people to rally behind your cause.

There’s still one more important character that needs to be introduced and she makes her way into the narrative right about now. Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the daughter of a local prince and Arnolfini has arranged for her to be Steven’s wife. The young scientist scoffs at the idea, too interested in his studies and inventions to want to settle into the married life just yet; his father has to trick him into coming along on a “hunt” to get the boy to even meet up with her. Once the two do manage a few moments alone, however, Agnes wins him over. It’s during her seduction of Steven that we pick up that Agnes possesses a good degree of cunning and knows how to play people to her advantage. This skill is going to come in handy because things are about to go south real fast. On their way back to Arnolfini’s castle, they’re ambushed by Martin and his cohorts disguised as pilgrims. Arnolfini gets laid out with a spear wound to the chest and Agnes is unable to escape from the wagons before Martin’s crew steals them. Later that night, as the mercenaries are reveling in their victory and enjoying their newly acquired spoils, they stumble across Agnes in her hiding place and despite her attempts at bargaining with them, she ends up thrown to the wolves. Agnes is quick to notice that Martin doesn’t seem quite so keen on sharing her with the rest and it’s while Martin is raping her that she decides to start acting as though she enjoys it. Horrifying and hard to watch as this scene is, her gambit works and as one of his men makes a move towards her Martin starts a fire as a distraction.

When the fire results in the St. Martin statue they’ve been dragging around with them shifting around, Martin tells everyone this is another sign pointing towards their future fortunes and has them move out. When they pass by a castle the next day, Martin decides this is as good of a place to as any to set up shop. He has Agnes accompany him when he breaks into the place so he can open the gates and let the rest in to kill the occupants; they waste no time in making themselves the lords of their new little domain. Tensions are already building, though, as it becomes apparent that whatever new fangled rules the mercenaries have sworn to live by, Martin certainly doesn’t think they apply to him or his new playmate. The party gets cut short anyway because the daughter of the castle’s lord, a sickly young girl, was able to escape the attack and was found by Steven. Before she expired, her raves about “devils” breaking into her home are enough to clue Steven in that he’s headed in the fight direction. He’s brought some help too: a few dozen of his father’s soldiers and Hawkwood, who he’s extorted into helping him. Unfortunately, that girl they found was infected with the bubonic plague; now Hawkwood has caught it and the bloodletting used to treat him doesn’t seem to be doing more than hastening along his demise. With him out of action, it’s up to Steven, using both his engineering acumen and a willingness to be every bit the ruthless bastard his father is, to find a way to get into this castle and Agnes out. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we’re in Robert E. Howard’s favorite hang out: Barbarism vs. Civilization, and Agnes, caught in between the two, is going to do whatever she can to make sure she’s still alive when the smoke clears.

It’s impressive that FLESH + BLOOD comes together as well as it does because by all accounts, it was an absolute nightmare to shoot. The America-Dutch co-production was Verhoeven’s first English language film and he was still learning to speak it while filming, which often made communication with its multi-national cast difficult. While the film’s six million dollar budget was larger than anything Verhoeven had to work with back in the Netherlands, it didn’t quite match the ambitions of this project and you can tell things were getting stretched a little thin by the time the finale rolls around. Disputes over the portrayal of Martin ultimately lead to Verhoeven’s refusing to ever work again with Hauer, who had been his lead actor of choice back in the home country. Most notably, is that due to studio interference, the movie we ended up with wasn’t the movie that Verhoeven had set out to make. What he was originally going for was something akin to THE WILD BUNCH with swords; Martin as Pike Bishop and Hawkwood as Deke Thorton, respectively. The studio, on the other hand, wanted the focus to be more on the supposed love triangle between Martin, Agnes, and Steven, so Hawkwood ended up being relegated to a supporting role. Well, as much as I hate to side with the bean counters over an artist, this worked out in the film’s advantage. Of the two stories, that’s simply the more compelling one and it all due to the character of Agnes. Women who will do whatever they can to survive, even if it means crawling over a dead body or two, are a staple of Verhoeven’s films and she’s without a doubt one of the best examples. She’s smart enough to realize that Martin claiming her as his woman is the only way to ensure any degree of safety and is willing endure his brutal attentions if it means staying out of the hands of the others. What surprises her is that, as the movie goes on, her medieval Patty Hearst act gets her in touch with a more devilish side of herself and danged if she doesn’t find something a little liberating about being the queen of this bunch of lunatics. Of course, once Steven and company come knocking, that’s not going to slow her down one iota in letting him know that he needs to hurry up and get her out of there.

It’s an understatement to say that FLESH + BLOOD is a wildly different movie from the other medieval adventure and sword and sorcery flicks that were popular in the eighties. With its constantly shifting character relationships, symbolism and imagery, cast of characters that runs through nearly every social class, and the way that it goes completely scorched earth on that cast for its apocalyptic finale, it wouldn’t be too presumptuous to call it the closest thing we’ve gotten to Verhoeven doing a Shakespeare adaptation. Even the film’s original concept, which would have been about shipwreck survivors falling under the thrall of a religious heretic exiled to the island they crashed on, can’t help but call THE TEMPEST to mind. Whether you agree with that reading or not, you have to admit that one shouldn’t go into it expecting something along the lines of CONAN THE BARBARIAN or John Boorman’s EXCALIBUR. There is one medieval fantasy series I would say FLESH + BLOOD closely resembles, though, and that takes us back to my earlier comment about it being ahead of its time. That’s because the series in question wouldn’t be along until a decade later and wouldn’t become a household name for another fifteen years when its television adaptation hit HBO: George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE and A GAME OF THRONES. Sure, FLESH + BLOOD doesn’t feature much in the way of the supernatural or magic (though as Scott Ashlin elaborates on in his review, Steven might as well be a wizard) and Agnes never gets her hands on a trio of newborn dragons, which would have been a big help. What connects the two is how they enjoy knocking holes in the notion of the romanticized idea of medieval life. Much like Martin’s Westeros, Verhoeven’s 16th century Italy is a land where every authority figure is pettily corrupt, horrible bastards thrive, women have to find ways to move within what spaces a society that actively hates them allows and everything's covered in a layer or two of grime, filth and squalor. Whether or not this gritty approach is really a more realistic depiction of the Middle Ages than verdant hills dotted with shining castles and gallant knights astride white horses is a whole other discussion but there's no denying its effectiveness as a backdrop if handled correctly. FLESH + BLOOD success at doing this comes down how Verhoeven handles the difficult balancing act of never standing in judgement of its characters while at the same time making no excuses for the horrible things they do. He may be an extremely charismatic example of one but the movie never wants you to forget for a moment that Martin is a vile thug. At the same time, it's impossible not to feel sympathy for him when he has to bury his stillborn child in the only casket available, a small wine barrel, and is shocked into stunned silence when he catches sight of the infant's small hand. Its penchant for finding moments of humanity in the worst and viciousness in its best (granted, by comparison) gives the narrative much of its strength, going beyond simply saying "there are, like, no real heroes and villains, man" like that 22-year old who gets how the world works.

It helps that FLESH + BLOOD happens to be such a good looking movie. Cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would also work on DIE HARD and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER before becoming a director himself, was a frequent collaborator with Verhoeven and between the two of them they hit on some fantastic shots and compositions of smoke shrouded battlefields, candle lit chambers, and groups of dirty face flashing wolf-like grins full of yellow teeth. It took me a while to decide on what screenshots to use with this write-up because there's so much memorable imagery in it, whether its Martin's head haloed by a burning wheel or (God, only in a Verhoeven movie) Steven and Agnes's first kiss taking place beneath a pair of hanged, rotted corpses. The film's score was composed by another Verhoeven regular, Basil Poledouris, and his orchestral themes support the visuals more than admirably, the rousing music sounding like how an exciting adventure story reads. Verhoeven hired Poledouris after hearing his score for CONAN THE BARBARIAN and would work with him again on ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS and it's understandable why. 

Considering that there was little else like it at the time and the biggest audience for it wouldn't be along for almost two and half decades, it's not surprising that Orion Pictures had no idea how to market the film. The trailer released for it is impressively able to spoil the entire movie without telling you a single thing about it. If you were going by any of the posters used to advertise it (save for one) you wouldn't be blamed for thinking that you were in for a romantic adventure like that other medieval Rutger Hauer movie from '85, LADYHAWKE, which FLESH + BLOOD almost feels like a savage response to. Even the summary on the Netflix envelope did that. Won't lie, though, I would have liked to been in a theater to see the reaction of someone expecting a movie like LADYHAWKE and got one where its cast is pelted with chunks of plague ridden dog meat instead. ("Oh that Rutger Hauer is so dreamy, I can't wait toOH MY GOD!") Nothing says romance like The Black Death, I guess.




Oh, I almost forgot! 

I never told you what the other movie was. Y'know, the one that I had wanted to see on the afternoon I went to see ROBOCOP? The one that we ended up not going to because she thought it would be too scary for us kids to see. Ummm...yeah. 'bout that...

We can all agree that I came out ahead here, right?

A Little Something Extra:

Basil Poledours - "FLESH + BLOOD Suite"

But that's not all!

Grantland's Career Arc: Paul Verhoevan - A fantastic retrospective on the man's career, though I must deduct points for it leading off with a shot from ROBOCOP 3, for cryin' out loud.

On Dangerous Ground: Paul Verhoevan Interviewed: An in-depth interview with the man himself from circa TOTAL RECALL.

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