Jennifer Jason Leigh has to struggle to survive amidst two factions of medieval knights, one a gang of mercenaries wronged by a feudal lord, big surprise, and the other side, the feudal son, a sensitive scientist type who doesn’t immediately see Jennifer’s charms. That’s the central story, what you get, however, is a Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) take on the era’s violence, religious faith and plain, unblemished pathology. There really aren’t any folks to rally behind here, and even for those rooting for the romance, it’s not one that’s going to charm as the fair lady is rather hell-bent to do things her own way. And she should, as the world these folks inhabit is basically just strings of monstrous rival gang activities.

When discussing these sorts of films I’ve kind of got two touchstones. We’ve got the modern DnD and magic of Game of Thrones which was expertly shot through with dark brooding sets and, of course, just one violent sequence after another until you’re so fed up with it, you shrug it off like a hockey fight. And you have the great John Boorman variation on the Arthurian legends Excalibur, one of the all time great sword and sorcery films, full of early roles for everyone from Patrick Stewart to Liam Neeson. Flesh and Blood lacks the magic of either, and instead focuses on the fickleness of human imagination as the gang of mercenaries digs up and follows a statue of St. Marten. The effigy seems to point with its sword toward further places for them to capture, loot, or take a crap.

Rutger Hauer is young and lean, right off his Blade Runner, I want to say acclaim, but really BR was not met with a ton of noise when it happened, it was a sleeper hit, that over the years became the rubric for dystopian movies of the future (2019). He also has his BR co-star Brion James with him as another mercenary. There’re a bunch of impressive roles, even Bruno Kirby seems intimidating, and Verhoeven keeps the lighting bright and the colors vibrant. No brooding blacks and grays here, all the action of this film happens as though it were just any particular day, which lends it a bit of reality that feels both cheap and unnerving. Did these awful things–these ridiculous castle sieges and ugly murders of countless unknown piles of bones–happen on lovely spring mornings with light breezes fragrant with perennials, and birds chirping? You bet your ass. One of your last visions as you’re hit with shrapnel and bleed out, might be a lovely butterfly perching on your wounds to lap some sweet blood.

Some of the action is just an action film, and when we’re expected to inhabit the peril of our rival protagonist suitors, one chained to a wall, the other dumped down a well, the solution to our problems aren’t the ones we’d probably choose, but that’s fine, we’re watching a kind of dramatic fantasy and we’re not supposed to be channeling our inner James Bonds for perfectly matched equipment and skill. Parkour!

It’s hard to buy this being a feminist empowering movie (as the poster kind of tries to sell), about the most emancipated thing that happens is right at the start when a pregnant Susan Tyrell (herself a terrific addition to the cast!) shouts down the clergyman who has no qualms about stabbing unbelievers (for the record, ordained Christian (church) warriors weren’t supposed to draw blood, they were allowed to bludgeon (cudgels, maces, etc) but not slash or stab!) So you know what kind of rot you’re dealing with! There is a lot of rape and plenty of fighting, and Verhoeven chooses not to shy away from any of it, though frankly, it’s still a kind of “movie” violence and rich with his style of creative death, wisecracks and unusual character traits. Again the comparison to a pack of dogs is most fitting, and undoubtedly what living in the period would be most like if you didn’t just live out your short life doing back-braking agriculture work as they mostly did.

None of our modern progressive and shining social advancements — some of which extend even to the animals! — would survive an afternoon in the world inhabited by our deep ancestors, even if they looked like Hauer and Leigh!

This is FREE on Prime.

One thought on “Flesh and Blood (1985)

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