The Rose and the Sword: Flesh + Blood (1985)
Rutger Hauer’s gone, and I wanted to rewatch one of his movies. I would have liked to watch Soldier of Orange, one of his earlier works, but I do not have a copy, so I settled for second best – Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood, from 1985. Also known as The Rose and the Sword.
And I’ll open with a disclaimer – the movie is popular today mostly because it was the inspiration of Kintaro Miura’s fantasy manga Berserk, and I think this is a pity – because the movie stands on its own merits, and it is worthy of being watched and enjoyed as something more as the inciting event of a comic book (I am not a fan of Miura, and I find his fans insufferable, so sue me).
The plot, courtesy of IMDB: A band of medieval mercenaries take revenge on a noble lord who decides not to pay them by kidnapping the betrothed of the noble’s son. As the plague and warfare cut a swathe of destruction throughout the land, the mercenaries hole up in a castle and await their fate.
Note that while the trailer above describes the movie as a “classic fantasy epic”, there is no fantasy element in this movie – it is a straightforward historical drama as possible. Apparently Verhoeven wanted to film a story that would show the Middle Ages (well, actually Renaissance, if the story really takes place in 1501) for what they were: dirty and brutal, with little romanticism and lots of violence.
In this he clashed with Hauer, that would have preferred to play the role of mercenary chief Martin as a more classy/charismatic lead, and with the production, that wanted a love story and a happy end.
This made for a very troubled production: apparently the crew asked Verhoeven and Hauer to please argue in English so that they could enjoy the show, and finally the actor and the director never worked together again.
But apparently the troubles paid of if (to quote Wikipedia again) professor of film and literature at California Polytechnic State University Douglas Keesey suggested that the film had “no hero to root for and no happy fantasy element to lighten its unpleasantly realistic depiction of the Middle Ages”
Moral ambiguity is the name of the game – and if Martin’s mercenaries are justified in their search for revenge, their methods are ghastly and they are all in all a horrid bunch of murderous bastards. The “hero” of the piece, Tom Burlinson in the role of the Da Vinci-obsessed nobleman who wants to rescue his kidnapped fiancee, is a rather unpleasant individual, ruthless and moved by dubious motives. As for Agnes, the damsel in distress of the piece as portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, she’s as pragmatic and manipulative as all the rest, more than willing to use her charms and her body to acquire as much security and protection as possible – and her transition from kidnapped maiden to top bitch of Martin’s pack of wolves is as surprising and shocking as it is convincing.
No one’s clean in Flesh + Blood – both morally and literally – and everyone’s out for themselves. And as a bleak portrayal of an often romanticized time, the movie gives George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones a run for its money, as it packs in 126 minutes more sex, violence, betrayals, revelry, changes of front, fighting and backstabbing than the whole HBO TV series – and has the added advantage of providing a satisfactory payoff.
Beautifully shot by Jan de Bont and showing a great thematic use of color, often filmed without a script with the ensemble members of the cast improvising their scenes and vying for more screen time, plagued by bad weather, ugly filming conditions on a location set in which everybody was fighting with everybody else (often drunkenly, or worse), Flesh + Blood was a commercial disappointment but soon acquired a cult status.
A movie portraying a brutal world on the brink of a more technological age, Flesh + Blood is a fine historical film, touching on issues of morality and loyalty, of religious fanaticism and of the way in which faith and sentiments can be used to manipulate others, for a price.
Rutger Hauer’s Martin emerges as a surprisingly charming cutthroat, probably a lot better than the Prince Charming of the piece – and the last scene leaves us wondering whether Agnew wouldn’t rather prefer a life on the road as an uninhibited she-wolf rather than re-entering the ranks of nobility as the bride of a nobleman that will take her decisions for her (or at least try to – she’s more than able to take care of herself, after all).
This is one of my favorite movies featuring the late Rutger Hauer – an actor I idolized – and it shows him at his best: portraying intelligent, charismatic, morally ambiguous characters, equally at ease with violence and wordplay.