Against a verdant, sun-kissed field, a young betrothed couple – the handsome, callow hero and his flaxen-haired princess bride – swoon and banter. “Feel how my heart is beating for you,” she coos, pulling his hand to her chest. They kiss. Behind them, two men hang lifeless from a tree branch, their eyes dangling from their sockets, extremities rotting, crotches torn asunder by some unseen wild animal. You’ve never seen fairytale adventure until you’ve seen it done by Paul Verhoeven.
Named for the Roxy Music record1 that informs its romantic decadence, Flesh + Blood marks a turning point in Verhoeven’s career: it was his first English-language work, and one that anticipates his delirious Hollywood ascent. Despite this, it remains relatively overlooked in his filmography, trailing his Dutch successes and eclipsed by a dynamite run of American classics spanning RoboCop (1987) through Starship Troopers (1997). Yet Flesh + Blood is as aggressively potent as any of them, with many of Verhoeven’s key concerns front and centre: satire of religion and authority, troubling sexual politics, an interrogation of flawed heroism. There’s even a twisted hint of 2016’s Elle, his critically lauded return to the international stage.
Having bid acrimonious farewell to his homeland – the controversy over Spetters (1980) and his spats with Dutch funding bodies the final straw – Verhoeven parlayed the global success of The Fourth Man (1983) into an international production deal co-funded by US distributor Orion Pictures. The ensuing situation proved a headache for the filmmaker, with the Spanish location shoot characterised by an unruly cast and crew and his American backers insisting on script changes. Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman had based the screenplay on an unused idea for their Dutch TV series Floris2, the original story concerning two captains at war with each another after one is dismissed in the aftermath of battle. Inspired by Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Verhoeven was attracted, as ever, to the potential of twisting genre inside out – he described the movie as an anti-fairytale to counter the “feigned reality”3 of King Arthur, and sought to make it decadent and sleazy. A damsel-in-distress love story was foregrounded to placate American financiers, who were no doubt eager to push the film into the fairytale/fantasy realm of Excalibur (1981), Ladyhawke (1985) and Conan the Barbarian (1982).4
The film begins in Western Europe of 1501, as the Middle-Ages get dragged kicking and screaming (and vomiting and bleeding) into the early era of ‘enlightenment’, the camera gleefully taking in an unstable crucifix as howls of violence ring in the background. Rogue mercenary Martin (Rutger Hauer) is unceremoniously dismissed by nobleman Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) and his captain Hawkwood (Jack Thompson), despite having fought for them in a bloody coup.5 Enraged, Martin and his rag-tag crew of amoral soldiers – abetted by a self-styled cardinal with a taste for divine delusion 6 – break off into a vengeful rampage of rape and pillaging. Arnolfini’s son Steven (Tom Burlinson), a young renaissance man of science, is forced to give reluctant chase when Martin kidnaps his fiancée Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and it’s here that Verhoeven and Soeteman’s script adopts the familiar quest of the hero narrative. Unlike the typical journey, however, Flesh + Blood luxuriates in its villain while framing the nominal hero – a then-staple of commercial filmmaking – as ineffective and unsympathetic.
Much of this, according to production lore, is attributable to Hauer. Eager to transcend bad guy roles and empowered by his Hollywood visibility in films like Blade Runner (1982), Hauer repeatedly clashed with his old collaborator by insisting his character be more heroic.7 The film thus spends an almost uncomfortable amount of time frolicking with Hauer’s puffy-shirted kidnapper and rapist, positing him as a deranged Robin Hood parody of Marxism run amok 8. “You lead by your cock,” his minions accuse him, and indeed, Martin initiates a grueling and protracted gang rape of Agnes; foreshadowing Isabelle Huppert’s unpredictable victim-empowerment response in Elle. “If you think you’re hurting me you’re wrong,” Jason Leigh sneers at Hauer. “I liked it.”9 Here. Verhoeven suggests not only the brutality but the unpleasant complexity of rape, taboo in Hollywood productions of this size and genre.
The conflict between star and director yields a fascinating tension on screen – Verhoeven, beholden to crafting some kind of hero narrative, Hauer imbuing his creep with grandeur beyond the meek white knights on his tail. Even when the film turns toward traditional heroism, with Steven asserting his moral superiority, the good guys are never easy to root for. Steven manages to turn the tables thanks largely to a helpful bout of the black plague, and Burlinson, a non-personality – perhaps by design – is no match for Hauer’s vastly more charismatic monster.10
Verhoeven certainly achieves his goal of reclaiming the Middle-Ages from Hollywood’s traditional images of gallantry and derring-do. This is a nasty, pestilent world, with spilled blood, authentically filthy teeth, gruesome miscarriages,11 and dogs defecating in frame-defiling close-up – before having their plague-riddled carcasses catapulted into enemy barracks. Flesh + Blood’s cheerful mockery of man’s supposedly nobler pursuits is trademark Verhoeven,12 and its vivid layer of mud, grime and bodily fluid renders the film a disreputable ancestor to Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God (2013).
For his part, Verhoeven lamented the experience, complaining about the forced love triangle and regarding the film as a failure.13 Reaction was mixed. Dutch paper de Volkskrant savaged it as a work of a “cynical man” who “thinks people are worse than animals,”14 while American critics who enjoyed the stylish Fourth Man were in for a rude shock presented with this orgy of rape and carnage.
Perhaps Verhoeven’s morally decentered adventure was too much for a decade in which audiences were routinely served quests with easy-to-delineate heroes and feel-good messages.15 Even after Flesh + Blood’s ostensibly happy ending, we’re treated not to Burlinson’s Steven riding off into the sunset but Hauer’s Martin, who’s somehow managed to survived, hobbling off in sinister silhouette with the world in flames behind him. In a film of compromised heroism and moral quicksand, one thing is left clear – the only real hero here is the plague.
Flesh + Blood (1985 USA/Netherlands/Spain)
Prod Co: Riverside Pictures/Impala/Orion Pictures Prod: Gijs Versluys Dir: Paul Verhoeven Scr: Paul Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman Phot: Jan de Bont Ed: Ine Schenkkan Prod Des: Félix Murcia Mus: Basil Poledouris
Cast: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson, Susan Tyrell, Jack Thompson, Fernando Hilbeck, Brion James, Ronald Lacey
- Verhoeven pitched the film to Orion Pictures under this title, taken from Roxy Music’s 1979 album Flesh + Blood. Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (Faber and Faber, 1997), p.164 ↩
- Floris, directed by Verhoeven and starring Rutger Hauer, ran 12 episodes on Dutch TV in 1969. ↩
- Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (Faber and Faber, 1997), p.166. ↩
- Conan composer Basil Poledouris provides Flesh + Blood’s suitably mock-rousing score. ↩
- Verhoeven’s comment on class hierarchy here is pointed: “Bless you Martin, your reward is in heaven,” Martin’s boss tells him. “I’d rather get paid sooner if you don’t mind,” comes the reply. ↩
- British actor Ronald Lacey, making an easy transition from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s (1981) Nazi henchman to religious fiend. ↩
- Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (Faber and Faber, 1997), p.172-4 ↩
- Having insisted his band of mercenaries all wear red shirts, Martin later enrages his comrades by donning singular black garb. ↩
- For bonus career symmetry, witness Hauer and Jason Leigh’s bathtub scene, replicated to hysterical excess in Showgirls (1995). ↩
- It could have been weirder still: Verhoeven had been offered the then-career-hot Rebecca DeMornay for the Agnes role, but she had insisted her boyfriend – Tom Cruise – play the hero. Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (Faber and Faber, 1997), p.168. ↩
- Courtesy the late, great Susan Tyrell, playing a local madwoman as a dry run for her unhinged turn in John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990). ↩
- Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (Faber and Faber, 1997), p.175-6. ↩
- “The failure of Flesh + Blood was a lesson for me: never again compromise on the main storyline of a script.” – Paul Verhoeven. Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (Faber and Faber, 1997), p.176. ↩
- Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (Faber and Faber, 1997), p.176. ↩
- Flesh + Blood received a limited bi-coastal American release before being unfortunately rebranded The Rose and the Sword for home video. ↩