Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An over-the-top medieval gorefest, the aptly-titled Flesh + Blood does what many of director Paul Verhoeven's features do, and that's revulse audiences with excesses of violence and cruelty. Rutger Hauer happily hacks his way through several hundred soldiers and innocent victims in an adventure that insists on something repulsive never being more than a few seconds away.
That's probably the reason that this big-scale Orion release did little business in 1985, even after a couple of minutes of cuts to get an R rating. Fans of Verhoeven's unrestrained taste will rejoice at MGM's low-priced, beautifully mastered transfer - it's the uncut, unrated European version.
Western Europe,1501. Mercenary soldier Martin (Rutger Hauer) becomes the leader of choice for a small group of pirates after they're cheated by the noble Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) and rallied by a fighting Cardinal (Ronald Lacey). They kidnap the bride-to-be of their former ally Steven Arnolfini (Tom Burlinson). She's Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a wilful maiden who endures rape and tries to insure her survival by convincing Martin that she loves him. His band takes possession of a castle, but has two things to worry about - the ever-present plague, and
retribution from the Andolfinis. Steven and his father force retired general Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) to lead a
counterattack against Martin's new stronghold.
Flesh + Blood has a workable script, excellent performances and is a quality production in almost every respect. In a feudal world of bloody battles and corrupt nobility, Martin's band of freebooters is almost to be commended for striking out on their own. Of course, they're just a pack of fun-loving cutthroats, gleefully raping and pillaging like a 16th century version of the Manson family. But Verhoeven gives them a small measure of dignity and the possibility of goodness. Crass prostitute/cutthroat Celine (Susan Tyrrell of Forbidden Zone and
Fat City) loses her child and resents
forfeiting her catbird seat to Martin's new conquest, and the group wants to find an authority worthy of
their loyalty. The Cardinal (Ronald Lacey of Raiders of the Lost Ark) uses half-believed Christian hocus-pocus to motivate the mob, a gambit that only goes so far when the ambitious Martin starts acting like a crude parody of their old enemy Arnolfini.
The rough outline of the plot is similar to the superior Charlton Heston mini-epic The War Lord. Young prince/Da Vinci enthusiast Steven will do anything to retrieve his (no longer) virgin bride. Jennifer Jason Leigh's knowing, scheming princess Agnes is the antithesis of the virtuous maid traditional for films of this type. After submitting to a horrendous group rape (indicative of the general taste on view), Agnes revels briefly in her rough life with Martin,
only to switch allegiances when it appears that Steven has a chance to get her back.
What Flesh + Blood lacks is a sense of humor. The film's only fun aspect is Steven's classically-inspired weaponry. He concocts a perfectly practical barrel-torpedo for blasting down castle gates, but his scoffing father won't
give it a proper R&D trial. The Da Vinci battle turtle he builds to enter the castle has a giant extending ladder that's very exciting to see in action. The problem is, it's supposed to have been built overnight with crude tools. As it looks as difficult to engineer as a modern fire engine, the film's credibility goes out the window.
In one episode Jack Thompson's hardy general lances his Bubonic plague sores, and undergoes a miraculous cure in a matter of hours. After drinking tainted water, other victims sprout 'rings around the rosie' sores and start expiring in just a matter of minutes. I don't think anything but strychnine has that guaranteed of a reaction time, so again the story dips below the legit epic level.
All of which would be unimportant if Flesh + Blood had some larger theme or point to present, or even a satirical point of view. The facile message that the world is mud, blood, and crude carnality doesn't take us much farther than
the average cannibal or zombie movie, and there's nothing here to engage an audience that doesn't need to see scenes like the rape of virginal Jennifer Jason Leigh (one heck of a daring actress).
Verhoeven displays his basic mindset when he has his two lovers swear their love. They do this by eating a mandrake root under a shredded, hanging corpse that's as revolting as anything in Dawn of the Dead (which, by the way, should be coming out soon in a definitive edition). Verhoeven is consistent and skilled at presenting his horror-comic tale of medieval mayhem. But Orion must have been aghast at the prospect of trying to get any kind of a mass audience out for a film that's a basically humorless sex & blood bath.
The release of Flesh + Blood makes me wonder if another Orion epic, John Milius' Farewell to the King will soon be considered for DVD. I didn't see it myself, but the trailer-makers on that film said there was a far longer version that was a distinct improvement on the abbreviated theatrical cut.
MGM's DVD of Flesh + Blood is a great enhanced transfer that blows all previous versions off
the castle ramparts (that's pub-speak, see, using the jargon of the ... oh, never mind). Jan de Bont's
color is vibrant and the detail of every scene jumps out at us. This might be Verhoeven's only
Panavision film and he uses the wide screen well.
The disc also has a full-length commentary from the fast talking and excitable Verhoeven. He immediately explains that his unrated director's cut mostly restores bits and pieces here and there, along with a sizeable chunk of the rape scene. In his familiar non-stop way he explains how the film was shot in Spain (the opening castle is actual the walled city of Avila) and how everything in the film was based on true historical incidents. When the rape scene comes up, he commends Jennifer Jason Leigh's uncomplaining resolve to play the scene as scripted. Then, just as things get ugly he
switches subjects to discuss the costumes. Since audio commentaries are often edited and pieced together, it's
unfair to assume that Verhoeven avoided the subject on screen. Harmless-sounding statements are often nixed by cautious legal departments.
A second major extra is an okay interview piece with composer Basil Poledoris, who relates the story of his hiring and his approach to the music score. It's serviceable music, but not likely to make an impact of its own. Most of it seems too refined for the level of taste on display, unlike the composer's perfectly-judged shock-score for Verhoeven's next, RoboCop.
There's also an original trailer. Did I remember to say that the film was overly violent?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flesh + Blood rates:
Movie: Fair ++ (well made, difficult to enjoy)
Supplements: Paul Verhoeven commentary, Docu on Basil Poledoris
Composing Flesh + Blood, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 11, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson