It’s the summer of 1985—except that it’s the first year of the 16th century, as Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood opens with a vivid and appalling depiction of the shabby and cruel disorder that was late medieval European warfare. Coming off of Soldier of Orange, Keetje Tippel, and The 4th Man, Verhoeven once again confounded expectations, this time throwing us a big, beautiful, thundering comic book of a costume epic. Historical/mythic combat epics were in vogue in the wake of Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, and Ladyhawke. But Verhoeven’s entry outshone them all, and still does.
An initially naturalistic depiction of late medieval existence quickly becomes a larger-than-life mixing of history and fantasy, where period accuracy and far-fetched anachronism gleefully coexist in a rich tapestry generously laced with gritty violence and graphic sexuality. Verhoeven blends horror with humor—often in the same frame, as in a scene in which a young couple dig up a mandrake root while talking romantic love under a tree from which dangles the decomposing body of a recently hanged man. Rape and pillage are depicted in all their uncompromising cruelty, yet Verhoeven urges on us the distanced irony of a Swift or a Kubrick. In the midst of the plunder of a conquered city, in a shot from the POV of a Cardinal, the head bandit Martin (Rutger Hauer) is framed in front of a burning wheel that encircles his head and jokingly sanctifies him in one of the several parodies of medieval paintings that pepper the film.
In the opening, Martin and his ragtag band of misfit brigands, having sold their services in exchange for the right to despoil a town whose weak defenses they’ve overcome, are cheated out of their plunder by a smalltime baron named Arnolfini, whose post-slaughter change-of-conscience sends his mercenaries away empty-handed. They neither forgive nor forget, however, and it isn’t long before they’ve kidnapped the beautiful young Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a spoiled and manipulative minx betrothed to Arnolfini’s son.
This son, Steven (Tom Burlinson), is an interesting sort, more inclined to the study of science and engineering than to learning the ways of love with Agnes. But the bandits’ insult to the Arnolfini household cannot be brooked, and Steven is tapped to go in pursuit of the kidnappers, backed by his father’s army, which is commanded by the likeable Captain Hawkwood (Jack Thompson). By the time the pursuers catch up to the bandits, they’ve ensconced themselves in a castle whose noble occupants they have ejected in the most literal sense of the term. Steven’s knowledge of science and technology becomes his chief weapon in laying siege to the bandits, while inside Agnes plays Stockholm Syndrome games with her captors. But the castle holds a secret that none of them suspect.
The characters’ persistent reading and misreading of signs and portents according to their own predisposition is in the vein of the Verhoeven fever dream that was The 4th Man; and Steven’s anachronistic knowledge and invention of new engines of war turn the film into a dark parodic metaphor of our own time. Verhoeven and his then-resident cinematographer, Jan De Bont, give the film a lush-layered look, mixing dirt, blood and sackcloth with the rich-hued foods and clothing of the landed nobility, all infused with the saturated garishness of the Sunday funnies. Picture an R-rated Prince Valiant.
Or perhaps an R-rated Ivanhoe: Basil Poledouris’s stirring score, which almost matches the monumental achievement of his masterful work on Conan the Barbarian, evokes both medieval tonalities and modern movie spectacle in a way that out-Rozsas Miklos Rozsa, and is one of Flesh + Blood’s lasting claims to glory.
But the whole delicious concoction is more delightful today than it was in 1985, and not least because of the various ways it points towards the Verhoeven of Robocop, Starship Troopers and Black Book. Underappreciated in its time, it is now a treat of and for the ages.
Robert C. Cumbow, author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, also contributed to our “Summer of ’84” series. His home base is the Seattle film blog The Parallax View, where much of his 40 years of film writing is archived.