Flesh + Blood

Director: Paul Verhoeven   
Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson

It's taken me quite a while, but I've finally realized it. I realized recently that I'm very fortunate, that I overall have a good life that maybe not all people would envy, but I'm pretty confident that many people in the world would. Take the place where I live, for example. It isn't a perfect place- sometimes I have to wear earplugs at night because of the noise from the outside, and the kooky neighbors frequently trip the smoke (or fire) alarm. But it's a spacious bachelor pad that's just a few steps from a supermarket and my favorite video store, and the rent can't be beat. There's also where I work. It isn't a perfect job - I sometimes have to handle difficult customers who do things like shoplift and not put back items where they were originally displayed. But my boss is nice, as well as the rest of the staff. The hours and salary are good, and my workplace is just a two minute walk from my apartment. Then there's the city where I live. It isn't a perfect city - there's a problem with homelessness, there's no longer a good store with a wide selection of brand new CDs and DVDs for sale in the city limits, and you have to travel very far out of the city just to get to a Burger King. But there's a wide range of other kinds of stores in the city limits, public transportation is good, there are plenty of parks, the core of the city is not too far from the wilderness, and the weather never gets too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter (I might add that the area seldom gets snow, and when it does, it usually quickly melts.)

I am also fortunate to live in the country I live in, Canada. It isn't a perfect country - we still pay more for just about everything than Americans do, for one thing. We also have a malnourished armed forces, and the government year after year funds pretentious and crappy little movies that no one sees, and that no one has any desire to see. (Come to think about it... if the government spent the money they do on those films on the armed forces instead, we'd solve two problems.) But aside from problems like those, there's a lot to admire about my country: socialized medicine, an open immigration policy and a mixed cultural heritage, and a generally positive appearance to other countries around the world. Not only am I fortunate to live in Canada, I am fortunate to live in Canada now. I am fortunate not to have been born later or any time in the future; as I mentioned several weeks earlier in my review of Cherry 2000, when the world runs out of oil in the future, we'll be seriously screwed; with luck, I will die sometime in the future just before that happens, before then enjoying all the future inventions that past generations did not get to enjoy. Past generations of Canadians also had problems that don't exist here nowadays. There was the rough and tough times when the first settlers came to the country, suffering from the weather in the east as well as other problems. There were also armed conflicts in Canada in the past, with English and French troops fighting, and other conflicts such as the war of 1812 with the United States (note to Americans: we kicked your butts in that conflict, don't deny it.)

Come to think of it, I'm not only glad I live now and here, I'm glad I am not living in any other place at any time in history. The days of the caveman? No thanks - I don't relish the thought of having to scrounge for food in the wilderness, no running hot water, and the fact that my life expectancy would be reached by the time I was in my early 20s. The age of the cowboy in the American wild west? Well, I do love to watch westerns, but that doesn't mean that I would love to live in that era. I would be dealing with a crime rate much higher than the crime rate of today (believe it or not), the fact that women would just be either school teachers or prostitutes, and the fact that every other word that people would speak would be "c**ksucker" (according to the TV show Deadwood.) But one era that I am really glad I don't live in is medieval Europe. I say this after watching the medieval saga Flesh + Blood. The movie doesn't exactly paint a positive portrait of this era, and from what I remember of my medieval history classes in junior high, this portrayal is probably not far from what it was really like back in those days. The movie is jam-packed with things the era was notorious for. We have the Black Plague. We have a society under the thumb of religion, forcing its influence on even the little things in life. There's mud and dirt everywhere. And there is a lot of flesh and blood spilled by a society finding it hard to make peace.

There is also a lot of other sordid things in the movie that you might not immediately picture of the era. In fact, there's enough of these kinds of things that it's clear from watching the movie that the people who made it were probably a lot more concerned about exploiting the mostly less favorable points of the era than in making a reasonably accurate portrayal. On that level, the movie does entertain to a degree, and makes up for some of the movie's shortcomings. Before I get further into critiquing the movie, the plot. In 1501 in western Europe, nobleman Arnolfini (Fernando Hibeck, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) is desperate, and has made a deal with the devil in order to win the war he is currently engaged in. He tells the mercenaries that he has gathered that if they win back the city that he used to rule, he will let them ransack the houses of the rich for 24 hours right after the victory. This does the trick; the city is soon after taken by the mercenaries. But Arnofini goes back on his word; he tricks the mercenaries, disarms them, and has them banished. A small band of the mercenaries, lead by a man named Martin (Hauer, Blade Runner) swears revenge. Shortly afterwards, they kidnap the fiancÚ (Leigh, Fast Times At Ridgemont High) of Arnofini's son Steven (Burlinson, The Man From Snowy River), and they hole up in a castle they subsequently take over. Steven is no warrior, but he is determined to rescue his fiancÚ and get revenge.

The biggest problem I had with Flesh + Blood is that I overall found the characters to be weak and unconvincing for several different reasons. Take the character of Hawkwood (Jack Thompson, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil), a former associate of Martin and his rabble that Steven recruits not long after the kidnapping. After making an appearance in the opening sequence, and having a scene where he's reluctantly recruited by Steven, you would think that he would play a prominent role in the events to follow. But he doesn't. He hardly appears in the subsequent scenes, enough so that his role could have easily been cut out during the scripting stage without impacting the rest of the movie at all. Martin's band of followers have a lot more screen time, but most of them don't make an impact. While one of them is a young boy, and another is a religious leader, the rest of them are pretty interchangeable; for example, there are two women in the band who seem to have the same attitude to anything that happens along their journey. The lead characters suffer from the bad construction as well. I never once believed Steven's feelings towards his fiancÚ as he tries to rescue her. Early in the movie, he's depicted as a non-warrior who has no desire to marry, especially a woman where the marriage has been arranged by the parents. Yet shortly after meeting her for the first time, he falls in love with her and is later determined to get her back when she's kidnapped. Oh, there a (silly) scene early on with the two where they eat mandrake root, which is supposed to be a kind of love potion. But magic seems out of place in a movie that's otherwise set in reality, and it feels like a desperate attempt.

The most unbelievable character has to be Jennifer Jason Leigh's. Early on, we learn that this character is not only the daughter of a prince, but has been given a sheltered life (she was raised in a convent.) You would probably expect that she would be terrified throughout her ordeal with Martin and his followers. Well, she is... for the first minute or two. After that, right out of the blue she starts to almost enjoy all of the stuff that she is made to go through. Not only that, she finds herself attracted to Martin, the leader of all that happens to her. If that's not bad enough, later in the movie she reveals that she still has feelings towards Steven, and she finds herself torn between the two. Steven manages to observe some of this later in the movie, and believe it or not he's still determined to win her back when I think any other man would have purposely given up the fight with this evidence (or continued the fight long enough so he could punch her lights out.) The unconvincing characters wasn't the only problem I had with Flesh + Blood. There are questions like: Are we to believe the enemy just opened the city gates not long after the beginning of the movie? Will someone get visible signs of the Plague just hours after being infected? There's even sillier stuff in the movie, the most ludicrous moment being when Steven's forces storm the castle with a wooden machine that's not only too complex for the era, but we are to believe they constructed it in just a span of a few hours.

I could go on for some time picking the faults of this movie. But I don't really want to do that. Yes, the movie has a number of faults, but I can't call it a bad movie; there is some really good stuff in here. First, the movie looks great. On a limited budget ($6.5 million, according to one source), director Verhoeven (Robocop) has made an utterly convincing picture of the era. The costumes... props... just about everything feels accurate, from the mud and smoke-filled battlefields to the candle-lit interiors. Second, there's a great performance by Hauer. He is clearly having fun in his role, and he makes his character a likable one despite all the bad things he does. And speaking of bad things, the movie is full of them. As I indicated earlier, it seems that the makers of the movie were looking at the era with eyes of exploitation. In the movie, there are people hung in trees, and their corpses left alone for weeks to rot in the air. There are nuns that get whacked on the head by swords. There are stillborn babies stuffed into barrels and buried in mud puddles. There are tongues that have been cut out. There are bloody piercing with arrows and spears. There are several scenes of rape, as well as a lot of nudity. Flesh + Blood is jam-packed with stuff like this, so despite its problems it's never boring, despite running more than two hours. I would compare the movie to a sketch made by a great artist before making the actual masterpiece; it's rough and needs a lot of work, but you still see some greatness in there. Maybe someday we'll get a remake, and see the full potential that right now is just hinted.

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See also: Hearts And Armour, Soldier Of Fortune, Star Knight