It’s the year of our Lord 1501 and in Western Europe the venal and the powerful wage war. In this brutal society, to the victors go the spoils, but betrayal and vengeance are never far away. Paul Verhoeven’s first English language film Flesh + Blood is bloody, cynical and unrefined, but indicative of his later satirical tendencies.
After being usurped in a coup, local ruler Arnolfini (Fernando Hillbeck) hires a band of mercenaries to recapture his city, led by commander Hawkwood (Jack Thompson). After the bloody battle, Arnolfini betrays Hawkwood’s charismatic but brutal lieutenant Martin (Rutger Hauer) and his comrades. The first act of Flesh + Blood may be front-loaded with plot, but there’s no shortage of hacking and slashing, either.
On the run after being betrayed by Hawkwood, Martin leads his mercenaries in a campaign of vengeance and pillaging. Meanwhile, Arnolfini’s foppish son, Steven (Tom Burlinson) is betrothed to the comely but duplicitous maiden Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Initially, we’re encouraged to sympathise with the underdog mercenaries, even after their capture of Agnes. But an ill-conceived and deeply exploitative gang rape scene tips the film from mere gratuity into outright bad taste. The film never fully recovers and it is indicative of a tone compromised by too many creative voices in conflict, from Verhoeven’s desire for a hard-edged story to the American studio suits holding the purse strings, and the increasingly vocal concerns of rising star Rutger Hauer.
Arguably the film’s greatest success is the violent, materialistic society that it depicts. A priest sermonises in vain to the mercenaries before the opening battle, before they’re tempted by the promises of looting and pillaging. Later, the gang’s own cardinal mistakes the discovery of a saintly statue for a sign from God, unwittingly leading them all to death and pestilence. It’s a profoundly cynical vision – at once spiritually vacuous and failed by religion – the forsaken characters venal, selfish and base. The world of Flesh + Blood gestures towards the satirical eye that Verhoeven would refine in his later works, but it’s a style still in utero, lacking the political intelligence and brutal humour of his RoboCop or Starship Troopers.
By the time we arrive at the final battle, the mercenaries are in possession of a besieged castle while Steven’s troops launch plague-infested carcases into the courtyard. Meanwhile, Agnes’ affections are dictated entirely by whoever seems to be winning. As a result, it’s impossible to root for any group or individual, and so the only pleasure we are left with is to enjoy the spectacle of carnage. Nevertheless, in we can leave morality at the castle gate, Flesh + Blood offers a great deal of base satisfaction.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell