Flesh + Blood – Paul Verhoeven – 1985


Paul Verhoeven arrived in Hollywood a fully formed filmmaker with star intact. So far his work Dutch work with Rutger Hauer had been dynamite so they were hoping to bring their magic blend of nihilism and joy to American audiences. Flesh and Blood is a rousing adventure tale centering on the love triangle of warrior Martin, princess Agnes, and Prince Steven.

Martin is a mercenary who has taken up with a band of misfits after the King has used them and then taken their spoils and chased them from the city. Now, these homeless gypsies follow Martin on his exploits, which include seizing a castle from its’ owners and living like fatcats until discovered by Steven.

Tom Burlinson plays Steven, the prince who must find his bride to be, after his father has been mangled and defeated. Steven is not a very likeable character and he frequently does awful things out of spite. For example, he throws the plague meat in the well. When he meets Agnes for the first time he is quite rude, and I mean, seriously, this is Jennifer Jason Leigh and she is amazingly beautiful. What a dick.

Agnes is really the most compelling character in the story, in that she acts as a kind of moral pendulum, swinging back and forth based on what she thinks is right or what she sees she has to do for survival. And yet, Verhoeven doesn’t plainly spell out her motives each time so we, the audience, have to evaluate in each of her decisions whether she is acting out of spite or self-preservation. JJL plays this woman so delicately.

I love the scene in the beginning where she and the prince eat from the mandrake root to fall in love. The scene is both sexy and gruesome. It establishes a linking between Agnes’ love, and death. The final frame of that shot where she and the prince kiss under the decomposing hanged men is incredible. Her witchy behavior is a precursor to what is to come. She ends up the worst monstrosity of the story, a two-faced devil-snake willing to seed chaos with the thinnest of motives.

Rutger Hauer’s Martin is a bold, handsome soldier and the gypsies follow him for his obvious strength. Verhoeven can’t resist pissing on the church a bit. Martin manipulates a Cardinal in to convincing the crowd that it is God’s will that they follow Martin. Honestly, it seems that this guy gets screwed from the beginning of the film, when the king betrays his forces.

The scene where Martin rapes Agnes is one of the craziest rape scenes in the history of cinema and is certainly not for the faint of heart. But Martin’s true colors come through after Agnes asks him, “Only you”. He throws her to the other to have their way with her, but then kicks a torch into curtains, setting the camp on fire, and keeping Agnes safe from their advances. This man has some kind of code, he just doesn’t want to loose face with his comrades, not yet.

Martin is ultimately a man constantly betrayed by nobles and their progeny.  Sure, he gets to bed Agnes, and play King for a few days, but for what? At the end of the story it seems to me he must be poisoned with plague from his time in the well, but who knows? Verhoeven stages his escape so heroically, that perhaps Martin lives again, a bit wiser.

The film revels in sex and violence. It is well designed and the performances are great across the board. It is a love story, a home invasion tale, a kick at the church, an ugly portrayal of the dark ages and an exciting adventure story. Even if it is a bit glum at times, I wish more adventure films were so dark and adult.


One Response to “Flesh + Blood – Paul Verhoeven – 1985”

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