A journey to a new land full of hope which gives way to broken promises, harsh conditions, disputes between long-standing friends, moral hypocrisy and an ultimately hollow victory for all concerned, the behind the scenes story of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven‘s first production outside his homeland, 1985’s Flesh + Blood, strangely parallels the events on screen.
An established director through his collaborations with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman and actor Rutger Hauer, Turkish Delight (Turks fruit), Katie Tippel (Keetje Tippel), Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje) and Spetters, Verhoeven had found it increasingly difficult to fund his projects despite their success because of his controversial subjects and confrontational style.
His invitation to work with American funding leading to an international collaboration set in “Western Europe” in 1501, and filmed in Spain, Flesh + Blood is the story of Martin (Hauer) and his band of mercenary soldiers who have fought on behalf of the lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) in order to retake his captured citadel, but who reneges on his promises to them after the victory, seizing their weapons and throwing them out without payment.
Planning his revenge, Martin attacks a caravan en route to Arnolfini’s stronghold, capturing Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), betrothed to Arnolfini’s son Steven (Tom Burlinson); seizing a nearby castle, the brigands establish themselves without realising that both Arnolfini’s army and the plague are closing in on them.
Paul Verhoeven is many things, but subtle is not one of them; a man unaccustomed to compromise, his first American production is one of his most outrageous works which fell on a market unprepared for his vision and inevitably changes were demanded even before production began.
Shifting the focus from the rivalry between Martin and his former friend who was ordered to betray him, Arnolfini’s commander Hawkwood (Jack Thompson), to Agnes’ conflicted relationships with her captor and her fiance, it was a difficult role in a troubled production for Leigh which Verhoeven discusses in depth on the new edition recently released by Eureka, describing her as a fast learner who adapts herself to survive.
Martin a complicated man with a twisted sense of honour, Hauer had agreed to play the part for Verhoeven some time before the production actually began but had beaten his friend to Hollywood with roles in Nighthawks, Blade Runner and The Osterman Weekend and wished to shift towards more heroic roles, something which Martin is certainly not, leading to conflicts on location; though Hauer and Verhoeven remain friends, they have not worked together since Flesh + Blood.
A hugely physical film, it is as violent as Verhoeven’s later blockbuster hits RoboCop and Starship Troopers yet it was the erotic extremes which required trims for the initial American release, though Eureka’s version is proudly uncut and in addition carries a plethora of special features.
Verhoeven provides an enthusiastic and informative commentary and an overview of his life and career is given in the documentary Verhoeven Versus Verhoeven while In the Flesh focuses specifically on Flesh + Blood, and Hauer’s career is covered in an audio interview.
Screenwriter Soeteman’s interview discusses the historical precedents for the film and the surprising modern parallels which were worked into the narrative, and composer Basil Poledouris recalls first being invited to work on the project because of Verhoeven’s familiarity with his epic score for Conan the Barbarian.
Verhoeven accused at the time of indecency, not for the first time and far from the last, Flesh + Blood is ahead of its time in its cynical attitude towards religion, the presentation of the women such as the willful Agnes and the defiant prostitute Celine (Susan Tyrrell) and the subtle hints, confirmed by Verhoeven and Soeteman, of a gay couple in the Martin’s band, Orbec and Miel (Bruno Kirby and Simon Andreu).
While occasionally too preposterous to be convincing and certainly far from a masterpiece, Flesh + Blood is an ambitious film which is overdue a reappraisal with an over-the-top style and a moral ambiguity whose bloody hands-on approach to feudal warfare sets it as a predecessor to Game of Thrones and its ilk.