FLESH+BLOOD: Paul Verhoeven Retrospective [Two Cents]

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: FLESH+BLOOD (Paul Verhoeven Retrospective)

Cinapse is relaunching Two Cents for 2024 with a focus on cinematic discovery and discussion. This column is intended to generate points of connection as cinephiles revisit beloved classics or explore new territory together. We’ll kick things off with a curated month of Paul Verhoeven titles that our team was eager to either revisit or experience for the first time. After Ed’s Robocop revisit and Dan’s critique of Showgirls, and Julian’s take on Benedetta – Dan is back tackling the director’s English language debut.

The Team

Dan Tabor:

Continuing our deep dive into the filmography of the Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven brings us to the beginning – Flesh+Blood the director’s first American film released in 1985 by Orion pictures, who would later release Robocop. This was a first time watch for me and within the first few minutes it was shocking just how packed this one film is with themes, motifs and visuals that would haunt the director’s work throughout his career. It’s the medieval story of a group of mercenaries  who are double crossed when they help retake a castle only to be driven out before they are allowed to claim their prize, which was being able to loot the castle’s previous tenants for 24 hours. The lord, fearing there would be nothing left for himself, has them driven out, breaking his bargain and driving the troop away. 

After the mercenaries find a statue of St. Martin, which also happens to be the name of their roguish leader, played here by a post Blade Runner Rutger Hauer, they believe they are now charged by the saint to take back what’s rightfully theirs. This begins with an assassination attempt/raid on a convoy that just so happens to also include the promised virgin bride for the lord’s son Agnes, played here by a fresh faced Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is captured by the group, brutally raped and taken by Martin as his captive as they soon setup residency in another castle they happen upon, after taking out its previous tenants. Of course the son of the lord comes to Agnes’ rescue, but the thing about this film is everyone is terrible or unsympathetic in their own way. 

Even the virginal Agnes, before being kidnapped, forces her lady in waiting to have sex with a soldier in front of her to learn about the “birds and bees”, this is after the lady protests that she is not really into the idea. When Agness has then seen enough however, she then attacks them forcing them to stop, like you would two dogs mating. The film really works to drain every drop of romanticism and moral ambiguity out of every medieval story you’ve read, seen or heard. This is because Verhoeven doesn’t shy away from any of the lurid details or repercussions that would normally be omitted for the benefit of the audience. While Hauer is predictably a delight here as the ambitious antihero, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals the film for me. She takes a role that while basically having her naked and assaulted for the majority of the film, manages to cull enough room to infuse it with this very powerful performance of a woman doing literally anything in an attempt to survive, from being betrothed without even knowing her husband to being assaulted by a group of mercenaries.  

I think this role worked to show what Leigh was capable of while doing the transitional thing expected of female actors IE getting naked, to show they aren’t a kid anymore, which adds a whole nother level to the meta nature of this character. She would even go on after this film to work with Hauer again in the great cable staple The Hitcher. Hauer apparently had a lot of issues with his character, since he was tired of being typecast as the villain and the script went through a lot of revisions throughout production. The film was originally envisioned about the friendship between Martin and Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) and how it disintegrated over time. But when the love triangle was introduced by the studio, it really worked to color the characters involved much differently. While this was Verhoeven’s fifth film with Hauer, it’s rumored that these changes were the final straw in their on screen partnership. 

Flesh+Blood is fascinating since it contains this DNA that would show up throughout Verhoeven’s career and is a rough watch, but that’s the point here. When a castle was sacked, terrible things happened. When a betrothed woman was kidnapped by a handsome villain, that was definitely very non-consensual. There was a very modern approach to the sometimes vague morality of these stories that I wasn’t expecting, and it makes this film way ahead of its time in that respect. The performances here are also really interesting because they aren’t really trying to win you over. They are just trying to present the truth of their respective characters and given the times were terrible, I assume that was the point. Flesh+Blood was far more shocking and lurid than I expected after watching the trailer and it’s a film that is hard to recommend given its content. But I can say if you’re a fan of Verhoeven and haven’t seen this one, you’re definitely missing out on one of his best. 

Ed Travis:

We’re all just trying to stay alive in this fucked up world. And we’ll do, say, screw, or double cross virtually anything or anyone to just keep drawing breath as swirling forces, powers, rulers, fate, or plagues threaten to end us.

Paul Verhoeven’s medieval lightning rod Flesh + Blood out Game Of Thrones’ Game Of Thrones in its medieval/1985 pitch black vision of flailing humanity and the quest for power. I have to admit I didn’t get this film watching it ages ago both as a more naive human being and as someone who hadn’t yet experienced the glory of George RR Martin’s Westeros. In my younger years I looked for heroes and examples of sacrifice and gallantry in my films. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still love and crave those things. But it used to confuse me when a film like Flesh + Blood came along with protagonists like Rutger Hauer’s Martin or Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Agnes. Hauer is a “sell sword” following religious signs whenever they suit him and leading a thieving band of outlaws on a quest for revenge against a lord who sold them out after they fought for him in a battle.

Agnes is royalty betrothed to that lord’s son who is kidnapped by Martin and his men. The younger Lord, Steven (Tom Burlinson) will quest to rescue Agnes and destroy Martin, while using progressive science as his weapon of choice. And the specter of bubonic plague haunts the film at every turn. Verhoeven crafts an uneasy and inhuman world, stripping characters of their humanity and any measure of control of their situation, with all doing monstrous acts simply to save their own skin or making split second decisions of loyalty when the winds of change blow one way or the other. It’s dark and cynical, but it feels like it has more to say about what  mankind is capable of than, say, an idealized Camelot with redemptive magic and chivalry behind the helm of every knight in shining armor. Religion, science, and even wealth will all be spurned at the chance to simply draw breath one moment longer. 

Our Guests

Dominic Hart: 

Flesh + Blood is an odd and fascinating beast of a movie. A revisionist take on the medieval epic that shuns chivalrous heroes and swooning lovers for a world filled with grime, plague, and utter amorality. As Verhoeven’s first Hollywood movie, it works best as a Rosetta Stone for the themes that would pervade his later work: religion, sex, violence, and a fixation on impulsive self-gratification in society. What starts as a tale of revenge between Rutger Hauer’s cutthroat mercenary Martin and the lord who betrayed him gradually spirals into a psychosexual drama between him and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Agnes, the kidnapped bride-to-be of the lord’s son, Steven.

You can feel Verhoeven working through his pessimistic views on society and organized religion in this one. The poster’s tagline reads “A mirror of our time”, and the reflection is deeply unflattering. Nearly everyone who appears on screen is a complete bastard; vicious, capricious, and superstitious to the extreme. Martin’s crew of undesirables in particular operate on such a goldfish-brained level of existence that a woman cries over her stillborn son at the beginning of a scene and by the end of it is cheering at the skewering of a man who dares to question a sign from the heavens that places Martin as their leader. Religion at large is treated as a malleable tool to validate the powerful, a potent set of symbols that are ultimately as flimsy as the communion wafers Martin stuffs in his mouth like handfuls of popcorn. Martin manipulates his crew into believing his whims are the word of God, and when he takes liberties with the band’s ethos of equality, it is their priest who is always the first to sanction his hypocrisies.

Martin himself feels like Verhoeven’s first sketch at the violent messiah icon he would go on to perfect in RoboCop. One shot even frames Martin, sword in hand, foregrounded against a burning wagon wheel that wreaths his head like the halo of a saint. But whereas Alex Murphy is a good man in a corrupt world, here Martin and the world he lives in are equally deplorable.

Even the survivors of violence in this world are not afforded the luxury of innocence. Agnes survives in relative safety and comfort only by becoming Martin’s woman and earning his protection. She is not a heroic figure per se, her self-preservation often leads her to stand back and weigh her options rather than doing the “right” thing (even when it comes to saving her own fiancé’s life) but she remains compelling because of the push and pull between her ideals and what is practicable in keeping herself alive.

Verhoeven leaves no room for valor or virtue. In a career that would be defined by both interrogating and feeding our need for indulgence, he seems to be casting off any concern for morality as he takes his first steps into Hollywood. For morality, in a diseased land, is too restrictive for the powerful and far too dangerous for the vulnerable.

Dominic is a writer, colorist, and genre enthusiast based in Sydney, Australia.

Upcoming Picks (Click for streaming options)

Starship Troopers

Previous post JFK: A Masterpiece of American Myth-Making Hits 4K
Next post Sundance 2024: BLACK BOX DIARIES