Flesh & Blood (a.k.a.
The Rose & the Sword)

directed by Paul Verhoeven
(Orion, 1985)

The nobleman Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) employs an army of mercenaries to capture a medieval city, then betrays those mercenaries when their usefulness is over. Later, he magnanimously arranges a rich wedding between his studious son and a foreign princess. But a cadre of angry soldiers still lurks nearby, seeking revenge on their betrayor.

That's the set-up for Flesh & Blood, also called The Rose & the Sword, a medieval movie with so much grit and realism that many viewers will turn away.

It's an aptly titled movie, for you'll find more than the usual share of flesh (as in naked) and blood (as in dead) in this tale of swords and passion. At the center of attention are Martin (Rutger Hauer), a leader among the mercenaries; Steven (Tom Burlinson), Arnolfini's son; and Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the princess who's captured by villains moments after meeting her husband-to-be.

The film serves up healthy portions of realistic medievalism, from brutal combat to poor personal hygiene, from rampant plague conditions to religious fanaticism. The fight scenes are gory, not glorious, and viewers will sit through in-your-face depictions of trauma, pestilence and rape.

That said, Flesh & Blood remains an excellent, if uncomfortable example of the genre. The Middle Ages aren't prettified for modern viewers whose only impressions of that era come from shiny sword-and-sorcery epic films and glossy roleplaying games. The movie shows us an age where swords didn't just kill; they crippled, maimed and lobotomized -- and survivors of a battle were often worse off than those who died quickly. The scene when Agnes is first discovered by her captors is one of the ugliest scenes in mainstream movie history. These men and women aren't charming rogues, dancing on the outskirts of the law while thumbing their noses at some bumbling sheriff; they're desperate, harsh, callous, crude, immoral and cruel, and it's impossible not to flinch during Agnes' rape ... even as it's hard not to admire the character's ability to turn her misfortune into a position of strength, protecting herself from further abuse by allying herself with the strongest and meanest of the gang.

That, too, is one of the movie's strengths. Martin is without question a man without scruples or principles ... but Agnes shows him a different view of life and makes him want to pull himself out of the filth and truly become the nobleman he's pretending to be. Unfortunately for Martin, that sort of life change isn't easy to accomplish. It's also hard not to feel some sympathy for Martin and his comrades -- vile or not, they were the wronged parties in this tale.

Surrounding Martin are his loyal if quarrelsome allies, Karsthans (Brion James), Summer (John Dennis Johnston), Miel (Simon Andreu) and Orbec (Bruno Kirby), the latter two of which are a rare example of a non-comedic homosexual pair in 1980s cinema. Also in their group are the fanatical cardinal (Ronald Lacey), the bloodthirsty drummer boy (Jake Wood) and a handful of whores (Susan Tyrrell, Kitty Courbois and Marina Saura). Beyond the walls of their captured castle, key figures include Hawkwood (Jack Thompson), the military leader frequently employed by Arnolfini; Father George (Hans Veerman), the cleric and medic who's always on hand when needed; and a hapless dog.

The movie is set in 1501, somewhere in western Europe. Costumes, landscapes and accents (which are mostly American-sounding anyway) do little to help pin a location down. While there are flaws (I'm no historian, but I think I spotted a few anachronisms, and I'm pretty sure some details of bubonic plague are wrong), Flesh & Blood will surely give you a taste of an era which was anything but romantic.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 21 October 2001

Buy it from Amazon.com.