Flesh + Blood was Paul Verhoeven’s first English-language film, made shortly after The Fourth Man. Verhoeven had built a reputation as a well-respected director with quite a following, but needed to branch out of the Dutch film industry, having reaching his limit in a small market. He used some leftover script material from the Dutch TV series Floris as the basis for his next feature. His films have always been controversial—Spetters was subject to public protests in the Netherlands—which led to funding struggles. For this one, he got most of the funding from the American company Orion Pictures.
It’s basically a revenge movie where the ruler of a land has fallen out with his peasants. Mercenaries led by Rutger Hauer are hired to sort it out, but then their patron turns on them. In the meanwhile, the plague has arrived and is killing people all around. The mercenaries kidnap the prince’s fiancée during an ambush, and the already existing feud erupts even bigger. The film features a gruesome rape scene, which was often censored. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the victim who eventually enjoys it and specifically Rutger Hauer which predates the psychosexual politics of Verhoeven’s most recent film Elle.
Hauer and Verhoeven had a bit of a falling out during the film, and they haven’t worked together since. Rising star Hauer was looking for action roles, but all the characters in Flesh + Blood are pretty despicable. Their on-set arguments got so heated that the English-speaking crew asked them to argue in English so they could understand what the arguments were about.
Unfortunately, it’s a complete mess of a movie. It’s way too long, possibly because Verhoeven decided not to storyboard it but instead to use on-set improvisation to build the story. The studio wanted more of a love story between Hauer and Leigh, so compromises were being demanded from a director who really doesn’t like compromising. As you might imagine that didn’t work well. Like Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, there was a real effort to show how dirty and horrific the medieval world really was, and on that, he does quite well.
The film has a good supporting cast, with Susan Tyrell, Brion James, Bruno Kirby, and a who’s who of good character actors, including Nancy “Bart Simpson” Cartwright in one of her first film roles.
After this production Verhoeven moved to the US, having screwed it up so badly that he needed to learn more about how to get it right. And we got RoboCop out of that, so it was a good move for us and for him.
There’s a bunch of bonus stuff: a commentary and interview with Verhoeven, a documentary about the director, an audio interview with Hauer, and interviews with the screenwriter and composer. There’s a booklet as well in the first pressing of the release.