Chances are, if you’re a cinephile, you’ve heard of a good chunk of the big cult films out there. While they may be obscure in some circles, the likes of Troll 2, Eraserhead, and Death Race have been thoroughly explored by movie buffs for years. That’s what Uncharted Territory is for. In this series, we take a look off the beaten path at forgotten films that, for good or ill, deserve your attention.
Paul Verhoeven is a man with a very distinct style. He makes a cinema of excess, creating worlds full of overactors partaking in overblown plots in over-the-top worlds. It seems this style of his has worked best in the realm of satirical Sci-Fi, with the holy trinity of undisputed genre classics that is Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Total Recall. But even before the time of exploding heads, giant bugs, and Auto-9s, Verhoeven was ironing out his style in a much different – but no less unpleasant – setting. The plague-stricken middle ages.
Flesh + Blood is a film that can be most easily described as an exercise in watching terrible people do terrible things in a terrible time. It follows three larger-than-life figures – the violent and money-loving mercenary Martin (Rutger Hauer), the surprisingly headstrong and short-sighted academic Steven (Tom Burlinson), and his manipulative bride-to-be Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose love for both men sends all three hurtling on a crash course to tragedy and destruction.
Of the three, Martin is easily the one who gets the most focus, and for good reason. While Rutger Hauer may not be giving an Oscar-worthy performance here, Martin is a character that I managed to love, hate, and fear with equal intensity at many different moments of the movie. One moment, he might be joking with his comrades and helping deliver a baby, and the next we see him rape, murder, and manipulate all for the sake of more power – be it financial, sexual, or just the good old fashioned drive to have your very own castle.
This being the middle ages and all, religion and superstition play a large part in both the world and the plot of Flesh + Blood. Very early on, Martin’s mercenaries find a submerged and discarded statue of Saint Martin of Tours, which the band’s mad cardinal interprets as a sign from God that Martin must be the new captain. Throughout the movie, Martin manages to rise through the ranks while playing off the cardinal’s superstition, eventually reaching a point where his men (and judging by the fact that he finds himself aligned with the world’s geometry in very Christlike ways, even the camera) may as well see him as a biblical figure in his own right.
Meanwhile, Steven’s side of the story deals with a very different side of life in the middle ages. The bubonic plague. This being a Verhoeven film and all, no details are left out when it comes to portraying the plague – you get a full view of delightful scenes such as chopped up parts of a plague dog being catapulted over castle walls, a prostitute vomiting up her insides all over a table, and even a stubborn doctor perform archaic surgery on a man with massive boils covering his chest.
In 2015, film critic Richard Brody coined the term ‘mudpunk’ to describe films that show and revel in an excess of mud, blood, and the other undesirable conditions of the film’s time period. Besides the 2013 Russian odyssey Hard to Be a God (the film the term was coined for), there may be no better example of mudpunk in cinema. Beyond just the plague, this is a movie that has everything one could want from a look at the decadence of the middle ages. The ‘heroic’ mercenary band fully partakes in raping and pillaging amid towns littered by lost limbs and charred corpses, while Steven and Agnes fall madly in love with each other while sitting under two hung and mutilated men still dripping with blood and semen.
Of course, none of this would be half as disturbing if Flesh + Blood didn’t exhibit superb production design. The mudpunk aesthetic isn’t only in the death and destruction, the whole movie reeks of a dying world. The mercenaries spend most of the movie in cobbled together outfits made from scavenged clothing and simple rags, and even the uniformed armies and nobles have dirtied outfits that are a far cry from the shimmering suits of armor of contemporaries such as Excalibur and Krull. Things only get more unpleasant when the combat actually starts, and the warriors’ swords, armor, and skin gets coasted in a thick layer of grime and gore.
All of this cobbles together a film that may not be the most narratively satisfying picture Verhoeven’s ever directed, but what I’d argue has the strongest atmosphere to it. The world of Flesh + Blood is one that’s always pessimistic and always believable, so much so that you may actually find yourself (falsely) believing Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh have actual chemistry together.
One final thing to note about just how miserably ‘real’ the setting is concerns combat. Instead of grand swashbuckling duels with suits of gallant armor, a ‘swordfight’ will last about three swings at most before someone meets a swift and brutal end thanks to blind luck or dastardly strength. In an era of dark sword and sorcery movies with overblown and theatrical sword fights, this frankly depressing realism to the whole ordeal is not only refreshing to see, it may just be what ties the whole bloody package together. Because past any fancy weaponry or noble ideals, only one thing matters in both the combat and the cynical world of Flesh + Blood – who can be the cruelest.
Purchase Flesh + Blood on Amazon.