Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Lady, The Captain, And The Thief

Some links before getting started today. Norma had some recommendations. Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday. Krisztina had tips on terrariums. And Mark had some thoughts.

Today I have a movie review.

“I know I promised, Lord, never again. But I also know that you know what a weak willed person I am.” ~ Phillipe

 “And know this: if you fail, I will follow you the length of my days. And I will find you.” ~ Navarre

“Are you flesh, or are you spirit?” ~ Phillipe 
“I am sorrow.” Isabeau

 “Great storms announce themselves with a single breeze, and a single random spark can ignite the fires of rebellion.” ~ Bishop of Aquila

“I’ve met the Bishop, you blasphemous lot. And you look nothing like him." ~ Imperius

“It’s me they’re after.” ~ Isabeau 
“Don’t flatter yourself.” ~ Phillipe

“Each generation is called upon to follow its own quest.” ~ Navarre 
“And what is your quest?” ~ Phillipe 
“I must kill a man.”  ~ Navarre 
“Tell me, does this walking corpse have a name?” ~ Phillipe

In 1985, director Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon) brought a fantasy tale to the big screen, an adventure movie with a fairy tale romantic streak called Ladyhawke. The film stars Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer as tragic lovers, and Matthew Broderick as the young thief who crosses their paths in a Europe of the 12th century. Filmed in Italy, it has gained a loyal following in the years since, and happens to be a film I enjoy each time I see it.

We first meet Phillipe “The Mouse” Gaston (Broderick) as he’s breaking his way out of the dungeons of the fortified city of Aquila. The thief is escaping a death sentence, and is given to long conversations with God during and after his escape. The Bishop of Aquila (John Wood), a cruel, corrupt, and evil man, angry at the fact that someone has done the impossible and escaped his dungeons, sends his captain of the guard, Marquet (Ken Hutchison) in pursuit of the thief.

Phillipe has gotten away into the countryside, pursued by Marquet and his men, and a chance encounter leads to salvation by a mystery man with ties to Aquila, Etienne Navarre (Hauer). Upon learning that Phillipe has successfully escaped from Aquila, Navarre seeks his help- he has a grudge against the Bishop, and wants to settle scores. Phillipe is drawn into Navarre’s quest, which brings him into contact with a woman named Isabeau d’Anjou (Pfeiffer). Phillipe quickly learns that both of them share secrets, as well as a curse brought upon them.

The story was written by Edward Khmara, who shares credits for the screenplay with Tom Mankiewicz, Michael Thomas, and David Peoples. The screenplay moves things along briskly- though at times the dialogue feels too contemporary, lacking perhaps the formality one might expect of the era. Donner had been attached for years as director before the go ahead for filming was made, and at one point, Kurt Russell had been cast as Navarre, while the role of the thief had been offered to Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffmann (both final cast choices were much the better). 

Donner made good use of the Italian countryside for filming locations, including fortress ruins, castles, and a village that stood in nicely for the medieval town of the Bishop. The effect over all does feel like a story playing out in the past- albeit a fantasy story. Sets and costuming have that same sensibility to it- much of what we see as the film goes along looks appropriate to the era, from clothing to weapons. Special effects are minimal, and where they’re used, in terms of transformation, so to speak, the method is to glimpse and suggest, which works well. Donner, whose work as a director crosses many genres, handled all of these details well, presenting an appealing fantasy that really does have the feel of a fairy tale.

Alfred Molina, the character actor whose career really took off in later years, has a brief role as Cezar, a hunter employed by the Bishop, but like his brief turn some years earlier in Raiders of the Lost Ark as the treacherous Satipo, it’s a memorable one. The character comes across as brutal and thoroughly dangerous, really more savage than anything else, and not very talkative. 

It’s an interesting counterpart to Hutchison’s take as Marquet. The character is relentless and vicious by nature, at times like an angry dog chafing at the leash, at others more disciplined. There’s a pettiness and vindictiveness in the man- he’s aware that his men, who were once commanded by Navarre, hold their former captain with more respect than they do him. And he acts out on that, on occasion more like a child throwing a tantrum. If Marquet is more civilized than Cezar, the two characters are nonetheless both formidable antagonists.

John Wood is another character actor who had been in a multitude of roles on stage and screen throughout his career- including a sympathetic turn opposite Matthew Broderick in the sci-fi thriller War Games two years before Ladyhawke. My favourite role for the actor was as the chauffeur and father in the 1995 remake Sabrina, a kind and decent fellow who is the opposite of the man he plays here. The Bishop might present himself as a righteous man, but right beneath the surface is a hedonistic, cruel, evil monster. Wood plays to that, and the character’s sinister obsessiveness boils within his performance. The Bishop is a compelling villain, full of darkness, and Wood makes him that way.

The character actor Leo McKern plays the old priest Imperius. When we first meet him, the character’s a coarse drunk in a ruined old monastery, drinking himself to death and not even sure if it’s Lent. He’s connected to Navarre and Isabeau, having had been their confessor in the past, and he blames himself for the curse that has befallen them- an innocent mistake led to that point. So it’s understandable that the guilt would plague him and drive him to drink- and yet when he enters the story, it’s also the route to his salvation- he comes to understand a way to set things right. Imperius is a flawed man, but a good man, the opposite of the Bishop. McKern plays to all of these elements in his performance, and even while he’s a guilt ridden character, Imperius still gets a measure of humour, particularly in his bantering interaction with the young thief.

This was one of Matthew Broderick’s earlier roles, though he’d been on stage, television, and the big screen starting in the early eighties. The following year would see him play the lead in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, so it’s interesting seeing him at this point in his career, right before things took off. His role as Phillipe gives the audience its point of view character. Phillipe is a wisecracking thief, resourceful in his own way, irreverent and incorrigible, and much of the humour of the film comes from him. He’s given to talk to God regularly- albeit in that same irreverent manner, and is reluctantly drawn into coming to the aid of others, stepping beyond his usual being out for himself mindset. Broderick brings a brisk energy to the role, and we get to like Phillipe pretty quickly, even when he’s breaking the law.

This was an early role for Michelle Pfeiffer, who brings such a presence into the role. Isabeau is ethereal as a character, an enchanting and enigmatic woman when we first meet her. There’s sorrow too- the curse she’s been put under leaves her that way, regretting all that she’s lost, doubting it can ever be lifted. And yet she’s not all sorrow- her memories sustain her and give her a measure of happiness, and as the film moves along her resolve builds to bring things to an end. As ethereal as Isabeau is, there’s strength and conviction in her as well. Though she doesn’t share a lot of screentime with Hauer (at least not directly), we completely accept their relationship, that these characters have got a lot of history and love- it’s obvious in the way they speak of each other.

Rutger Hauer was an ideal choice as Navarre- I find myself wondering what it would have been like had Russell decided to stay with the project, and Hauer had initially in fact been meant to play Marquet. The character’s a dangerous man, capable of handling himself in a fight, even with numerous opponents, when he first appears in the story. He conveys strength and resolve throughout the film, as well as tightly contained anger at times. Much of that is directed where it should be- at the Bishop who brought down the curse upon himself and Isabeau- but some of that is for Imperius, and part of the character’s growth involves letting go of his anger towards the old priest. Navarre is a man who is quick to judgment at times, but able to apologize for mistakes. And Hauer brings the gravity to the role that it needs- we can see why, even after years in exile, the men he once commanded still respect him in a way they don’t respect his replacement. His performance as Navarre is done in just the right way; the character is compelling to watch.

Ladyhawke is a film that never gets old for me; I can watch it time and again and get caught up in the adventure and the romance of the story, while laughing at the irreverence of a young thief. Its three leading actors are well cast in their roles, and the story moves along at a brisk pace. If you haven’t seen it before, you really should.


  1. This sounds compelling. I know I'd love it.

  2. I've never seen it before. Now I must watch it.

  3. That was a great film which my daughter just "had" to watch until the video tape finally tore. Incidentally Leo McKern wasn't British but Australian.

  4. Another one I haven't seen.

    Great review, though.

  5. One of my favorite movies. And like you I never get tired of watching it.
    Terrific review.

    cheers, parsnip

  6. I've never heard of this one before. Hmm.

  7. Well, this is fascinating. I've never seen the film, largely because I'm not drawn to this genre, but your review makes it quite tantalizing. And anybody who can escape the clutches of a bishop makes him a hero and watchable in my book! Pfeiffer is gorgeous! Broderick looks so young!

  8. I've never heard of this one. Sounds really good, William!

  9. Never heard of it but I love scenes from the Italian countryside and fantasy can lure me in. Will need to check it out someday!

  10. Sounds good. Thanks for introducing me to it!

  11. @Petrea: I highly recommend it!

    @Carole: you must!

    @Roger: I hadn't known he was an Aussie!

    @Norma: thank you!

    @Cheryl: thanks!

    @Parsnip: thank you!

  12. @Kelly: I suggest checking it out.

    @Lowell: take a look and see what you make of it.

    @Lorelei: thank you!

    @Eve: you must!

    @Nas: you're welcome.

    @Whisk: you should see it.

  13. I cannot believe I missed this one! On my list for next weekend. Michelle Pfieffer is my favorite, so I don't know why I never picked this up. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Excellent review, Sir Wills. Never heard of this movie. But now I must seek it out to watch.

  15. I saw the hawk zoom by the other day. Too fast for a photo! They make a great character!!!


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