Flesh and BloodFlesh and Blood stars Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh in a fairly ruthless movie set in the Italian middle ages. This isn't a tender romance. It's about brutal rape, the plague, and what people do to survive. Note that this review containers spoilers.
Rutger is a mercenary who leads a rag-tag band of fighters and whores. They're betrayed by the nobles who hire them, and in revenge they ambush the nobles' caravan. The mercenaries manage to accidentally capture the intended bride of one of the nobles. Rutger rapes her but then protects her from the others. She turns to him as a protector. When her intended husband - who she had only met for five minutes - comes after her to save her, she has to make a choice.
In terms of the medieval setting, they do a reasonable job with this. Basil Poledouris's score gives that Conan / rough feel to it. They don't sugar-coat life in the middle of a siege. It was nasty. The triumphant troops merrily rape women. There's no remorse. A captured woman is seen as fair game for gang rape. It's simply what they're there for - and the women of the group join in on it. They don't think about saving the damsel in distress. The landscape is gritty. The clothes look well used. Rutger carries a Zweihänder - a German long sword - which was a favored weapon of mercenaries. Sure, sometimes the outfits look more like "costumes" rather than "clothing", especially later in the movie, but that's all right. This wasn't meant to be a historical treatise along the lines of Name of the Rose. It's more an examination of what people will do to survive. It also examines how the middle ages was a time of signs and portents, and life was tenuous at best.
Interestingly, while I watch vast numbers of movies with my partner of 18 years, this is one of the few that we disagree about. I've seen similar disagreements in other reviews I've read of this movie. I've seen this movie many times over the years, so my thoughts aren't a first reaction. They've had a lot of pondering.
I look at Jennifer's character as doing what had to be done to stay alive. First she's foisted off on Steven, the nobleman's son, and he actively doesn't want her. She has to lure him in with mandrake, to convince him that she's what he wants in a wife. They only talk for maybe five minutes before she's abducted by Rutger. His first act is to rape her in front of his gang, and then turn her over to the others for their turn. She pleads with Rutger to let her be only his. It's not that she wants to be raped by him more, of course - it's that she doesn't want to be also raped by the others. And he gives in to her plea - he sets a fire so that the others are distracted. As the movie progresses he continually steps in to keep her safe from the others.
So we get to a point where Steven makes it into the castle where the mercenaries are holed up. At this point Jennifer is solidly "Rutger's" and this is keeping her safe from the others. Steven is captured and Jennifer stays on the mercenaries' side, not helping Steven. Then she sees Steven throw plague-infested dog meat into the communal well and Steven explicitly tells her she has to make a choice. When the others start drinking from that water, she lets them drink, one by one - but when it gets to Rutger drinking, she knocks the cup out of his hand. She isn't willing to actively kill the man who, in his own way, saved her.
The nobles' troops attack, there's fighting, and Rutger tries to kill her rather than let Steven have her. Steven comes in just in time and saves her. She goes off with Steven - but when she sees Rutger is escaping, she doesn't tell Steven. She lets him escape to live another day.
My boyfriend feels she should have been more actively against the mercenaries. She should have let Rutger drink the tainted water. She should have pointed out when he was escaping, so that he could be hunted down and killed. He feels she was the "bad character" for using whoever was near her. I see this same response from many male reviewers.
I have to wonder if this comes from being personally hurt in the past by a woman who did the same thing - seem to be fond of them, but then be fond of others when she was with them.
In comparison, maybe being female is part of it, I tend to look at this from her point of view. She was being rejected by her future husband so she did her best to be friends with him. Then she's about to be gang raped so she does her best to align with the guy who can prevent that. She's in a dangerous situation so she stays by his side. It would have been incredibly could-be-fatal risky to do otherwise.
And in terms of Rutger, he was a mercenary. Rape was a normal part of life. He wasn't doing anything "bad" in terms of the culture of the times. Rape was a normal part of the spoils of war. When they capture Jennifer, the thought of rape came naturally. It's just what they did. If anything, he was being odd / "overly" moral by then preventing the others from taking their turn. He was rising above what was normal for his entire community. In terms of what he was "due", he was the one who had been betrayed by the nobles. He'd lost his son to miscarriage as a result. He strove to protect his band and keep them safe. I think letting him go was a reasonable thing.
I suppose he did try to strangle Jennifer :). That falls into the romantic heat-of-passion over-the-top movie category, and while I wouldn't want Jennifer to end up with him as a result, I suppose I also don't see it as an offence for which he should then be stabbed in the back.
It's interesting to me where I draw this line. In romance novels I speak out vociferously when heroines are raped and mistreated and then fall in love with the guy as her "happily ever after". So I wouldn't want Jennifer to end up with Rutger. But I also don't think he should be drawn and quartered for what he did. He wasn't sadistically evil. He was a normal, if brutish, mercenary. So not someone I would want a heroine to end up with - but not someone to be brutalized either.
There's interesting dialogue about Rutger being an older, experienced version of Steven (age 29 but playing a younger man), and Steven being a younger, idealistic version of Rutger (age 41). Steven is what Rutger might have been fifteen years ago, with hopes and dreams. Rutger is what Steven might have turned into after having endured the horrors of war and the rough betrayals of life. He's the experienced, capable, can-handle-it version. Jennifer's drawn to both. She was actually 23, but I imagine she was playing an 18 or so year old.
At the same time, there's the behavior of Rutger toward woman. At the beginning of the story it's clear he's made the mercenary whore, Celine, pregnant, but he dismisses responsibility for the kid. Another man in the group, Karsthans (who interestingly also played Rutger's loyal companion in Blade Runner) actively offers to be with Celine and be the child's father, but she only wants Rutger. And Rutger does show remorse when, after the betrayal and driving-out, she has a stillborn son. He accepts that it was his child. But then - *poof* - the moment the pretty Jennifer comes along, he tosses Celine aside. He'd much rather have the young, pretty woman in his life. He doesn't even have a twinge of a thought about the woman who bore his child.
So I suppose I don't see either male character as ideal for her. Steven blows up a man by accident at the beginning of the movie and they just laugh. They don't fault him. These things happen. He's dismissive of Jennifer and has to get drawn into caring for her. Her rescue is just as much revenge for what the mercenaries did to his father as an actual caring about her personally. And Rutger is doing what mercenaries do. They rape women and rob households. He cares for his troops, and he actually does care for Jennifer. He protects her. But in his mentality, there's a thin line between owning something and making sure others can't have it. If she can't be his, it makes sense to him to ensure she can't be someone else's. Just like their priest off-handedly killed a team member for a disparaging comment, and few blinked an eye. It's the way the mercenary code worked.
So for her to try to stay aligned with whoever had the best chance of helping her to live made sense to me. She wasn't killing people. It was hard for her to let the mercenaries drink the tainted water, and in the end she couldn't let Rutger do it. She couldn't actively raise a call to take down Rutger when he was escaping - but if others had noticed him fleeing, I don't think she would have interfered with them capturing / killing him, either.
I'll comment as an ending note that it's intriguing and nice (to me) that they have a homosexual couple in the movie and it's just taken as a normal thing. The mercenaries don't mind or comment on it. It's not made to be a big deal. The two men are simply together, and when one is killed, the other commits suicide to be with him. I like that it's simply part of the story.
In any case, well worth watching as a brutal view of the middle ages, how women in this situation were treated / mistreated, and how characters deal with betrayals and forced relationships.
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