‘Ultra violence as satire’ is practically synonymous with ‘Paul Verhoeven,’ but in medieval romp Flesh + Blood, the Dutch director has perhaps never been so malevolently violent, never been so wryly satirical and never been so intoxicating. To sum up this banquet of brutality in three words: Fascism is alluring.
It goes without saying, but just to pre-empt any backlash: that is not an accusation that Verhoeven is a fascist, nor is it suggesting that he promotes fascism as an ideology for humanity to aspire to. It merely serves to highlight that fascism – which acts in this instance a means of bringing together a community through authoritarian rulership of those who seek a better life for themselves and to dismantle (through force) a system or class that they perceive is prejudiced against them – as an ideology can be attractive enough to lure people in.
Flesh + Blood also subtly seeks to explore how fascism (specifically Nazism) is ultimately a flawed system of governance that will always inevitably be its own undoing. Sure, you can enact big change through fascism, but is it sustainable? Absolutely not. Is it corruptible? Absolutely. Is it morally bankrupt? Abso-goddamn-lutely.
The 16th Century European epic primarily follows the mercurial Martin (Rutger Hauer) who leads a merry band of mercenaries, rapists, alcoholic whores, and soldiers on a personal crusade to reap the rewards he feels the world owes him. Martin persuades his followers through a combination of physical and mental dominance, and through religion, with Cardinal (Ronald Lacey) proclaiming Martin holy after the unearthing of a saintly statue. Consequently, it is better for the accidentally-abducted virgin Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be on Martin’s side than to be against him.
After overthrowing a castle in return for the riches therein on the orders of nobleman Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck), Martin and his brothers are immediately cast aside without their loot and swear revenge. Innocence is raped from the upper classes, denied to the lower classes and ceased upon by the charismatic narcissist with a God complex before being weaponised against those who oppose him. Innocence exists only in the mind of those who have yet to commit an act of evil but is used to torture, to control and to reward by Martin.
In the ultra-violent 80s satire RoboCop, the dehumanisation of criminals and law enforcement leads to the annihilation of society. In intergalactic combat sci-fi Starship Troopers, the lament of right-wing fascism in the 20th Century can be heard prominently. And now, thanks to this excellent remaster of Flesh + Blood, Verhoeven’s take down of the folly of fascism can be seen and heard even more clearly than ever before – and especially thanks to the fully uncut and highly graphic scenes restored to the medieval adventure.
There is no shying away from the elephant in the room: Flesh + Blood is full of savage violence, explicit nudity and grotesque rape scenes. It could be viewed that Agnes enjoys being raped – but clearly she doesn’t. She uses Martin’s dominance against him, weakens him, controls him, bends him to her will and in doing so completely subverts any notion that this is a misogynistic rape-fantasist’s view of the heinous act. The scene is horrifying to witness as it suckers the viewer into a sense of complicity but the true meaning behind the act is to once again show up fascism for the vain and miserably shallow claptrap that it is.
The power in this scene is all in the mind of one man, not in his physical strength, and it can just as easily be overpowered by someone mentally tougher. And to add insult to injury, this tall, strong, blonde Aryan-Hitler is thwarted by a virgin teenage girl perceived as weak, fragile and a plaything for the ravenous pack of dogs.
The delicious irony of course is that being walled into their own community, they are poisoned from the inside out thanks in no small part to chained hostage (and Agnes’ fiancé) Steven (Tom Burlinson). It acts as a fantastic analogy for their pathetic arrogance; some die, some are shunned and some turn treacherous as the regime appears to be at its end. But Martin, the embodiment of supremacism, lives on. He will continue to spread his toxicity and never be killed, merely shunted from one place to the next with no sincerity or great design except to better himself at the expense of all others.
All in all, this is a fantastic feature filled to the brim with mesmerising performances – Rutger Hauer especially, despite the fact he was only tied to the production due to his contract, and the incredible Jennifer Jason Leigh – presented in all its glory for the first time in the UK. The special features on the Blu-Ray even include a commentary by Verhoeven himself, as well as insightful interviews with Rutger Hauer, composer Basil Poledoris and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman. It is a seminal piece and an overlooked classic in the frighteningly intelligent director’s back catalogue.
Eureka Entertainment release Flesh + Blood UNCUT and on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK on 6 August 2018, in a Dual Format Edition featuring a Limited Edition O-Card slipcase and collector’s booklet (first pressing only). Check out the trailer below and let us know your thoughts in the comments.