Sex, Violence, and Saints' Images: Paul Verhoeven's 1985 Film Flesh + Blood

By Walsh, Martin W. | Michigan Academician, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Sex, Violence, and Saints' Images: Paul Verhoeven's 1985 Film Flesh + Blood


Walsh, Martin W., Michigan Academician


The medieval cult of the saints and sex-and-violence action movies do not normally intersect. One interesting example where they do is the film Flesh 4-Blood (1985) by the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven established his European reputation with such innovative films as Turkish Delight (1973), Soldier of Orange (1978), and The Fourth Man (1983). Flesh + Blood represents a transitional work in his career before a move to Hollywood where he would create such popular pictures of the late 80s and 90s as Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. In 2006 he returned to his roots with the Dutch-language World War II story, Black Book.

Flesh + Blood is Verhoeven's sole feature film dealing with medieval subject matter, though he had earlier directed a popular Dutch medieval TV series called Floris. For comparison, other important medieval films of the same decade are John Boorman's Excalibur (1981); Richard Donner's shape-shifting love story Ladyhawke (1985) and Jean-Jacques Annaud's atmospheric attempt to capture Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose on film in 1986. Verhoeven's film is by far the most violent and erotic of the lot, and its particular and extensive use of a saint's image is far from a trivial Hollywood appropriation.

The transitional nature of Vethoeven's picture, between Holland and Hollywood, accounts in large part for the odd amalgam of a dark, European historical sensibility and "action flick" preposterousness that characterizes the work. As one Dutch film critic succinctly put it, it was "Mad Max in de Middeleeuwen" (Seberechts 1985), while one American critic felt it "owed much to the Italian Westerns" (Klossner 2002, 142). (1) Flesh 4 + Blood is vaguely set in "Western Europe, 1501" in what appears to be northern Italy (it was actually filmed in Spain, in and around Avila, Carceres, and Belmonte in La Mancha). Verhoeven wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborator Gerard Soeteman, who generated the storyline. The film chronicles the fortunes of a hand of mostly Germanic mercenaries led by "alpha male" Martin, played by Verhoeven's star actor Rutger Hauer, best known to American audiences as the murderous "droid" in Blade Runner, and with whom he worked as the star of the medieval TV series Floris. Happy warrior Martin is first introduced in an outdoor Mass before battle helping himself to several communion wafers. A casually blasphemous attitude to sacred objects is thus established early on. Martin wields a great two-handed Landsknecht sword in the subsequent sack of the city. He and his motley crew have been serving under a condottiere by the name of Hawkwood in the interests of an exiled nobleman by the name of Arnolfini. Both names should resonate with medievalists, Sir John Hawkwood being the great mercenary captain of the Florentines in the late fourteenth century and Arnolfini being the merchant famously portrayed in the double wedding portrait by Van Eyck in 1434. They are just a century out of place in Verhoeven's film. The film Hawkwood retakes the nameless city for Arnolfini. But Lord Arnofini reneges on his promise of unlimited plunder and forces the shabbier elements of Hawkwood's army to surrender their loot and their weapons, expelling them from the city. Martin's war band is only slightly larger than the basic unit of a classic condottiere army, the "lance," which consisted of a mounted knight, a squire, a page, and two archers or men-at-arms. Needless to say, Martin is no knight. His men, indeed, are only a cut above quastatori ("devastators"), peasants hired to lay waste an enemy's territory, and are thus perfectly expendable (Murphy 2007).

Here is where the cult of the saints comes into play. The beaten and humiliated mercenaries uncover a buried statue of St. Martin of Tours in his characteristic gesture of dividing his cloak to share it with a naked beggar man, the so called "Charity of St. …

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