Friday, 25 May 2012

Ladyhawke (1985)

Country: USA

With the success of such films as Hawk the Slayer (1980), Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), and Krull (1983) fantastical and mythical movies of sword and sorcery enjoyed an hitherto unseen commercial success in the early 1980’s. The cycle wasn’t to last long, but proof of its appeal was confirmed when the Italian’s got in on the act with a series of low budget rip offs such as the Ator series (1982, 84, 86, and 1990), Lucio Fulci’s dreadful Conquest (1983), and almost unwatchable crap like Throne of Fire (1983). As an index of box office appeal and success there was none greater in the 1970’s and 1980’s than the inevitable cycle of cheap Italian imitations. In many ways Ladyhawke (which strolled to No 1 in last month’s film review poll) is one of the most atypical of the cycle. There is no doubt in my mind that it would not have been made, were it not for some of the films previously mentioned, yet in an act of craven gutted cowardice, the filmmakers behind it chose to jettison the violence, and the special effects in favour of a soporific, sickly-sweet, saccharine, gag-inducing romance aimed at teenage girls. This is low calorie sword and sorcery (the sorcery element is also non-existent), but the filmmakers and producers are not beyond drawing from the genre (or should that be jumping onto the bandwagon) in order for their sugar coated medieval yarn to appeal to the widest audience. I can only imagine how mystified and disgusted male sword and sorcery fans were when they went to see this in theatres back in 1985.

The director was Richard Donner, he of such solid and entertaining, but ultimately uninspired fare such as The Omen (1976), Superman (1978) and the interminably dull Lethal Weapon series of films (1987, 89, 92, 98). It comes as no surprise that he brings his bloated and turgid style to Ladyhawke which takes 120 minutes to tell its ‘B’ movie story. The few action sequences that there are in Ladyhawke are directed in such a constipated fashion by Donner, that it quickly becomes apparent that we need to look elsewhere for inspiration and enjoyment. Donner even manages to bungle the long awaited battle between Captain Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and the evil captain of the guard that has replaced him; it goes on and on and on…! But not in the satirical fashion of Roddy Piper’s legendary fight with Keith David in They Live (1989); much to its cost Ladyhawke is an entirely po-faced venture in which talented people get to look stupid for two hours. Fortunately though we do have acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who won Oscars for Apocalypse Now [1979], Reds [1981], and The Last Emperor [1987]) on hand to capture some genuinely beautiful imagery of the Italian countryside. A sequence in which Alfred Molina’s swarthy and cruel hunter Cezar tracks Navarre in his wolf form in dark and eerie woodland is beautifully lit, and wonderfully evocative. Likewise a sequence in an iced over lake which sees Navarre and Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), gaze lovingly into each others eyes, and stretch out for each other, only to have the rising sun cruelly snatch away their opportunity, is magnificently filmed, and is the most notable index of the torture and torment tearing the young lovers asunder.

The main acting plaudits in this misguided aberration go to Matthew Broderick who plays thief and artful dodger archetype Philippe “The Mouse” Gaston. Broderick was fresh off the success of WarGames (1983) and somewhat surprisingly gets top billing here. Broderick is both the best and worst thing about Ladyhawke. Gaston is the only character in the film that develops; whilst Navarre’s journey is an odyssey of vengeance that culminates in the lifting of the Bishop’s (John Wood) curse, Gaston undertakes a moral odyssey, which sees him progress from a self centred and petty thief, to a much more rounded human being who stands on the threshold of adulthood. In many ways Gaston’s journey is a rites of passage, and the heartbreaking tragedy and mystery of Navarre/Isabeau awakens a need him to do something that is not entirely in service to himself. Unfortunately though Gaston is also incredibly irritating, his incessant one way monologue with God is especially grating, and the scene in which he and reformed padre Father Imperius (Leo McKern) hug each other, kiss each other, and cry in each others arms when the evil curse is lifted, makes you wish that the Bishop had claimed victory.

Most people who read this site will know that Rutger Hauer is my favourite actor, but on this occasion the brilliant Dutchman is hopelessly miscast. He visibly struggles with the dreadful dialogue, and doesn’t quite bring the depth of emotion required; though his skills with the sword and his obvious ability on horseback make him a very convincing former Captain of the guard. Equally bland and lifeless is the abysmal Michelle Pfeiffer and the two actors make for a very mismatched couple. It just doesn’t quite ring true, though the depths of the Bishop’s obsession, and his casual cruelty and sadism, makes him a convincingly odious villain, but one that is denied the screen time he deserves. Anyone familiar with Ladyhawke will know that it’s almost impossible not to mention the highly controversial and divisive soundtrack, which was produced by Alan Parsons and orchestrated by Andrew Powell. Parson’s stock-in trade of layered keyboards, drum machines, and overly polished production is entirely inappropriate for a medieval adventure set in 13th century France. That said, the music actually isn’t that bad at all, and I have to admit my sympathies here, because I own most of the albums put out by the Alan Parson‘s Project. Almost every aspect of this $20,000,000 turkey feels jarring and misplaced, from the casting, to the direction, to the soundtrack. The only person who could be said to have enhanced his CV with this film is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I very fair review, my friend, of a film right out of my youth. When I first saw it, I was far too young, and far too taken with Michelle Pfeiffer's more-lady and less-hawk-like features, to feel the lack of gratuitous nudity and extreme violence that normally accompanied the Sword and Sorcery fare of this time period. That said, KRULL is also sorely lacking in the the skin department, if I recall. No matter, because as far as LADY HAWK goes, your assessment is correct: were I to view it (for the first time) as I am today, I would no doubt be appalled at its utter shortage of scantily clad or bare chested babes, tan and bulging biceps, and its deficit amount of blood and severed limbs. Alas, but as a child, I liked this one a great deal. But that alone, does not a good movie make. No, Sir. No way. No how.

    I agree with you, though, about the scene you touched on where the coming of dawn presages the heartlessness of the curse that estranges them: it's inspired stuff. Same goes for the moment when the wolf hunts down Alfred Molina. But like you say, these fine moments don't add up to much. And the score for me at least distracts from the subject matter. As shame, too, because an ace composer might have been able to come up with a score to temper the more saccharine aspects of the story itself.

  2. I'm rather lucky in regard to LADYHAWKE in not having any nostalgic childhood feelings towards it. I was actually well into my twenties when I first watched it, and it was only added to my film library because of Rutger Hauer. Much to my annoyance I discovered Hauer to be badly miscast, and wholly inappropriate for the role. I'm also not a big enthusiast of sword and sorcery movies, and KRULL and the others mentioned in the opening paragraph have never done a lot for me. I think LADYHAWKE looks good, there are some beautifully shot scenes, but with Hauer and Pfeiffer being such a mismatched couple, the tragic love story didn't work for me. It ultimately makes the film a hollow and empty experience. I understand you liking it if though, if I'd seen this as a kid, I think I would have thought it was pretty cool too....thanks for stopping by good sir!

  3. I also saw it as a kid, and liked somethings about it, but hated others, like the soundtrack that you mentioned. It simply does not mix with the film.

    I was also expecting more magic to the film, since it was a film about a lady who transforms into a hawk...but the magical elements were toned down, which is a dissapointment for sword and sorcery fans.

    Haven't seen it in ages though, need to re-watch it soon because I do have that nostalgia thing about it; but I have a feeling it's going to be one of those movies that I loved as a kid, but wont like as an adult.

    I do love KRULL though! It's one of those big budget 80's fantasy films, I loved those, they had a real feeling of adventure to them, I recently watched it and found it silly beyond belief, but I loved it anyways.

  4. Hi there Franco; Yes it seems LADYHAWKE just hasn't stood the test of time particularly well. It is a very sanitised example of S&S, and personally I think the film would hold more appeal to teenage girls. I haven't seen KRULL for years, I'm not even sure if I have a copy. If I do I may dust it off and give it another look....many thanks for stopping by.


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