Whenever I get into a funk about the state of the world, I find it's always helpful to look at history. Once I've taken a peek into the past and seen how ugly, squalid, and brutal life could be for most people, I'm usually able to put things in perspective.
Flesh + Blood won't fit anyone's ideal of high art, and I've no idea how historically accurate it is. But the movie makes it clear that life in 16th century Europe wasn't one big Renaissance Faire.
It's somewhere in Western Europe, the year is 1501. A band of mercenaries led by Martin (Rutger Hauer in his prime, ladies!) help a lord recapture his castle. Unfortunately the lord is a bit short of funds, and reneges on his promises of payment to the mercenaries and throws them out into the rain. Fueled by a desire for revenge on the lord, and egged on by their resident religious man, a half-mad "Cardinal", the mercenaries ambush a caravan, injuring the lord and capturing Princess Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who spends a good chunk of the film naked) who is betrothed to the lord's son, Prince Stephen (the seriously bland Tom Burlinson).
The mercenaries, with Agnes as a perhaps-willing accomplice, take over a small castle. Soon Stephen arrives with soldiers to storm the castle and get Agnes back. To complicate matters, the countryside is being overrun with bubonic plague outbreaks.
For its first two-thirds, Flesh + Blood is an entertaining and fairly realistic view of a time that, while no longer the Dark Ages, had its fair share of hardships and brutality. When Stephen and Agnes profess their love (they've known each other for less than an hour) their first kiss is exchanged under a tree from whose limb hang the grotesquely decayed corpses of two hanged criminals. More interesting is that while Agnes is a princess who's spent her whole life in a convent, and Stephen is a scholar, neither pay the corpses any particular attention or find anything unusual about it. Likewise, in the opening battle, property is destroyed, slaughter is wholesale, women are raped, and it's all commonplace.
The film gets rather silly in its last third, when Stephen and his men build a siege machine that is both ridiculously elaborate and invites comparisons to the Trojan Rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. More effective and rather disturbing is a look at germ warfare, sixteenth-century style (hint: a plague-infested dog carcass makes for effective biological warfare, especially if it ends up in the water supply).
Also weakening the film is Tom Burlinson as Stephen. We're meant to empathize with Stephen (as much as we can empathize with anyone in this movie); he's learned and intelligent, he rejects the superstition of the times and protests his father's cruelty. But more often than not he comes off as merely arrogant, and Burlinson lacks charisma of any kind. More than once he reminded me of Tom Cruise in Legend. This is not a good thing.
Giving much stronger performances are Rutger Hauer as Martin and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Agnes. Throughout the film Hauer is intelligent and charismatic, to the extent that you often take Martin's side even as you recognize he's a murderer and rapist. Leigh gives probably the most interesting performance, playing a woman who does nothing without calculation, and works every situation to her best advantage.
Which leads us to the most controversial and most interesting part of Flesh + Blood; the relationship between Martin and Agnes. When Agnes is captured by the mercenaries, she's raped by Martin. The scene is particularly chilling because Agnes begs the women in the mercenary band to help her. Not only do they not help, they mock her and help hold her down. Agnes then turns the situation as much to her own benefit as she can by pretending to enjoy the rape, and persuading Martin to be the only one to have her sexually. Although Martin never outright promises this, he prevents the others in the group from abusing Agnes.
It's never clear if Agnes comes to have feelings for Martin, or if she is merely submitting to and encouraging his desires to keep him interested in her and prevent him from handing her over to the rest of the mercenaries. It's to the actors' credit and to Verhoeven's that what could have been a reprehensible premise (a woman falling for her rapist) and is not only logical within the context of the film, but an interesting reflection on what was necessary to survive in such a brutal time.
The DVD transfer is a bit grainy but as such suits the film (this is not a glossy, pretty film like Excalibur). The extras include a director commentary by Verhoeven, and a feature on Basil Poledouris' score (Poledouris also scored Conan the Barbarian, and while the Flesh + Blood score is similar to Conan's, it's not nearly as memorable).
Though not for the squeamish or the easily offended, Flesh + Blood is entertaining for anyone interested in the grittier side of history. Huzzah!