Monsters & Mullets: Ladyhawke (1985)

Come for the score. Stay for the low fantasy romantic buddy-comedy.

I’ve written a lot about weird movies – films that are just categorically weird – over the years… and this is absolutely one of them. It’s an epic battle of good versus evil, played out against a medieval backdrop that doesn’t simply pay lip-service to its historical setting, but tries to make it an integral part of the story and the world. The acting is great, the casting is also great, if in one case, totally bizarre (but arguably works.) There are hawks and wolves and curses and Alfred Molina in an early role. The female lead has a refreshingly pragmatic haircut while the horses boasts manes that literally sweep the ground. The swords are over the top. There’s a crossbow and a joke that I think is meant to reference the London Underground. A character talks to God. A lot.

There’s the blessed, cursed, how-did-they-get-away-with-this score.

This is Ladyhawke.

Style goals.

The first question, of course, is WTF is with this cast: Michelle Pfeiffer in her mid-1980s holy shit she is inhumanly beautiful glory; Rutger Hauer bringing some Roy Batty intensity to his tortured knight errant; Leo McKern, aka Rumpole of the Bailey, stealing every scene he so much as glances at; John Wood, the twinkly old guy with the overfed dog in Chocolat, playing the creeptastic villain, and hey, also, Matthew Ferris Fucking Bueller Broderick is for some reason the lead?

Let’s just get the Broderick talk over with now. Broderick’s shtick is and always has been to play his characters as either extremely relaxed or very tightly wound, which works really well for roles like Ferris Bueller but which, when he’s miscast, sucks all the energy out of his scenes. His work relies on his audience being able to see his micro-expressions and the jittery way he moves. Philipe Gaston is a very tightly wound character, and the camera catches his every nervous jerk and stuttering blink. Broderick is playing a character who gets caught up in an epic tale, when all he wants out of life is to be left alone to steal money and drink too much. Since he also spends the entire film on the run from a bevy of murderous prison guards, it makes sense the Philipe would be a little jumpy.

Broderick is, in short, playing his one Broderick character – but it works for this film, where he’s basically Ferris Bueller stuck in 13th century Italy/France, with magic. As long as you can divorce the experience of watching the film from your memories of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, that is. This isn’t too hard if you, like me, don’t care for 80s teen films and FBDO holds no special place in your heart. If, however, your one Broderick touchstone is FBDO, I suspect that watching Ladyhawke is in incredibly surreal experience.

There’s a whole other conversation to have about accents in fantasy and period films, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. The important thing to note here is that there are points in this film where I believe Broderick might actually be aiming for some sort of British-ishy accent, but by and large he just sounds like Matthew Broderick. Given the international flavor of the film’s accents otherwise (American, Dutch, cut-glass RP English, East London and Italian)… does it really matter that Philipe sounds like an American teenager?

Anyway. We first meet Broderick’s character as he’s escaping from a 13th century prison, the dungeons of Aquila. This is Philipe Gaston – aka The Mouse – and he is pushing his way through a muddy wall. ‘It’s not unlike escaping mother’s womb,’ he editorializes. ‘God, what a memory.’ This, as far as economic character introductions go, is a good one: we learn that Philipe can wriggle through tight spaces, talks to himself/God constantly, and lies. A lot.

So, as it turns out, people do not escape from Aquila. Panic ensues, bells toll and soldiers stream out of the city in search of the escaped prisoner. Cut to a man in black, on a black horse, carrying a hawk, watching the walled city from well beyond the gates.

Etienne of Navarre. Likes: capital-D drama. Dislikes: that one dude. Those other dudes. Basically everyone, actually.

The bishop (John Wood) and his captain of the guards discuss the issue of the escaped prisoner, and we get our first real glimpse of the character of the bishop: the captain of the guard says it’d be a miracle if Philipe actually made it out alive, and the Bishop, his body nearly shaking with controlled rage (I mentioned Broderick’s tightly wound thing above, but John Wood’s performance is a masterclass in acting ), reminds the captain that he believes in miracles, being a bishop and all. He has one or two other compelling reasons to believe in miracles, we’ll learn.

Philipe runs and runs and runs. Over mountains, though forests, running running running. The man in black Mysteriously Mysteriouses around with his hawk, watching. Philipe makes it to an inn and immediately begins boasting about being the only prisoner to over break out of the Aquila dungeons. In front of a bunch of guards. And the captain of the guards. Who attack, naturally. Well done, Philipe, you idiot.

Philipe does his best, and holds the guards off for about 2.3 seconds, but is of course caught pretty much immediately. Just as he’s about to be beheaded, however, a crossbow bolt smacks into the swordsman’s arm and we behold our man in black, wielding a gigantic crossbow like it ain’t no thing, looking to rescue Philipe. One of the Aquila guards calls him ‘Captain Navarre’, which makes the current captain v unhappy, so the current captain stone-cold murders the dude. Bad idea. This pisses Navarre off and he fights – and handily defeats – approximately thirteen guards while Philipe takes advantage of the confusion to slip away.

Navarre, cape swirling, sweeps onto his seriously enormous horse and chases after him. I think Navarre’s cape is meant to be his former captain’s cape turned inside-out, a good detail. Navarre catches Philipe basically immediately, beats a guard over the head with a well-aimed fist, and rides off. His hawk takes two other guards out, because raptors do not fuck around.

Navarre and Philipe find a really grim little farm in the middle of a forest and pay  the farmer, who literally looks like the grim reaper, to spend the night in a barn that seems to be built out of twigs. This will definitely end well. In the barn, as twilight falls, we see Navarre pull what appears to be a wad of purple silk out of his saddlebag. Philipe insults Navarre’s horse as Navarre warns Philipe not to disturb him at night. Philipe tells the horse his life story because dude is a talker. I’d make a joke but we all know where this is going.

Once it’s dark, Philipe goes wandering into the forest to collect wood, chatting with God the entire time. Just as he’s psyched himself up to tell Navarre off, he hears something following him in the woods. So, thinking better of his plans he instead runs back the barn to wake Navarre. We hear growling from off-screen. Just as Philipe reaches the barn, the emaciated farmer appears behind him, axe raised to strike a killing blow, when a giant black wolf appears out of nowhere and attacks the famer. Philipe gets into the barn and tries – and fails – to arm Navarre’s crossbow to kill the wolf as it savages the farmer, which is the obvious point for a hauntingly beautiful woman to appear from nowhere, stop him, and… wander off into the woods. The wolf leaves the dead farmer behind to trot to her side. Philipe, understandably, freaks out. God has no answers for him.

The next day, Philipe tells Navarre about the previous night’s adventures. Navarre, who is weirdly tired for a man who apparently slept through the noisy murder of a farmer, shrugs and takes a nap in the middle of the day.

Meanwhile, the captain of the guards has returned to Aquila to give the bishop some bad news. He finds the bishop watching a woman dance while dressed as a bird  and then feeds her from his hand. It’s a nice bit for foreshadowing, and creepy as fuck. The bishop is very annoyed at being interrupted, but learning that Navarre is back sends him spiraling into a totally different sort of fury. The bishop, to the captain’s confusion, gets really intense about whether or not Navarre has a hawk with him.

We cut back to Philipe and Navarre. Navarre wakes from his nap to find Philipe chopping firewood with a giant fucking broadsword. Navarre is reasonably gentle in explaining that a), you don’t chop wood with a giant fucking sword, and b) this particular giant fucking sword is going to be used to kill the bishop of Aquila. Which is why Navarre rescued Philipe – so Philipe can sneak Navarre into Aquila. Philipe emphatically nopes out.

Cut to night. Philipe is tied to a tree. The inhumanly beautiful woman from the farmer-murder finds him while trying to catch a rabbit for her dinner. Philipe talks her into letting him go, and runs off; she realizes that Navarre must have tied him up. Don’t worry, extremely beautiful mysterious woman; Navarre will catch him immediately the next day.

Or will he? Nope, because the guards catch Philipe first, and when Navarre tries to save him a fight breaks out and the hawk winds up with a crossbow bolt through the breast. Navarre is also wounded, but seems much more upset about the bird.  He sends Philipe off with the hawk to seek help from a drunken monk who lives alone in a crumbling monastery. Philipe, who hasn’t quite put it all together yet, spends the trip telling the hawk about all the hawks he’s killed and eaten over the years.

Philipe makes it to the ruined castle and tells the monk that the hawk belongs to Navarre. The monk – Imperious, who is the very best - gets VERY UPSET and rushes Philipe and the bird inside before throwing Philipe back out. The sun sets. Philipe, because grass doesn’t grow under his feet for too long, breaks into the castle and confirms that, indeed, the bird is somehow also Michelle Pfeiffer. Tick tick tick boom.

Now is when things get very dramatic. We cut to Navarre’s sword, which we last saw him praying beside. The setting sun. Imperious spreading a poultice on the woman’s shoulder and covering her eyes. A wolf. The woman removing Imperious’ hand from her eyes. The bishop shaking in his sleep. Deep breath. The wolf howls, lightning strikes, Imperious yanks the bolt out, the woman screams, and the bishop wakes with a shuddering start . And then… hey, it’s Alfred Molina, covered in dead wolves! This is Cezar, whom the bishop has called forth to… you guessed it, go kill a wolf. A specific wolf.

And finally, we get our backstory, courtesy of Imperious. Beautiful Isabeau of Anjou was beloved by all, but she loved the captain of the guards, Etienne of Navarre. Alas, the Bishop of Aquila was obsessed with her, and when Imperious got drunk at confession and outed Isabeau and Etienne to the bishop, he called upon the powers of darkness to curse them. By day she’s a hawk, by night he’s a wolf. They’re devoted to each other, and always together but always apart. Their animal forms they have no memory of their human lives, and they can see each other as humans only briefly at dawn and dusk but can’t touch. That is mean.

So, Cezar: he’s a wolf-hunter, and he’s killing wolves for the bishop. He hasn’t killed the right wolf, however, so the bishop tells him that the wolf he’s after travels with a woman named Isabeau. Cezar takes this in stride. A professional wolf-hunter has probably seen some shit.

Some time passes – a night? Several days? But Isabeau improves, and Philipe spends his time making up lies about all the poetic things that Navarre – who is absolutely not poetic, despite his flare for the dramatic – has said about her. Spoiler alert: Navarre has not said this stuff. Eventually – and again, I have no idea how much time has passed – the guards find the castle and attack. Imperious has booby-trapped it pretty well and does a good job delaying the guards, but can’t hold them off forever. Even with a weird ‘walk on the left side’ joke re. a crumbling bridge. Philipe tries to escape with Isabeau but they get caught on a tower and a guard knocks her off… only for her to be transformed back into a hawk by the rising sun before she hits the ground. Lucky! Also she recovered from that ARROW THROUGH HER BREAST really fast. Double lucky! Anyway, Navarre is here too, standing heroically on a nearby hill, and shoots a guard to save Philipe’s life.

Rumpole!

We next catch up with our heroes as Navarre is flouncing away from the castle, hawk on his arm, Imperious chasing after him. Imperious claims that God has told him how to break the curse. Navarre’s like, dude, I know how to break it; I’m going to kill the shit out of the bishop. Imperious’ thing does sound, you know, a little improbable: in three days’ time there’ll be a day without a night and a night without a day, and during that time Navarre and Isabeau must confront the bishop, side by side in their human forms, and the curse will be broken. Easy! Navarre tells Imperious he’s mad, and Leo McKern’s face crumples beautifully.  Navarre releases Philipe from his promise to help him break into Aquila (did Philipe actually ever agree to go along with Navarre’s plan?), but Philipe decides to come along anyway and also names Isabeau ‘Ladyhawke’. Imperious follows, because he and Philipe have developed a strong friendship over the course of however long it’s been and they have a plan that doesn’t begin and end with ‘charge in and murder everyone’.

That evening, as night falls, Navarre sends Isabeau off with Philipe to find shelter as a storm sets in. Philipe puts them up in a barn (classy) and steals her a new dress (double classy) but she seems pretty happy about it all, given that she has spent het last few years on her own at night. They share a little dance and then head out into the rain to find some wine, when boom, Alfred Molina! Isabeau screams and Philipe says her name to calm her, which Cezar hears and repeats really creepily. God, I love Alfred Molina. Philipe pulls Navarre’s HUGE-ASS SWORD on Cezar, who laughs at him (rightfully) and rides off, absolutely unconcerned. Unfortunately, Isabeau rides after him to save Navarre, and Philipe is like, fuck, Navarre’s going to murder my dumb ass (rightfully).

Isabeau comes upon Cezar setting man-traps in the woods, and obviously every form of hunter’s trap is awful and cruel, but man-traps might be the actual worst? As demonstrated by Cezar’s awful, extended, gurgling death in his own after Isabeau kind of pushes him into it. Navarre and Isabeau are safe, for now.

More time passes (although given the timeframe that Imperious set out, I guess it’s just the next day) and we are back in the mountains. Navarre uses his crossbow to fish, which seems needlessly wasteful, and prepares Philipe a nice meal of pears, bread and trout. But trouble arrives when hawk-Isabeau flies to Philipe rather than Navarre, and to get himself out of trouble, Philipe lies about what she said about Navarre the night before (she didn’t) which placates Navarre. Eventually, in a melancholy moment, Philipe will confess to Imperious that the only moments of happiness he’s found recently have come from lying to the two principles about what they haven’t said about each other.

Back to the plot! Imperious has caught up with Navarre and Philipe, and is still trying to convince Navarre to break the curse the non-violent way. Navarre finally loses his temper and tells them he doesn’t need their help, and heads off on his own. Imperious and Philipe follow, and that night Philipe and Imperious rope Isabeau into their plan. This plan, and I am mostly guessing here, is that they’ll dig a hole, trap the wolf, and then let Isabeau and Navarre see each other as humans for the few seconds between their transformations in order to convince Navarre that he needs to at least try to break the curse before killing the bishop. Alas, Navarre-as-wolf fouls everything up by falling through the ice in a lake, and even though Philipe saves him, everyone gets pretty banged up in the process.

Navarre and Isabeau do wake up together in a hole in the ground (romantic!) and see each other for a moment, before Isabeau turns into a bird and Navarre does some more of his anguished yelling. I read a contemporary review of this film which said that the only real issue with it was Rutger Hauer’s hammy acting, and I genuinely have no idea what the reviewer was going on about; Hauer does do some anguished yelling here and there, but… given the fact that his character is a dude who turns into a wolf at sunset and is in love with a woman who turns into a hawk when the sun is up thanks to an evil bishop’s deal with the devil, the occasional manful scream doesn’t seem wholly out of place. Also, is there a fantasy film in existence that doesn’t contain an anguished howl or two from the lead? How often does Aragorn drop to his knees and howl at the sky in Lord of the Rings?  A lot, is what I’m saying. That’s how it’s done.

So. Navarre’s already in a bad mood when he finally climbs out of his hole in the ground, and then learns that Philipe lost his sword in the ice the night before, making him doubly mad. He pushes Philipe to the ground, revealing some icky looking scratches across his chest. Imperious explains that Philipe saved wolf-Navarre the night before, and this for some reason is the thing that convinces Navarre to sort of go along with their plan? I really don’t know; it’s all a bit unclear who’s agreeing to what and why. The point is, all four do all get into Aquila eventually.

Philipe enters via the same sewer from which he originally escaped. His job is to sneak into the cathedral and throw open the cathedral doors (which are locked during services) so that Navarre can enter when the bishop is… surrounded by hundreds of people. Why that’s a better time to kill him than, say, in his sleep I don’t know. Honour is a word that gets bandied about a LOT in this movie, and seems to have something to do with family swords and killing one’s nemesis face to face, in front of hundreds of randos. In the fantasy film version of my life, I am definitely the character who doesn’t understand the concept of honour until it’s too late.

Before Navarre suits up and heads out to kill the bishop, he asks Imperious to kill Isabeau if he fails in his mission – Imperious will know Navarre has failed if the bells that signal the end of service start to ring. You know how girls can’t live without their men, and all. Why does Navarre ask for this thing? Why does Imperious not do it? Because of HIGH DRAMA and also PLOT REQUIREMENTS for HIGH DRAMA. Navarre gets to think Isabeau is dead! Isabeau gets to make a grand entrance! It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it does make for good filmic story-telling. As long as you’re not in the business of writing 4000-word essays about it.

Navarre rides his giant horse down the middle of the street to get to the cathedral; no one stops him, probably because his horse is the biggest horse in the entire universe of horses. Philipe gets the doors open just in time, and Navarre makes quite the entrance into the cathedral, cape swirling and hooves flying, then marches on his horse down the aisle towards the bishop. The evil captain, however is right behind him and the two get into an enormous, exhausting fight, first on horseback and then on foot. They clatter and swipe at each other as they race up and down the aisle while the bishop watches, impassive. The captain throws his helmet at Navarre after being unseated, and it breaks a window. We get a Navarre’s-eye-view of his progress toward the bishop, swatting guards away, until a roll of thunder makes everyone look up at that broken window… to see the moon cover the sun. An eclipse! It all makes sense now.

Navarre figures it out and we can see that he’s suddenly desperate to get out of the cathedral and back to Isabeau, but the evil captain won’t let him go. The bells begin to ring and Navarre sags a bit, which is the exact moment that Philipe pulls Navarre’s sword out of his cassock (he hadn’t lost it! He just hid it! Because of honour! Or something!) and tosses it to him. Navarre can’t reach it but does seem to get his second wind and the battle rages on. Our two combatants are sweaty and exhausted, staggering around like they’re drunk and just when it seems that the evil captain has him pinned down, Navarre kills the dude with his own sword. This bit is filmed in really janky slow motion, a decision I will never not question, but it’s soon over. Navarre grabs his real sword and finally confronts the bishop.

‘But kill me, Navarre, and the curse will go on forever. We must think of Isabeau,’ the bishop says, smarmily. John Wood! So good in this role. Navarre assures the bishop that Isabeau is dead and just as he raises his sword… Isabeau walks into the cathedral. There’s a long moment of silence, then she rushes to Navarre before catching sight of the bishop. She leaves Navarre’s side as anguish floods his face, and walks toward the bishop, who lights up like it’s Christmas morning. You know, but smarmily.  And then Isabeau drops her traces into his hands and walks off. Navarre forces the bishop to look at the two of them together and voila, the curse? She is broke. The bishop, however, is not willing to call it a day yet, and rushes at her with the pointy end of his crosier. Navarre turns around just in time and hurls his sword at the bishop with enough force to impale him against a stone pillar, killing him very dead. John Wood plays his final scene with so much fury he’s actually shaking. Great stuff.

Navarre and Isabeau get in a few well-earned smooshes, and Philipe and Imperious (who is also there now) do some hugging and crying, and they also kiss!, as all the very confused people in the cathedral watch. Then our four heroes hug, and Navarre kisses Philipe (this film is very good about masculine affection), and Philipe and Imperious hold hands as they leave the cathedral, and the camera focuses on Navarre and Isabeau, hug-dancing, and pulls away. The end!

There are a lot of things this film should be remembered for, from its astonishingly beautiful cinematography to its epic love story to its very healthy and very modern approach to friendship and love. But, of course, what it is remembered for is… its score. You know, the pounding, synth-heavy score, composed by Andrew Powell and produced by Alan Parsons, that seems so insanely dated and so egregiously at odds with basically everything else about the film. But Ladyhawke is 35 years old, and now completely divorced from the context in which it was made. It’s easy to forget that, in 1985, huge orchestral scores weren’t always the norm.

Filmmakers had begun experimenting with other ways to score music fairly early on in cinema history, and orchestral film scores were generally considered passé by the late 70s. Consider, for example, that famous zither that underlies the action in The Third Man, from 1949: zithers may be common in Austria, where the film is set, but they produce a rather jauntier sound than what we commonly (now) associate with noir. In any event, it was the success of John Williams’ intentionally epic, intentionally throw-back score for 1977’s Star Wars that helped bring the big, serious orchestral sound back to film. Today’s audiences expect to hear timpani bombast, for example, during battle sequences in commercial films – to the degree that audiences don’t even hear the score while watching movies. But they do hear scores that don’t work the way they expect them to work, so a fantasy film set in 13th century Italy scored by the peak-80s sounds of the Alan Parsons Project can’t help but set off (tubular) bells for modern audiences.

The Ladyhawke score sounded dated and wholly incongruous within just a few years of the film’s release. But I couldn’t find a single contemporary review (not that I was able to dig up that many, mind you) that mention the music. And I’m willing to argue that, like the Third Man’s zither, the score works; by the end of the film it’s become an integral a part of the experience of watching the movie. Perhaps Ladyhawke would feel less dated if it had a more traditional score, but it would certainly feel more anonymous, and much less memorable.

We’ll end here with a few fun casting facts: the role of Navarre was offered to Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and was nearly played by Kurt Russell, who seems to have withdrawn at the last minute. Philipe’s character was offered to Sean Penn and possibly Dustin Hoffman again. Rutger Hauer was originally offered the evil captain of the guards role. Imagine that film.

This one is better.

Monsters: Werewolf! Werehawk!

Mullets: No mullets per se, but a fair number of anonymous 1980s haircuts. Michelle Pfeiffer’s hair was cut short to give her a choppy ‘Joan of Arc’ look, which, because I hate long hair worn loose on female characters in action movies and fantasy films, I’m fine with. Here’s a revolting 1985 New York Times review by a critic who can’t keep the scorn from his prose except when he’s panting after Pfeiffer. He hates the ‘you’ve cut your hair’ line from the end of the film because he has no sense of humour and also is a snob.

Hookers, Victims & Doormats: On the one hand, there’s a single female character with a speaking role in this film. On the other hand, she does do things like kill rabbits with her bare hands (implied) and turn into a hawk (against her will). Isabeau doesn’t have much agency throughout most of the film… which is sort of the point; after all, she’s been cursed by a man for not immediately conforming to his needs and his desires, and the moment she hands the bishop her traces is freighted with meaning.

Remake Watch: No remake appears to be in the pipeline, thankfully. Let’s leave Ladyhawke where it is: a bizarre and genuinely lovely mid-80s buddy comedy romance blip in the modern trajectory of fantasy film.


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