Dir. by Richard Donner
Starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer
A fast-talking thief escapes from a medieval French dungeon, only to be waylaid by a swordsman who wants his help to break back in. Over the course of their travel, the thief learns of the curse affecting the swordsman and his lover: he turns into a wolf at night, and she turns into a hawk by day.
This is another 80s fantasy film that I grew up with, that I haven’t seen in ages now. I remember watching it a lot on VHS, though we never got the DVD for it, and I probably haven’t seen it since the late 90s. I do remember watching it once in high school, specifically because I watched it in a double feature with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it was my first time seeing the latter.
In the wake of the success of the Lord of the Rings films, Hollywood’s fantasy output seemed to narrow down to two subgenres: world-shaking epic fantasy blockbusters, or YA adaptations with young protagonists. Sometimes the two would cross with each other, resulting in things like Eragon. In most cases, these were big-budget potential franchise starters, with copious CG and action writ large.
However, Hollywood used to produce a much different sort of fantasy film. Prior to the 90s CG revolution, which helped to make secondary-world fantasy like LotR more feasible, a good portion of the fantasy movies made were essentially medieval dramas with a couple of wizards or dragons thrown in. Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster, for all of their Bronze Age grandeur, are essentially the story of one man using his sword to survive, and accidentally falling into some semblance of a quest in the second half of the film. Even in The Princess Bride the stakes are personal ones: Buttercup’s life, and Inigo’s revenge. No giant clash of armies, no apocalypse to avert, no evil warlock with plans for world domination.
Ladyhawke is very much a part of this tradition, and possibly one of its finest examples. It’s essentially a cursed love triangle, played out on the backdrop of 13th century France. Other than some nameless henchmen, there are only seven significant speaking roles in the whole movie, and most of it is shot outdoors on location, with the occasional ruin or inn thrown in. It’s a very small, intimate film, almost entirely unlike modern fantasy. In fact, the “fantasy” aspects of the movie are extremely limited, being mainly restricted to the titular curse and a fortuitously timed eclipse at the climax. If it took place in a modern setting, I’d say it was more magical realism than fantasy.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that the movie isn’t any good in comparison to modern fantasy. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a lot. Matthew Broderick in particular was quite amusing, as the escaped thief who keeps up a running dialogue with God about his attempts to reform and the mixed messages that fate is sending him. It’s not quite the fourth-wall breaking that occurs in Ferris Bueller, but it provides some levity in an otherwise heavy story. I also enjoyed Rutger Hauer as the taciturn Navarre, single-mindedly fixated on killing the bishop that cursed him even when a way to break the curse is presented to him. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t actually throw his zweihander like a javelin, however, something he does more than once.
While I’d say that most of the film holds up quite well (and Broderick’s more modern-sounding character is actually ahead of his time), there’s definitely one aspect that immediately dates it, and rather badly at that: the score. Written in part by Alan Parsons, it’s one of the most 80s-taculur pieces of synthesizer prog rock I’ve ever heard. The main theme sounds like the intro to an NES Mega Man game. There’s some token cues with more traditional orchestral score, but these are few and far between. Broderick’s dialogue didn’t manage to take me out of the movie, but the music almost did.
My other major complaint is that this is a movie whose plot hinges around two characters who transform into animals daily, and yet there’s no actual transformation sequence in the movie. It always happens offscreen, the closest we get being some blown-out closeups of Michelle Pfeiffer’s face with some fluttering wings superimposed over top. Since this is the central magical conceit of the film, it’s definitely a major missed opportunity. Come on, Donner! Your budget was higher than either American Werewolf in London OR The Thing. You’ve gotta give us something!
Ahem…Anyway, I think that for the most part the movie’s still an enjoyable watch. A little dated in some ways, a lot dated in others, but overall I’m positive on it. I still prefer Willow, but it’s definitely better quality than some of the other fantasy films I’ve watched for his project (I’m looking at you, Krull).
-This is one of the only movies I can think of where Rutger Hauer doesn’t play a villain. He does bring some of those sinister overtones to Navarre, though, especially in the early going before you learn about the curse.
-You know, the movie spends over a third of its running time before you find out about the curse. Maybe they shouldn’t have put the reveal in the title.