The 1980s certainly was a great time to be a kid going to the theatre as fantasy movies lit up the screen like never before with such great films as Dragonslayer, The Dark Crystal, Conan the Barbarian and one of my favourites and today’s pick Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke.
The story takes place in 12th century Europe where although everyone may have French or Italian names it being a Hollywood movie there is nary an accent to be found. The first character we are introduced to is Philippe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) known to all as “The Mouse” who we see struggling to escape from the dungeons of Aquila via the sewers. Philippe’s most interesting characteristic is his running commentary with God, “We have come full circle, Lord. I would like to think there is some higher meaning in this. It certainly would reflect well on You.” It is a testament to Broderick’s skills as a comic actor that this bit doesn’t get old or annoying.
When Marquet (Ken Hutchison) the Captain of the Guard informs the Bishop of Aquila (John Wood) of the escape the Bishop is rather nonplussed as no one escapes from the Dungeons of Aquila, “It is considered a historic fact.” Marquet and his men scour the countryside looking for Philippe and just when they get their gauntleted gloves on him Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer) shows up and with his double-action crossbow saves Philippe and the two manage to escape the soldiers.
Navarre needs Philippe because Philippe is the only one known to have ever escaped the dungeons of Aquila and Navarre wants his help getting in so he can kill the Bishop. To say Philippe is less than impressed with the idea of returning to Aquila would be an immense understatement. They travel together for a while as Philippe becomes less and less enchanted with his situation; one night he is saved by a great black wolf and then meets a mysterious beautiful woman by the name of Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) whose haunting beauty captures his soul. Neither of these events makes Philippe comfortable with the direction his life is going.
As this strange trio of a man, a boy and a hawk make their way across the countryside we begin to learn of the curse that plagues Navarre and Isabeau; by day she is a bird but when the sun sets she changes into the beautiful maiden while Navarre shifts into the form of the black wolf.
For me one of the best elements of this movie is the way Richard Donner handles the transformations, there are no extreme make-up effects aided by puppetry and air bladders here. No, for this movie the changes come with a flare of sunlight or a flash of lightning- poetic and beautiful much more in keeping with a classic fairy tale story. And what fairy tale would be complete without a great villain and John Wood as the tyrannical Bishop of Aquila is just perfect as a man so jealous that he turned his back on God to ask the aid of the Devil in cursing the young lovers.
Next on the fantasy story agenda is the encounter with a hermit who can provide information the heroes need to be victorious. In this case, the hermit happens to be the priest Imperious (Leo McKern) who just so happens to be the very priest who accidentally betrayed Navarre and Isabeau’s secret love to the Bishop. God has finally granted him a vision as to how the curse can be lifted; they both must stand before the Bishop in their human forms in three days’ time, “When there will be a day without night and a night without day.”
Ladyhawke is full of everything one could want from a fantasy film; stalwart heroes, a beautiful maiden and dastardly villains. We even get a bonus villain with Alfred Molina as Cezar the wolf catcher who meets a rather ghastly end in one of his own traps. Rutger Hauer plays the tortured hero like he was born to it (It’s truly a shame he wasn’t cast in more heroic roles like this) and if you don’t fall in love with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Isabeau you may want to check and see if you have a heartbeat. Casting Ferris Bueller in a medieval period piece may seem to be one of the strangest choicest a director could make but it really worked here and Broderick proved his versatility.
Trivia Note: The studio had actually cast Kurt Russell as Etienne Navarre and Rutger Hauer was to play the villainous Marquet. Thank god for whatever reason caused Russell to bow out.
The one niggling thing that has always bothered me is the score, for me, the choice of Andrew Powell and Alan Parsons just didn’t quite feel right for when I think medieval fantasy I don’t normally think of contemporary progressive rock. Now watching it again I’m a bit more forgiving and find there is a lot of good stuff in that score but when the synthesizers are going full bore with the main theme I still cringe a little.
With Ladyhawke, Richard Donner brought us a gorgeous fantasy film full of action and humour and easily one of his better films and it’s a shame that aside from Superman he stayed pretty much clear of the genre.
Movie Rank - 8/10
Richard Donner brings us a fun action adventure fantasy film that has held up well over the years. The cast is universally pitch-perfect for their parts and the look of the film is just great. Well worth revisiting and it’s a shame that it’s not more readily available.