As visually resplendent as it remains tragically guileless, Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke (1985) prefigures Matthew Broderick’s rise to fame as teenage heartthrob, Ferris Bueller; alas, forcing Broderick’s rather limited acting range to stretch to the point of tediousness. Ladyhawke’s artistic implosion as a pseudo-Arthurian adventure clearly rests on Broderick’s slender shoulders; uttering glib one-liners with all the finesse (or lack therefore) a la Keanu Reeves, as though someone had Mactac-ed the cue cards to his forehead. Like an American character thrust into the Victorian novel head first, nothing Broderick does in Ladyhawke can mask the fact he is out of his element and depth – just a kid wearing someone else’s stolen clothes (a plot point in the movie as well) and professing a schemer’s agility as Philippe ‘the mouse’ Gaston. Broderick’s shortcomings are glaringly magnified in the presence of his costars, Rutger Hauer (as Capt. Navarre, with whom he spends the bulk of the movie’s run time) and even, Michelle Pfeiffer (as the luminous and mysterious Isobeau) – more Broderick’s contemporary, at least, in age. Regrettably, the role of Gaston called for an enterprising, rather than amateurish, ne’er do well. It was first offered to Sean Penn, then Dustin Hoffman. Both turned it down. Either might have made something of it beyond clumsily adolescent tripe.
Part of the problem with Ladyhawke is that it waffles between a desire to be a high-stakes/love-conquers-all rollicking adventure and a well-mannered high-borne melodrama with a classically-straining backbone. Bizarrely, somewhere between the opening and end credits it unravels into a smelly mutt of a shaggy-dog story instead. Pity this, since the screenplay from Edward Khmara, Michael Thomas and Tom Mankiewicz is up to the ‘heavy lifting’; likely inspired – at least, in part – by the success of 1981’s medieval-themed, Excalibur. The eloquent exchanges of dialogue in Ladyhawke are so obviously the work of co-writer, Tom Mankiewicz who hasn’t quite figured out he isn’t writing for Sir Lawrence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Dame Judith Anderson. While the ‘good rule of thumb’ in writing for the movies is usually, ‘know thy audience’, in this case, Mankiewicz ought to have first grasped the level of aptitude of his in-front-of-the-camera talent.
To be certain, Mankiewicz has definitely captured the essential flavor from this period with a penchant for fluidity in his pseudo-old-English prose that the more gifted among the cast, like Leo Kern’s curmudgeonly coot, Imperius or John Wood’s vial Bishop, assuage with seasoned virtuosity; the structured cadence regrettably sticking like thorny lumps of thistle and mush in Broderick, Pfeiffer, and occasionally Hauer’s – craw. Unlike Ken Hutchison’s enterprising, Marquet, Alfred Molina’s dubious Cezar or even, Giancarlo Prete’s Fornac and Loris Loddi, Jehan; there is virtually no weight to anything Broderick say in this movie. Phillippe’s threats, “If you lay one hand on her you will find it on the ground next to your head,” are as hollow and leaden as his pithy chances with comedy, “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.” These are very solidly scripted lines. But Broderick fluffs them off as though they were stilted anachronisms. I suspect, Ladyhawke would have worked out better for all concerned if the whole thing had been set in, then, present day Laurel Canyon with Pfeiffer cast as a midnight shape-shifting quail and Broderick, the pizza delivery guy who forgets to put his anchovies on the side.
Ladyhawke’s other great misfire is its techno/disco underscore, clearly inspired by Vangelis’ synthesized compositions from 1981’s Chariots of Fire, but herein composed by Andrew Powell with all the bombastic flair befitting a Berlin discotheque, grotesquely out of touch with the twelfth century milieu, immaculately lensed by 3-time Oscar winner, Vittorio Storaro. Powell’s score is embarrassingly dated and out of fashion by contemporary standards. Even for the dawn of the MTV generation, Powell’s integration of traditional orchestral underscore, Gregorian chants and rock/pop-infused synthesizer garble was only marginally entertaining as a sort of cultural time capsule of everything truly awful and wrong about a particular ilk of 80’s pop music. The score does not gild or even marginally support Ladyhawke’s eloquently composed visuals, in fact, repeatedly taking the viewer out of the story, rather than immersing them deeper in its emotional core.
The movie’s undeniable assets assert an unimpeachable mantle of quality; beginning with Nanà Cecchi’s immaculate costuming and ending with a stunning array of location work to offset their opulence; a Cook’s Tour of natural and man-made marvels: radiant snow-covered alpine meadows in Campo Imperatore-Abruzzo, a ruined fortress at Rocca Calascio and moat-encompassed Torrenchiara Castle in Parma, all of it backlit by burnt sienna sunsets casting long auburn shadows across the landscape; quaint, moodily lit and boggy villages in Emilia-Romagna and Castell'Arquato; the movie’s patina a veritable feast for the eye, captured in expansive ‘Technovision’ by Storaro’s acute finesse as a true artiste de cinema. The production also utilized other areas of Italy’s rustic landscape: Soncino (Lombardia region), Belluno (Veneto region), and the Lazio region around Viterbo. Curious of director, Richard Donner to pick Italy to tell this faux-Arthurian legend of a cursed coupling; the ex-military Captain of the Guard and his desirable paramour, torn asunder by a devious spell cast upon them by a sexually frustrated Bishop, who harbors libidinous desires where the virginal Isobeau is concerned. But Italy is the one perfect bit of casting in Ladyhawke, exerting an air of authenticity hard-pressed to be unearthed elsewhere in its production.
After a bouncy, music video-esque main title, our story begins in the bowels beneath a dungeon where Philippe ‘the mouse’ Gaston has been sentenced to hang. Alas, as fate would have it, Phillippe has escaped through a hole in the floor, crawled through the muck and mire of the catacombs and sewers beneath the city and made his harrowing escape to the countryside. We are in the twelfth century, a Hollywood-ized, sanitized, and, fancifully-reconstituted Ruritanian principality where public executions are all the rage and every last well-manicured extra looks as though they have just come from Central Casting. This principality is overrun by the Bishop of Acquila, a demigod, cloaking his earthy passion for Isabeau d'Anjou under his Roman Catholic robes of state. The Bishop orders his Captain of the Guard, Marquet, to search high and low for ‘the mouse’; Marquet taking his troops into the mountains overlooking Acquila.
In the meantime, Phillippe retreats further and further from the city, travelling the uncharted forest paths and byways until he is certain he has not been followed. Believing he has escaped the Bishop’s influence, Phillippe emerges from the underbrush, stealing clothes and a purse-full of money from a gypsy camp before resurfacing at a nearby country tavern where he invites all the inhabitants to partake in a drink on him. Alas, had he looked more cautiously, Philippe would have noticed he is already surrounded by Marquet and his men, marginally disguised as commoners and towns’ folk. Marquet makes their presence known. But the resultant conflict, narrow escape and recapture of Phillippe is a severely choreographed affair. Another of Ladyhawke’s tragic failings is the stunt coordination of such set pieces: pedestrian at best, the soldiers poking their swords through an overhead pergola to draw Phillippe down from the rafters, achieved with a sort of wholly unconvincing sense of ennui.
Predictably, all is not lost. Enter Etienne of Navarre, the ex-Captain of the Guard, exiled from Acquila by the Bishop because Isobeau adored him from afar and vice versa. Navarre illustrates his superior marksmanship with a crossbow, accompanied by a loyal hawk that swoops down to wreak havoc on Marquet’s men. Once more, they fail to capture either Navarre or Phillippe. Afterward, Marquet rides back to Aquila to warn the Bishop of Navarre's return. In reply, the Bishop summons Cezar, a wolf trapper; the reason for this unlikely choice in adversary as yet unclear. However, as Navarre and Phillippe bed down in a dingy village stable for the night, Phillippe is struck by the sudden disappearance of this valiant crusader who saved his life; his presence replaced by a mysterious woman sheathed in black. She is drawn to a wolf awaiting her just beyond the stable walls and Phillippe marvels at how this wild beast appears sincerely tamed in her presence.
The next afternoon Phillippe tries to explain this fabulously inconceivable incident to Navarre. Without divulging any particulars, Navarre explains to Phillippe the reason he spared his life back at the tavern was because of his boast about escaping the dungeons in Aquila. Such a man could be useful to him in his plot to sneak back into the city and murder the Bishop. Phillippe is understandably disinterested in Navarre’s plot. He will not put his life in jeopardy for Navarre. Regrettably, before the matter can be debated, Navarre and Phillippe are ambushed by Marquet and his men yet again. A display of swords and crossbows results in the hawk being wounded. Navarre orders Phillippe to wrap the wounded bird in his cloak and hurry with God’s speed to a remote mountain retreat where an old monk, Imperius resides. Phillippe does as commanded, encountering the reclusive monk who, at first, refuses to help. However, when Phillippe shows Imperius the hawk, the old man’s disposition softens. Imperius takes the bird into his private chamber, gingerly removing the lance from its breast. At sunset, Phillippe is perplexed when he reenters the room to find Isobeau lying in place of the hawk.
As Imperius reveals, Isabeau and the hawk are one in the same; cruelly denied her human form by day, as Navarre is transformed into a black wolf by night by a terrific curse set upon them. In this relayed history, we discover Isabeau’s father, the Count of Anjou, perished in the Crusades and Isabeau incurred the Bishop’s wrath by secretly exchanging vows with Navarre to become his wife. Unintentionally betrayed by their confessor, Imperius, the couple fled Acquila. But in his frustrated madness, the Bishop made a demonic pact to ensure they would remain eternally apart. Only for the briefest of exchanges between dusk and dawn can they see one another in their human form. Yet even then, they are never able to touch. Imperius implores Navarre to reconsider his plan to murder the Bishop; an act surely to make the curse irrevocable. Instead, Imperius insists there will be a rare window of opportunity to reverse the nightmare befallen them, but only if both Navarre and Isobeau appear in their human form before the Bishop during the clergy's confessions inside the cathedral. Navarre dismisses Imperius as a drunken fool. However, recognizing the legitimacy in his claim, Phillippe appeals to Isabeau, who thereafter implores Navarre to reconsider his revenge. Unable to stand up against their consensus, Navarre agrees to at least entertain their plan.
Under the cover of night, Imperius and Isabeau enter the city with Navarre in wolf’s form locked in a cage. Meanwhile, Philippe swims back into the city, retracing his excursion through its murky sewers. Now, the foursome await the dawn, Navarre ordering Imperius to euthanize the hawk if he hears the church bells peeling, as it will surely mark the moment he has failed in his deed and likely been killed for his efforts. Disguised as a monk, Philippe infiltrates the clergy confession and, after several failed attempts, manages to unlock the cathedral doors. Navarre enters on horseback. The Bishop orders Marquet to attack. During their duel, Marquet throws his helmet at Navarre; accidentally breaking one of the windows. As the solar eclipse fast approaches, a panicked guard rings the tower bell to summon reinforcements, confusing Imperius, who hesitates to follow through with Navarre’s orders to kill the hawk, but convincing Navarre this mercy killing has actually taken place. As revenge, Navarre kills Marquet and is about to murder the Bishop when Isobeau – in her human form – enters the cathedral. Realizing the curse is at an end, the Bishop lunges at Isobeau; determined to see her dead, rather than happily in love. Instead, Navarre plunges his sword into the Bishop. As he dies, the lovers embrace and step into the light of day as man and wife for the first time in many years.
Ladyhawke ought to have been an ethereal blend of science-fiction, sorcery and adventuresome melodrama; a richly rewarding romantic fantasy with a subtly sustained core of intelligence, humor and, above all else, passion for life. Alas, it is more the gumbo than the soufflé; overburdened by a clash of counterintuitive stylistic elements and some underwhelming acting that all but deprive us of its wonderment and magical qualities. For the most part, the Khmara/Thomas/Mankiewicz screenplay delivers the goods with some very fine mystical nonsense. There are lyrical moments to be had, even if a few of them are obvious rip-offs; as in the Bishop’s dialogue to Marquet about “Great storms announc(ing) themselves with a simple breeze, Captain, and a single rebel spark can ignite the fires of rebellion,” so obviously taken from Robert Bolt’s “Great things have little beginnings,” speech from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Philippe’s oddly apoplectic rambling, “Maybe I'm dreaming. My eyes are open, which means maybe I'm awake dreaming that I'm asleep. Or, or more likely, I'm asleep dreaming that I'm awake wondering if I'm dreaming”: an even more woeful riff on an old Abbott and Costello routine, but this time without the ideal comic or straight man to pull it off.
Regrettably, the Picaresque quality of the more barbed exchanges falls flat, mainly because the best zingers, like “Sir, the truth is I talk to God all the time, and no offense, but he never mentioned you,” are given to Matthew Broderick, whose pallid delivery of even the most memorably scripted moments, devalues them and vaguely reminded me of the tortuous scene from Mr. Fair Lady (1964) where Prof. Higgins has loaded Eliza Doolittle’s mouth full of large green marbles before instructing her to annunciate a particularly challenging tongue-twister. As Eliza before him, Broderick’s Phillippe cannot do it either, only, unlike Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza – who is milking it for camp – Broderick’s Philippe is painfully straining to be funnily caustic and charming. He is neither.
Yet, one could almost forgive Broderick even this shortcoming, if only director, Richard Donner had been able to weave a spark of romantic chemistry somewhere into Ladyhawke’s tight narrative tapestry; either, between Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer or Pfeiffer and Broderick’s Philippe; the latter, professing to being instantly smitten, and yet, nevertheless, incoherently jaded in her presence. Donner is most obviously hampered in unearthing these romantic impulses by a pair of lovers who cannot actually ‘see’ each other in their desirable human forms but for a few split seconds throughout the picture. Barring the notion a hawk and a wolf can find genuine happiness together, Donner avoids giving us even the suggestion two animals might have an ounce of affection toward one another; Pfieffer’s cloaked mistress, briefly glimpsed, wandering through the forest with the forlorn wolf at her side; Hauer’s princely Captain, constantly commanding the majestic bird to fly to his arm from on high.
It doesn’t really click as it should because Donner is incapable of illustrating a mutual regard for man, woman and their animal counterparts. Hence, the relationships established throughout Ladyhawke are more of master and mate than as equals. This remains a problem as our story progresses; a pity too, because so much of Ladyhawke has been given the A-list treatment. The movie is undeniably good to look at; Vittorio Storaro’s lush cinematography the real star of the show. Storaro’s agility behind the camera extols the virtues of these natural landscapes, but it also evokes timelessness perfectly in keeping with our suspension of disbelief. Ladyhawke stumbles because it never finds that ubiquitous and coveted balance between cinema romance and Shakespearean pathos. We neither laugh outrageously at the goofy one-liners, nor feel a sense of elation when, at long last, the dreaded curse is lifted from Isabeau and Navarre. It’s odd too, because John Wood is a formidable and delicious baddie; an extremely dark presence looming large. He lends a sort of threatening ballast to the picture.
And yet, his death at Navarre’s hand is not cause for our relief. He is killed by his own treason; that is all, and, left to the rot and decay like spoilt carrion. I genuinely wanted to like Ladyhawke more this second time around; having seen it long ago in a theater, but remembering very little from that experience. Alas, in reviewing it more recently, I find the vices in it far more obvious; competing with its virtues for my admiration. There is too much not right with the picture for it to fully be appreciated as fantasy fiction of the Dragonslayer ilk. In the final analysis, Ladyhawke is an unfortunately miscalculation, full of false starts and fitful bits of drama that never add up to an intangible cinema magic. Regrets.
But it is very hard to stay disappointed with the Warner Archive. While Warner Home Video Blu-ray releases, particularly of vintage catalog, have been a hit or miss affair; the archive arm of their video distribution (WAC) continues to excel with an exceptional output of quality hi-def transfers. Ladyhawke was shot by Vittorio Storaro in ‘Technovision’, an anamorphic competitor, Panavision later acquired. Initially, this disc ought to have come down the pipeline via Fox Home Video. Back in 1985, 2oth Century-Fox and Warner Bros. pooled their formidable resources to bring Ladyhawke to the big screen (as they had done a decade earlier with another prestige project, The Towering Inferno, 1974). In both cases, Fox retained distribution rights. But the original hi-def master prepared for Ladyhawke didn’t exactly meet with WAC’s high standards; VP, George Feltenstein calling upon the technical geniuses at MPI, the studio’s in-house facility, to do substantial color correction, grading and a major clean-up before porting Ladyhawke to disc. I applaud the effort. Ladyhawke on Blu-ray sports a reference quality image; picture perfect from beginning to end. This is what every movie coming to hi-def ought to look like but too few from Fox Home Video do.
The level of clarity and detail achieved herein is extraordinary and makes even a movie like Ladyhawke, arguably, less than satisfactory as an entertainment, a sheer and fulfilling joy to watch in 1080p. Color density and saturation is stunningly realized; the reds of the soldier’s tunics are ‘blood red’; their silver chainmail majestically glimmering with a superior sheen in the noonday sun. Flesh tones are perfect. The vast Italian landscapes, shot through a variety of seasons, sparkle with a crispness surely to startle and sincerely please. Prepare to count blades of grass on larger monitors. Wow! Contrast is equally impressive and even optical elements have been seamlessly integrated. For decades, Ladyhawke’s final reel suffered from a distracting flaw – two blotches (one dark, the other light) reoccurring on both the left and right side of the image; flaws ingrained in the original camera negative and apparently impossible to remove – until now. MPI has meticulously stripped this anomaly using frame by frame artifact removal digital tools. Better still; the natural patina of film grain has been perfectly preserved. Oddly, the main titles remain window boxed on all four sides, while the rest of the image fills the expanses of the anamorphic-enhanced frame.
Originally released in Dolby Stereo, with a limited engagement in 70mm also featuring a six-track mix, Ladyhawke on Blu-ray retains Warner’s remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital, first prepared for the 1997 DVD, but herein upgraded to 5.1 DTS. It sounds incredible, with razor-sharp stereo separation across the front channels and effects sparingly heard in the rears. Dialogue remains center based, but Powell’s score envelopes from every corner of the room. The one regret herein – no extras; save a careworn original trailer. I really won’t poo-poo the matter, because WAC has done the utmost to give us yet another perfect home video presentation of a catalog release. So, WAC, please keep ‘em coming – but pretty please, get your hands on some of the bigger titles still MIA. For 2015, how about Around The World in 80 Days, Mildred Pierce, Marie Antoinette, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), The Great Ziegfeld, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and High Society…for starters? Please…for starters!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)