Just as Barbie gave young girls a horribly sexist image to aspire to, nerds in pop culture (particularly in the 80’s) were rarely depicted as the anti-social loners many of us are in real life. I envied those small but mighty relationships; whether they were just between two geeks or a small cadre of weirdos. In Ernest Cline’s 2011 nostalgia-palooza Ready Player One, protagonist Parzival and his best buddy Aech get into a jocular but good-natured back-and-forth about, of all things, Richard Donner’s 1985 fantasy film Ladyhawke. Of all the possibilities throughout the greatest decade for fantasy films to choose from, Cline’s decision to dedicate a full page to a ridiculous argument about the Matthew Broderick-starrer is bizarre but somehow appropriate. If he’d wanted to go obscure in the Broderick canon, he could’ve gone with something much less cultish, like the Neil Simon-penned Max Dugan Returns (1983). Who remembers that one?! Perhaps if Steven Spielberg had included this kind of humor and dialogue in his garbage 2018 cinematic version of the novel, maybe it would’ve been more than a fitfully amusing film which failed almost completely as a literary adaptation. Initially, there had been reports of Ready Player One being split into two parts to faithfully present its Willy Wonka-inspired, Crystal Pepsi-flavored story. While this would’ve been preferable, Ladyhawke’s original fairy tale has no need for a multi-film presentation. In fact, its lovely story is so thin, it really has no business clocking in at two hours in the first place.
Story/Screenplay writer Edward Khmara was a hot commodity in 1985, having two big studio pictures (Ladyhawke, Enemy Mine) come out in the same year. He also has the unique distinction of writing two films which straddle the line between being pretty good and yet not good enough. Enemy Mine is particularly amusing since it appears in a wonderfully specific Family Guy joke alongside such other “meh” movies like Harlem Nights, What Dreams May Come, Deconstructing Harry, and Mad Dog and Glory. Donner, along with his producer and spouse Lauren Shuler Donner (Logan, Deadpool), had tried to get the film made for several years, nearly going into production twice before. Utilizing the combined talents of his old Superman pal Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun), and the talented Michael Thomas, whose IMDB ratings on films like Scandal, The Devil’s Double, The Hunger, and Backbeat also have that mid-range quality; respectably settling between a 6 and a 7 score. Some uncredited work by Unforgiven and 12 Monkeys scribe David Webb Peoples gives us our final script, which should’ve resulted in a 90-minute film but stretches into 120 thanks to Donner’s endless vista shots and longing, moody glances.
As you probably surmised, I have a bit of a problem with the length of this film. I’ve stated before that I’m a defender of lengthy films, the 3-hour Edvard Munch docudrama I sat through being a personal triumph, but there’s a difference between a complex narrative needing hours to be told and a slight story stretched out with needless filler consisting of pretty photography and an unhurried journey to an oddly quiet ending. Donner has stated in interviews that his main interest in the project was its unrequited love story, which he described as “impossible.” As far as curses go, it’s a real cock of a curse.
By day, Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer from...fuck it, Blind Fury!) is a strikingly handsome swordsman who travels with a hawk. He’s dashing, heroic, and a total badass. By night, he turns into an adorable black wolf. I don’t care how ferocious he’s meant to look. Having had a shepherd-husky mix, he’s a big fuzzy puppy to me. His magnificent hawk glides effortlessly through the clouds during the daytime, but as soon as the sun sets, she transforms into Isabeau of Anjou (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Liaisons), she of the blue eyes and porcelain skin. Thanks to a completely petty and jealous asshole bishop (John Wood, Jumping Jack Flash), they’ve been cursed to almost touch each other in human form as the sun sets and rises, but before they can, one or the other turns back to an animal. The film is set in medieval times, but I hope the suggestion of bestiality was never brought up on set.
Neither Etienne or Isabeau are seen for quite a while as we’re dropped into the sparsely populated city of Aquila. The census takers are getting a real break since multiple peasants are being hung for various indiscretions. Fortunately for one of them, Phillipe Gaston, also known as “The Mouse,” the drainage pipes to the sewer are wide enough for a tiny thief like himself to wriggle his way out of the dungeon. The compact little pick pocket is played by none other than Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (ugh) himself, Matthew Broderick. Seriously though, what a time to be Broderick in the 80’s. A once-in-a-lifetime chance to embody the alter-ego of Neil Simon followed by iconic work in films like WarGames and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The former even made an appearance in the book-version of Ready Player One as Parzival’s first major challenge: speaking all of Broderick’s dialogue. While other actors, like pretty much the entire cast of The Outsiders, were young hunks; Broderick represented a more sardonic and smart-alecky youth ambassador. He had an innocent face which could switch to a knowing smirk at will, allowing him to get away with way more shenanigans than the average whipper snapper. His intentionally contemporary portrayal of a medieval thief affords him ample opportunities to monologue like crazy, as if he’s some 14th century stand-up philosopher, er...comic. Whether or not his accent is supposed to be British or American varies from scene to scene.
“Nothing is impossible.” This is the first bit of dialogue we hear as Gaston tunnels his way into the sewer system of Aquila underground. He remarks, “Not unlike escaping mother’s womb. God, what a memory!” The bishop orders his immediate capture, but he’s somewhat self-aware. His guard reassures him that “no one ever escapes,” but the bishop replies: “I believe in miracles. It’s part of my job.” So far, so good. The dialogue is witty, the action exciting as Phillipe steals clothing and boots while the bishop’s men gallop off in hot pursuit. The young pilferer needs to take a lesson or two in the art of being inconspicuous, since he brazenly decides to toast himself in front of some restaurant patrons for being the only one to escape the dungeons of Aquila alive. Guess who decided to stop off for a little mutton and ale? The guards, led by Captain Marquet (Ken Hutchinson, Straw Dogs), are all set to squash the little mouse, but Navarre shows up, sporting a cool black cross bow. In a series of long and exciting takes where Broderick and Hauer appear to do most of their own stunts, they evade capture and ride off on Navarre’s massive black horse, Goliath. Navarre is really into black, by the way. Like, “goes to the Hot Topic all the time” into black.
Things take an odd turn when they take shelter for the night and Phillipe flees from a gigantic black wolf, only to be calmed by the beautiful Isabeau. He knows nothing of the curse at this time, and in fact, while he’s constantly monologuing and engaging in conversations with Navarre, their sudden partnership never merits much discussion. We find out later that Navarre wishes to use Phillipe’s knowledge of the sewer to enter Aquila and seek vengeance against the bishop for the evil curse bestowed upon him. The narrative becomes disjointed and even faintly episodic as Phillipe heads off for firewood, is next seen tied to a tree, only to be freed by Isabeau, whom he suddenly has a relatively relaxed rapport with. They separate again for no apparent reason, then he’s captured by the guard, promptly saved by Navarre, and the hawk is shot with an arrow in an impressive moment considering this bird appears wounded and falls out of the sky.
Navarre begs Phillipe to take the wounded hawk, who breaks your heart with its painful cries, to an old monk named Imperius (the very funny and curmudgeonly Leo McKern, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, A Man for All Seasons) for treatment. Why Navarre can’t take the hawk himself isn’t really clear. Imperius thinks it must be Lent again since Phillipe informs him that they can’t eat the bird. It’s finally revealed that the hawk is Isabeau, although this is only news to Phillipe. Upon seeing this naked woman with an arrow stuck through her chest, he inquires: “Are you flesh...or are you spirit?” She replies: “I am sorrow.” It’s dialogue like this that gives the film a magical quality, although its fairly infrequent. Imperius is more than just an ex-employee of the evil bishop. He’s in fact the drunken priest who accidentally ratted out the illicit affair between Isabeau and Navarre in the first place. “Always together, eternally apart,” he says as he describes the curse. He’s determined to make things right and is apparently something of an astrologer, indicating a moment in three days’ time where "a day without a night and a night without a day." Navarre thinks all of this is bullshit and simply wants to storm the castle and kill the bishop outright, which will make the curse permanent.
Alfred Molina shows up as Cesar, a fearsome wolf tracker hired by the bishop, and even though he looks super tough, he’s thwarted fairly quickly by a fake-out where he thinks he’s captured Navarre in wolf form, but it turns out to be the wrong wolf. His head gets caught in the trap in a silly death scene. I realize this isn’t Conan or The Beastmaster, but I find Donner’s lightness of touch disappointing, particularly for a character who appeared to be a major obstacle for our heroes and ends up as a minor inconvenience.
While Broderick’s sarcasm helped him become the snarky voice of a generation, his underlying sweetness is what made him a star. His nighttime relationship with Isabeau blossoms and even ignites a streak of jealousy in Navarre. He’s comically awkward around her but also surprisingly brave, attempting to wield Navarre’s mighty sword when she’s threatened.
The real issue with the film’s pacing is the lack of any urgency. There’s time taken out to display some low-fi Oscar-nominated effects by Robert G. Henderson and Alan Robert Murray. Sometimes they’re quite ordinary and barely qualify as effects, such as the quick, near-jump cut transformation of Navarre from man to wolf. The transformations rely on editing and a bit of trick photography rather than the groundbreaking and extreme body horror effects used a few years prior in An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, both released in 1981. Still, an intense moment where the two lovers see each other in human form right as the sun sets, while not particularly impressive as far as effects go, evokes an ethereal quality which lends to the majesty of what Donner is trying to achieve. Three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s work is exemplary, but long stretches roll by as they journey toward Aquila and we see many shots of the hawk, whom Phillipe has dubbed “Lady Hawke,” flying over lakes and mountains. Hauer’s response to this nickname is quite cute and even possibly shows the reason why he was never able to become the big action star Hollywood tried to make him. He wasn’t willing to become a robotic killing machine like many of his more successful Hollywood counterparts of the 80’s. His sensitivity would often rear its head as well, particularly when he attacks Philippe but discovers that when he was in wolf form, he would’ve drowned had it not been for the young thief saving him from the freezing water. Although Navarre continues to stubbornly doubt Imperius’ meteorological predictions, he agrees to take part in a plan to sneak into Aquila, wherein he’s “captured” in wolf form and brought inside the city walls by Imperius and Isabeau.
While Ladyhawke is certainly a better medieval film than Donner’s Timeline (2003), which fortunately didn’t become the great director’s last film to date; that would be 16 Blocks (2006), it’s not particularly rousing. The opening 20 minutes are a delight, then it slows down a great deal and raises several logic issues. Even though the film is edited by Donner’s regular editor, the venerable Stuard Baird, whose credits also include Ken Russell’s Tommy, Die Hard 2, Demolition Man, and Skyfall, it appears as though huge chunks are missing from the film, despite it feeling way too long anyways. The film is very much meant to be family-oriented, but that doesn’t mean it has to be so dunderheaded about making the journey harder than it has to be. For instance, after some of the bishop’s guards are dispatched, Navarre and Phillipe set off, having to take turns riding Goliath. Couldn’t they have taken the guard’s horses? It’s not like they took the Bishop Bus Line to the castle. The film also goes in the opposite direction, letting the heroes off the hook far too often. They’re discovered by Cesar, but he just leaves without harming or capturing them. Their arrival into Aquila is also easily accomplished, even with Isabeau being revealed by a guard. These slow-moving events lead us to an oddly tepid and hollow finale.
As the bishop prepares to hear confessions on a holy day, Phillipe slips in and allows Navarre to enter, which he does, sitting astride Goliath, but rather than gallivanting forth, it’s more of a trot. As several robed spectators freeze and merely watch, Marquet returns and there’s a fairly epic duel between the sworn enemies. In perhaps the most bizarre decision, this fight is played with no music whatsoever. The controversial score, a collaborative effort headed by Andrew Powell along with The Alan Parsons Project, is noticeably absent and all we hear is the grunting of the two actors and the clanging of metal on metal. In Donner’s effort to bridge the gap between an old-fashioned fairy tale and an 80’s rock/synth feel, the film plays around with traditional orchestral-style themes by introducing electric guitars and a pop score mentality. I’m a sucker for translucent opening credits where the unseen title looms too large to be seen before widening out to reveal itself, and the score starts off traditional, then turns pretty rockin’, then a bit more on the weird side, as 80’s movies tended to do. It’s a highly divisive score that I didn’t have a specific problem with, but it remains the most famous aspect of the film’s legacy besides Michelle Pfeiffer’s extraordinary beauty, which had been utilized before but not in a classical sense.
The bishop stands stock still as the two continue to battle. I’m uncertain whether the lack of music and the hushed silence of the crowd makes the scene more realistic or stagey. The cutaways, particularly to the bishop, feel almost comical in his tight-lipped, sour expression. Marquet is defeated and Navarre very nearly murders the bishop but, in a moment the entire audience saw coming, a solar eclipse occurs. I find this slightly ironic that frequent Donner collaborator and noted anti-Semite/racist Mel Gibson would also use an eclipse as a major plot point in his admittedly spectacular Apocalypto (2006). Isabeau turns human and the lovers are together at last. The curse is apparently broken according to a quick aside by Imperius, and Hauer is allowed to end the film as a protector rather than an assassin since he’s attacked from behind by the apoplectic bishop. It’s probably best that John Wood ends up dead in the film, but in his few scenes, he was so deliciously dry as an evil villain that his character’s defeat may have been sweeter had he lived. Imperius and Phillipe head off and the former hawk and wolf spin around and kiss, all the while being slowly surrounded by the onlookers. I know it’s a triumphant fairy tale ending, but I admit that the way these religious nut jobs were just standing there watching, I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance they’re planning on Inquisitioning this happy couple.
The film did poorly at the box office, grossing just under its estimated budget and while it wasn’t the last fantasy film of the 80’s, it certainly began the genre’s slow march to cinematic death. The nerd market became a viable commodity for studios, who realized the only time they’d emerge from their rec rooms and basements would be for seeing movies in-between gigantic campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons. The decade began strong, with The Dark Crystal performing well enough to justify the production of several other sword-and-sorcery productions. While Jim Henson’s puppet-starring wizardry didn’t contribute to the releases of the more violent Conan, Beastmaster, Deathstalker, Sorceress, and Krull, it was undoubtedly instrumental, along with 1981’s Dragonslayer, in the green-lighting of several imaginative projects. Time Bandits did quite well, but the genre may have peaked early with the towering The Neverending Story. 1985 was an extraordinary year for the fantasy genre, with Ladyhawke, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron, and especially the visually-stunning Legend underperforming at the box office. The relative failure of Labyrinth spelled doom for the wizards and warriors of the 1980’s, with only Willow and The Princess Bride providing a bright spot in a sea of mediocrity.
For Richard Donner, 1985 was a mighty bifurcated year. Ladyhawke may have failed, but his now-classic The Goonies performed very well and he’d rocket back to the top shortly thereafter with the genre-defining Lethal Weapon (1987). It’s heartening to see a filmmaker who is known to be a decent and even-tempered filmmaker come back after a somewhat difficult transition into the 80’s. While The Omen (1976) had made a boatload of money and Superman (1978) defied all odds and remains the gold standard for how the Superman saga should be told; his horrible firing by the Salkinds on Superman II (1980), coupled with the disappointing returns on Inside Moves (1980) and the financially successful but artistically bankrupt The Toy (1982), meant his career was seriously in trouble by the mid-80's. The cult around Ladyhawke is understandable. It stands out among the other entries in the fantasy genre of the time mostly due to its score and Donner’s decision to be less of a “purist” when it came to historical accuracy. Dismissed by many, tolerated by some, and passionately protected by others, Ladyhawke’s theme of impossible love may be the reason why it’s remained so secure in the memories of those who experienced it all those years ago.