Richard Donner, 1985
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Broderick, John Wood, Leo McKern
Ladyhawke might not be a traditional sword and sorcery film, but it does have both sword fighting and sorcery. I grew up loving it and decided to review this over the more popular Willow (1988), which everyone and their mother has seen (or ought to have). A young thief, Philippe Gaston, escapes the impenetrable dungeons of Aquila for the countryside, where he is barely a step ahead of the Bishop of Aquila’s fearsome guards. He is soon rescued by the black-clad Etienne of Navarre, former captain of the guards. Navarre travels only with his warhorse and a lovely hawk, but he rescues Philippe to lead him into the dungeons so that he can kill the Bishop.
Not to ruin the surprise, though it is evident about half an hour into the film, but Navarre is cursed. He and his lady love, Isabeau, flaunted the Bishop, who is also in love with Isabeau. By day, Isabeau takes the shape of a hawk and by night Navarre is a black wolf. Determined to end their suffering, Navarre plans to kill the evil Bishop, but Philippe and an old monk, Imperius, have other plans.
In all fairness, I can’t recommend Ladyhawke. As I said, it isn’t really a sword and sorcery film. It’s an occasionally comic medieval romance that happens to have a little sorcery (the curse) and some sword fighting. If you are over the age of 20 and/or did not originally see this film in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, I can’t guarantee you will like it. Even though I have some nostalgic love for it, it’s not a very good film. I think my little kid mind was convinced that it was a romantic werewolf movie, which sounded great at the time. Actually, it still sounds great (and works in American Werwolf in London, 1981), they just didn’t do very much with it in the script.
The best thing about the film is the cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, 1987). Filmed in Italy - though I think we are supposed to be in medieval France - every shot is absolutely gorgeous. Whether we are in the mountains, visiting a crumbling castle or stopping at a dingy inn, there is plenty of visual splendor. Unfortunately the visuals eclipse the acting, action and sorcery. This is basically a fairytale for adults and the only reason to see it is if you like the medieval fiction/romance genre. Seeing this many times at such an early age seems to have unfortunately shaped my adult perception of romance, where loving someone is a lot better when you don’t actually have to spend any time with them.
Matthew Broderick has moments of charm and humor, but is mostly very annoying. The script has him constantly soliloquizing or making sarcastic asides to God. Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t really act much here, though her presence alone is breathtakingly beautiful. In case anyone forgot (hopefully you did), she was in another werewolf romance movie: Wolf (1994) with Jack Nicholson. I like Rutger Hauer in everything, though even I have to admit that here he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. This is absolutely the fault of the script, which gives him little to do other than be handsome and brooding. The gruff Leo McKern is great in a surprisingly big role as Imperious. Another one of my favorite actors, Alfred Molina, appears briefly as a filthy wolf trapper.
I’m not sure what Richard Donner was going for with Ladyhawke, but he is a competent enough director that I can’t call this a bad film, even if it isn’t great. It certainly doesn’t touch the general excellence of his catalog: The Omen (1976), The Goonies (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), Radio Flyer (1982), etc. Easily the most awful thing about this film is its score, which was composed by Andrew Powell and produced by Alan Parsons, really making it an Alan Parsons Project score. This was Donner’s idea, for which he at least deserve a kick in the shins. The beginning of the film has the worst music, though by the end you are mostly able to forget the fact that you’re listening to a mix of Gregorian chants, orchestral music and prog rock.
If you decide to watch it for the first time or revisit it after many years, there is a basic DVD from Warner, though it is out of print and grossly overpriced. I recommend a rental first. For some reason the disc is double-sided and comes with both widescreen and letterbox options, which seems insane to me, but Warner does make a lot of bad decisions.