The 80’s was a good time indeed for sword and sorcery laced fantasy epics, with the likes of Conan the Barbarian, The Princess Bride, Legend, Clash of the Titans, Time Bandits, The Beastmaster, Highlander, Labyrinth, The Never Ending Story, The Dark Crystal, Willow and dare I say Krull. Things kinda dried up during the 90’s, with just the ocassional gem like Dragonheart and just about the only films of late to match the fantasy of old are those by Peter Jackson in the form of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So just what made the 80’s so special in terms of this genre? Well, optical effects were just starting to break through in a major way. After Star Wars everything changed and ideas were literally being thrown all over the place; fantasy features could finally take shape and extend the imagination as far as it could possibly go. Yes, I have many a fond memory of watching such classics on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and to this day there’s always time to go back and dig out an old fave, even better so when its presented on good ol’ DVD, which brings me to Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke - a worthy revisit if ever there was one.
When pickpocket, Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) escapes from the prison of Aquila (a feat never previously achieved) the bishop (John Wood) sends out his guards in pursuit. Just when Phillipe thinks he is safe he is suddenly seized by Marquet (Ken Hutchison) and his men. As he desperately tries to escape he is soon cornered and his life hangs in the balance. To the rescue comes a valiant swordsman named Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer), former captain to the Aquilan guards who whisks Phillipe to his safety. Phillipe soon learns that Navarre, along with his hawk is off to the bishop’s castle in order to confront and kill him, and seeing as Phillipe achieved the almost impossible he would make for a perfect guide. Naturally Phillipe wants no part of Navarre’s scheme as night falls he tries to make a break for it. However his attempt is soon thwarted when a black wolf chases him back to his cabin, where he runs into a beautiful young woman named Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), who then approaches the wolf without fear. Struck by this, Phillipe imagines there must be some trickery in the air and indeed there is, for he soon learns that the wolf is actually Navarre and the hawk he possesses is Isabeau. Two years ago, in a jealous rage the bishop placed a curse upon the heads of the two lovers, separating them eternally between night and day and the time has come for Navarre to face him for the last time. With the help of Father Imperius (Leo McKern) - a man seeking redemption and who has discovered the key to breaking the spell, the newly formed alliance sets out to restore a lost love and end the bishop’s reign of tyranny.
Director, Richard Donner came away after The Toy to direct his first prolific picture of the 80’s - a fantasy laden adventure shot in several locations around Italy, that which captures a beautiful and authentic essence for a film set during medieval times. Even in terms of studio usage things are sparingly used as the already existing locales serve more than adequately for several of the pictures’ set pieces. In terms of sword fighting these are well grounded and the action is shot well against its backdrop; when we head out the wider spaces where crossbows are the order of the day the expansion of this landscape is quite impressive. Donner seems to care a whole lot more for this surrounding environment though than he does in showcasing a series of quality action sequences (that we know he could have easily mustered up) that go from being poor or fairly generic to looking quite impressive, thanks to Hauer who worked hard in making sure his sequences had a decent amount of fluidity.
Special effects were still in their infancy during this period, at least on a scale of realism. As such don’t expect to see any awe inspiring transformation sequences. These are handled in the simplest of ways, but then Ladyhawke doesn’t rely on this as heavily as some of the biggest 80’s adventures did. After all this is a romance film and characterisation is far more important. Even sparsely used though the special effects sequences are effectively drawn out using fairly primitive camera techniques by today’s standards. It’s here that the imagination may come into play but there aren’t any instances where we long to see any detail and that’s not the point. As Donner cleverly diverts our attention by procuring a heartfelt melody and sorrowful glance from Hauer and Pfeiffer we can quite easily become wrapped up in its poignancy rather than reliability on sparse visual FX. Given special effects today it would be an entirely different matter I’m sure, in fact I doubt you‘d even get away without showing huge amounts of detail. But a remake isn’t what we want to see, though I should stop now in case 20th Century Fox cotton on to what I’m saying and announce some big special effects reworking.
If Ladyhawke gets any real criticism however, it is usually attributed toward its synthesized score. When Richard Donner was location scouting a year prior to shooting in Europe he had been heavily listening to The Alan Parsons Project and after a short time it dawned on him to have such a sound dominate his upcoming feature. He contacted band collaborator, Andrew Powell who flew to Los Angeles to record what would be his first major soundtrack. From the get go both he and Donner knew that the score was going to be controversial but nevertheless they went ahead and came up with something quite unique. As Powell has stated in the past his score is made up of a myriad of sounds that include rock based themes, orchestral and “Gregorian” recordings. When watching the film I can’t help but wonder what it is that drives people so insane over the use of this particular style, in fact it would seem that I’m in the minority of those who think that the score works remarkably well within the confines of the film. Forget that it might not reflect its period 100% and focus more on how it lends itself toward the films’ emotional endeavours. In this case it succeeds whole heartedly, opening the film with its wonderfully memorable main theme, before settling down to some traditional sounds and then onto ramming those guitars up again. But it isn’t without its poignancy and when it’s called upon to deliver those greater heartfelt moments it succeeds, granted with a little grating of cheese but effective nonetheless. On a personal note where the score does fail is that no matter how hard it tries to build tension it rarely succeeds at drawing us in. It isn’t so much the fault of Powell but rather the fact that the film is too predictable, there’s no way that the dangerous situations that Navarre and Isabeau face are ever going to be a long term threat, this would defeat the point and upset those watching. Still, Powell tries a little too hard in certain areas, with some rather abrupt cues but overall he brings us a surprisingly effective score. Love it or loath it it’s a captivating part of Ladyhawke and imagining the film without it now is a difficult task.
Ladyhawke brings us a cast of terrific talent. During Donner’s scouting trip he had originally visualised Rutger Hauer as the main baddie, with Kurt Russell in the lead as Navarre. Turning down the role Hauer walked away having shown interest in Russell’s then part. A year later when Russell left Hauer got the call back and boy what a difference something like that can make. It’s impossible to imagine now that anyone could fill Navarre’s shoes as well as Rutger Hauer, who put his heart and soul into the role which shows up on screen. By this time Hauer had already showcased his amazing talents, stealing every scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, ending it on what is no doubt the greatest moment of adlibbing in cinema history; so it only became a matter of time before he was given a more rewarding leading role. Ladyhawke if anything demonstrates Hauer’s onscreen presence and charisma, making him one of the most notable actors at the time, a shame then that he never got a whole lot more memorable mainstream roles aside from The Hitcher, Flesh & Blood and the Zatoichi inspired Blind Fury during the 80‘s (though I could be speaking for myself).
Not long after making a name for himself in Wargames, Matthew Broderick turns up as the young Phillipe, getting himself top billing no less. And why not? Broderick takes a fine turn as the master pickpocket through whose eyes this story unfolds. Broderick brings with him a good amount of timing and physical abilitity which serve his character well, even if some of his lines may seem a tad in abundance as quite frankly the guy just can’t shut up. That’s all part of Phillipe’s charm though and as a provider of comic relief he’s successful to quite a degree. Being our protagonist then he’s a likeable enough fellow who has been given a heavy burden.
And so onto the support there’s Michelle Pfeiffer in a fine role, who looks positively stunning with her short, feathery hairstyle and calm presence. There’s a believable chemistry between Isabeau and Navarre which is essential and although Pfeiffer isn’t given a particularly dominating role she does provide a much needed amount of credibility. Leo McKern gives a good turn as the monk, Imperius who seeks redemption and shares some great scenes between Broderick and Hauer. John Wood (who appeared with Broderick again in Wargames) makes for a suitably nefarious bishop, while Ken Hutchison as Marquet is a perfect nasty little villain.
Well as great as it would be to see a special edition of the film we can be thankful that 20th Century Fox have at least presented it well, although the sleeve art is very poor and looks like a quick mock up. Likewise the menu design is very poor, consisting of static shots but its functional.
Unlike the dreadful R1 release Ladyhawke is presented here in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for wide screen television. For a film that hasn’t undergone any reconstructive surgery the transfer looks remarkably clean aside from the occasional speck of dust; this has been a well stored print. Colours are crisp and detail is generally good, though wider shots lose a slight amount at times and the often blown out skies seem to be an artistic choice. At times they’re very white, others they show streaks of orange and purple hues, suggesting a polarized effect. Interior shots are very warm and again Donner uses a colour scheme to reflect the atmosphere. Black levels are good and contrast holds up well. Edge Enhancement is present as is a touch of grain, with the latter being largely inherent and seems to be more evident during special effects shots.
For audio we get an English 4.1 surround track. This is an interesting choice and it’s a good listen if unremarkable. The film lacks a solid punch to it but it isn’t the fault of the DVD. Andrew Powell once recalled (in the soundtrack notes) that he wished he’d been involved in the mixing stage of the film as he was never happy with the end result. His score often becomes subdued as the action plays out. The problem here is that the sound is designed to help out the action and as we can clearly hear there are moments when it almost disappears; for instance the moment when Phillipe escapes from the guards with the help of Navarre. The score tends to go up and down like a yoyo but this is how the film has always sounded since its VHS and subsequently Laserdisc days, both of which I can vouch for. There are moments when it’s thoroughly effective such as during the opening credits sequence and later set ups like the ice scene and the tense night time forest build up. The ending is suitably effective as the film draws to a close and separation isn‘t too bad. Dialogue is clear throughout and is forwarded to the front speakers well. The film is one that would certainly benefit from a remix and maybe one day if Fox ever decide to remaster it Powell can oversee the audio mix and present it as intended. Also, forcing me to mark this down from a potential 7 is a one second dropout that occurs during the 70-minute mark as Phillipe takes Isabeau out in the rain.
All we have here is the original theatrical trailer. I always like trailers thrown in as extras and ones like this are interesting to watch. Classic 80’s voice over man introduces us to the film, through a series of cobbled together shots. The trouble is that it doesn’t really do the film much justice; it makes it look a bit rubbish in fact. It’s a good addition nonetheless.
Ladyhawke has all the hallmarks of a solid fantasy tale; beautiful capturing scenery, nice costume design, swords and romance, action and adventure, and yes - a good score. If you’re after a nice family adventure then sit your kids down and enjoy this classic 80’s offering.
7 out of 10
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