Flesh and Blood (1985)




Director:     Paul Verhoeven. 

Starring:  Rutger Hauer (Martin), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Agnes), Tom Burlinson (Steven), Jack Thompson (Hawkwood), Fernando Hilbeck (Arnolfini), Susan Tyrrell (Celine), Ronald Lacey (Cardinal), Brion James (Karsthans), John Dennis Johnston (Summer), Simn Andreu (Miel), Bruno Kirby (Orbec), Kitty Courbois (Anna), Marina Saura (Polly), Hans Veermanm (Father George), Jake Wood (Little John).

1501, story of Landsknechts (mostly German mercenaries including pikemen & supporting foot soldiers, late 15th to late 16th century)


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 


Europe 1501.  A group of Landsknechts serve a man named Arnolfini.  They are attempting to capture a castle.  The men have no particular uniform, but they do have camp followers.  One of these is Celine who likes to drink even though she is very pregnant.  Polly serves as a whore for the men. Arnolfini tells the men that the city was his at one time and if they take the castle, they can sack the city for 24 hours.  Arnolfini's son Steven makes a mobile bomb, but it blows up the man who tries to place it by the castle gate because the lighted fuse traveled much faster than predicted.  In the battle Arnolfini tells son Steven to stay with Father George for "fighting is for fools." 

The Landsknecht men get into the castle.  The are led by Captain Hawkwood. One of the fiercest fighters is Martin.  A weapon is fired from a tower window.  Hawkwood goes to check it out and strikes the person hiding behind some curtains on the head.  The shooter turns out to be a young woman who now has a severe cut on her head.  The bells toll indicating that the castle has surrendered.  Hawkwood asks the physician to perform a miracle and save the young woman with the head wound.   The woman survives. 

The Landsknecht conquerors now engage in looting and rape.  Watching this, Arnolfini decides to renege on his promise.  He tells Captain Hawkwood to tell the men to give back all the loot they collected.  

Steven tells Martin that this is his first battle.  Martin tells him that he has fought in sixteen campaigns.  But now he has collected enough loot to start farming.  Martin's dream, however, is cut short.  The Landsknecht are forced into a dead-end area and then made to surrender their armaments and their loot.  The mercenaries are very angry because Arnolfini went back on his promises.  Steven tells his father that this was a rotten trick.  For his help in getting the loot back, Arnolfini rewards Hawkwood with money and a country house. 

Martin is the father of Celine's baby.  But in childbirth, the baby is stillborn.  While searching for a place to bury the body, the men find a statute of Saint Michael.   They decide to take the statue along with them.  One of the soldiers expresses disbelief in the powers of Saint Michael and Father George kills him, much to the amazement of some of the men. The priest says that he sees Martin becoming rich.  Martin says:  "The bastards who cheated us will fall.  That's how we'll get rich."

Arnolfini introduces his son to his future wife, Agnes, Prince Niccolo's wife.  Agnes was raised in a convent and is a virgin.  Steven likes the way Agnes looks, but rejects her because he says he is too preoccupied with becoming a scholar and a scientist to get married.  Agnes becomes angry and rides off.  Steven chases after her.  She stops where two bodies of hanged men sway in the breeze.  She gets off her horse and starts digging up the roots of the mandrake plant.  When Steven arrives she tells him that if both of them bite into the root they will both love each other forever.  They both take a bite. 

Arnolfini and Steven accompany a caravan carrying Agnes and company.  They run into a group of religious pilgrims.  The pilgrims, however, are the mercenaries and they ambush the caravan.  Celine badly wounds Arnolfini in revenge for her stillborn child.  The Landsknecht men get away with the wagons (with Agnes hiding inside one of them).  

When Arnolfini is better, he and Steven go to see Hawkwood.  They tell Hawkwood that they need him.  Hawkwood, however, does not want to go,.  But Arnolfini insists.  At Martin's camp, the group celebrates their good fortune.  Martin uncovers a person in hiding and discovers Agnes.  The men want to rape her.  She tells them that her father-in-law is Arnolfini and that he will give them money for her return.  Martin has sex with her and then turns her over to the men.  She pleads with Martin:  "No, please, only you."  But Martin just says "next".  When another man takes a turn, Martin has a change of heart and lights a wagon on fire.  Everyone has to stop to put out the fire.  Then Martin points out that the statue of Saint Martin is pointing in a certain direction and it is a sign that they have to travel in that direction.  The priest agrees. 

Steven and Hawkwood start looking for Agnes. 

Martin deliberately positions the statue of Saint Martin pointing toward a castle and then tells everyone that St. Martin wants them to take the castle.  Martin and Agnes go down a castle chimney, rush through the castle and open the castle gates.  Their men rush into the fortress and kill the guards chasing Martin and Agnes.  A woman with a child jumps from the castle walls to the ground.  The woman is killed but the child survives.

To insure her survival Agnes plays footsy with Martin's private area under the dinner table.  He takes her with him to take a bath.  A soldier named Summer tries to stop him, but Martin forces him to accept the situation.  There are  nude scenes in the bath with Agnes and Martin. 

Steven and Hawkwood with their men, looking for Agnes, run into the little girl from the castle.  She tells them about devils coming down the chimney.  The men try to figure out what she is saying, but she soon dies of the bubonic plague.   Later the men find the castle.  From the ramparts, Martin has Agnes speak to them.  She tells them that she is fine.  Then the others show their faces to the men gathered outside. The Landsknechts start throwing fruit down onto the men below.  (Agnes communicates with Steven by throwing him an orange with a locket with Steven's picture inside.)  Hawkwood sets up camp.  He discovers then that he has the plague.  The doctor is called.  He only wants to bleed Hawkwood, in spite of Steven telling him that the Arabs suggest that the swellings on the body be lanced. The doctor only says:  "It's not Christian!" 

Martin sleeps with Agnes.  Looking outside, Martin says that Steven will never give up.  Agnes says:  "He's you, only younger. . . . You too, you're him, only older."  Martin says she will have to make a choice but she only says:  "Winner takes all!"   

Outside the castle gate, Hawkwood lances his swellings.  Steven has his men built a fancy war machine which letd them approach the castle gate.  The Landsknechts try to set the machine on fire with little success.  So Martin, employing Steven's idea, rolls out a barrel filled with gunpowder.  But he has better luck than Steven.  He pushes it inside the fancy war machine and blows the barrel up.  Most of the attackers are killed.  The where-abouts of Steven are unknown.  The doctor and Hawkwood are still alive. 

Later the Landsknechts find Steven up in a tree inside the castle walls.  They force him down and slit his left leg with a knife.  Steven then receives an arrow through his left hand, which he is able to remove.  Martin gives Agnes a weapon and tells her to shoot Steven.  But just as the weapon fires, a piece of dog flesh infected with the plague lands on the gun's barrel, spoiling the shot.  This is followed by more pieces of dog flesh flying over the wall and onto the castle grounds.  The men look outside and find Hawkwood and the priest launching pieces of dog flesh over the walls.  They soon finish their supply of dog meat and leave.  Martin starts to pick up a piece of the dog flesh, but Steven shouts at him not to touch it.  It is infected with the plague.  Martin has everyone take off their clothes and burn them, along with the dog flesh.  Steven is left tied by an iron dog collar on a chain affixed to the castle wall. 

Instead of thanking Steven for saving him and his men, Martin taunts him by parading Agnes's naked body in front of him and then starting to make love to her behind a backlit screen.  Steven becomes so angry that he picks up a piece of the dog flesh and throws it into the water well.  Agnes sees Steven do this and he says that she can tell the others or not.  He adds:  "It's time to choose, Agnes."   Agnes remains silent.  At meal time, the women take water from the contaminated well.  Agnes says nothing as person after person drinks the water.  But when Martin starts to drink, she knocks the glass from his hand.  Soon afterwards, Celine starts to become deathly sick.   When everyone realizes that the water has been contaminated, they attack Martin for his errors in judgment.  They then throw him into the well. 

Arnolfini and his men arrive to support Hawkwood.  Martin throws the key to the dog collar up onto the top of the well stones.  Steven then throws a holy cross into the well bucket and it descends down to Martin.  Martin then climbs up out of the well.  Martin had promised to release Steven, but he decides not to.  Steven is very angry, but Martin only tells him:  "Trust me."  Inside the castle Celine dies.  Then a little boy becomes very ill.  Others start to become very ill. 

Meanwhile Steven uses a thunder storm, lightning and his iron chain to free himself.  The lightning hits the chain and cuts it, freeing Steven.  He then opens the castle gate letting in the attackers.  One after another, Martin's men are killed or kill themselves.  Steven confronts Martin.  Martin starts to get the better of him in a fight, but Steven is saved by Agnes when she busts a bottle over Martin's head.  Agnes tells Steven that Martin is dead and they exit the now burning castle.  Outside the doctor cuts the swellings of the little boy.  Outside Arnolfini and his men start to leave.  Steven tells Agnes that she was right about the mandrake.  Agnes sees Martin escaping from the castle.  She distracts Steven, making sure he does not spot Martin.  They ride off as Martin reaches the ground outside the castle walls.  Martin walks away with some of the loot he and his men had captured. 


Good movie.  Lots of action and some sex that keeps one's interest going strong.  There's not that much history per se in the movie.  But it does give one the chance to consider the interesting role of the Renaissance mercenary soldiers in west European history.  Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh were both great in their roles as Martin and Agnes respectively.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:

1347 to 1351  --  the bubonic plague (the Black Death) raged in a deadly pandemic that originated in Central Asia and then swept  through Asia, Europe and Africa. Some estimates say it reduced the world's population from 450 million to between 350 and 375 million.  One-third of the population of Europe was lost to the plague.  The bubonic plague also struck parts of Europe sporadically until the 17th century.

1480  --  first recorded use of the term Landsknechts from the German Land "land, country" and Knecht "servant".   Originally it was used for the soldiers of the lowlands of the Holy Roman Empire, but later it was used for the universal mercenary of the European Renaissance. 

1486  --the first Landsknecht regiments were formed by King of the Romans, the Imperator futurus ("Emperor to-be") prior to his imperial coronation to be the Holy Roman Emperor.   He was convinced of the necessity of a body of trained infantry.

1486-1493  --  reign of Maximilian I, Emperor-to-be (son of Frederick III).  

1499  --  Georg von Frundsberg (1473-1528), the future father of the Landsknechts,  fought for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I against the Swiss in the Swabian War of 1499. 

16th century  -- the Landsknecht fought in almost every 16th century military campaign.  (Sometimes the fought on both sides of the engagement.)  Landsknechts, as Imperial soldiers, often fought alongside Spaniards in their formations.  Eventually the Landsknechts attracted fighting men from all over Europe. 

1504  --  still serving Maximilian, Frundsberg fought in the war over the succession to the duchy of Bavaria-Landshut.   

1508  --  the first Landsknecht regiments in the Holy Roman Empire were formed by Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Frundsberg assisted Maximilian.

1509  --  Frundsberg became the commander of the Landsknechts in the lower countries.  He was the "Highest Field Captain" of the Landsknecht Regiment (occupation force). 

1509  --  Frundsberg participated in the war against Venice, winning in the defense of the city of Verona. 

1513-1514  --  Frundsberg fought against the Venetians and the French.

1515  -- the French raised the Black Band, a egiment of landsknechts, of 17,000 men.

1519  --  Frundsberg, as the head of the infantry of the Swabian League, helped drive Ulrich, Duke of Wrttemberg, from his duchy.

1521-1526  --  during the Italian War, Frundsberg helped lead the Imperial Army into Picardy.  ( In the Italian Wars, the French Wars of Religion and the Eighty Years War, the bravery and discipline of the Landsknecht were severely criticized.) 

1522   --    after the French campaign, Frundsberg resigned from the leadership of the Landesknechts.  He then led the march on upper Italy leading to the Battle of Bicocca near Milan.  This brought the greater part of  Lombardy under the influence of Charles V.

1525  --  Frundsberg won his most famous victory at Pavia. 

1526  --  the war in Italy was renewed. 

1527  --  order and discipline broke near Modena and the stress led to a stroke for Frundsberg. 

1528  --  death of Frundsberg. 

The Landsknechts were accompanied by camp followers consisting of women and children mostly who traveled with the regiments.  They carried the military necessities,  food and each soldier's belongings.


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