The 1980’s was not a time period where high-tech graphics were in existence. As a result, movies made during that decade were of low quality when it came to fight scenes, blood, gore, death scenes, special effects etc. However, there are a number movies that are still excellent films despite these flaws. One film that exemplifies this is a fanciful film, set in the days of kings, knights, and swords, about man and woman in love, but who are tragically not able to be with one another due to the cruelty of the ruling tyrant. The movie just described is The Princess Bride, not Ladyhawke.
These two films, while strikingly similar visually and in plot, are very different when it comes to overall quality. Like many films from the 1980s, The Princess Bride became a cult classic. Yet, Ladyhawke has not enjoyed the same success. The chief cause of this phenomenon is that The Princess Bride embraces the humorous aspects of its plot; whereas, Ladyhawke does not. In fact, the former is actually a comedy. The latter makes no such claim.
Ladyhawke centers on recently escaped prisoner Philipe “the Mouse” Gastone (Matthew Broderick) and the dark and daring Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer). The two meet at a country tavern when Philipe tries and fails to elude the guards chasing him. Navarre, who heard Philipe brag about being the only person ever to escape the dungeons of Aquila, tells him that he wants to sneak back into Aquila to kill the nefarious Bishop (John Wood), who rules the town with an iron fist, and will need his help. Philipe is not given the option to not assist in this plan.
The journey back to Aquila takes surprisingly much longer than it did for Philipe to get to the country tavern. Nevertheless, this journey is faced with much treachery and takes up a bulk of the film. The guards from Aquila are still after them because Philipe is an escaped convict and Navarre is the former chief guard and personal enemy of the Bishop. Furthermore, a man who gives lodging to the pair tries to kill Philipe. His life is spared, however, when the man is killed by a wolf, who is friends with a mysterious woman, named Isabeau (Michelle Pfieffer).
It is later revealed that the wolf is Navarre and Isabeau is the hawk that travels with Navarre. Philipe learns that they have been cursed. When Navarre was chief guard for the Bishop, all of the men in Aquila fell in love with Isabeau. She chose Navarre as her secret lover. The Bishop found out about their love affair, due to the ramblings of a drunken priest (Leo McKern). Angered, the Bishop cursed the pair of lovers and destined them to be “forever together, forever apart.” By day, Navarre is a human, and Isabeau is a Hawk. By night, Navarre is a wolf, and Isabeau is a human.
Together, Philipe and the lovers travel towards Aquila. Navarre is intent upon killing the Bishop, but the priest, who spilled the beans to the Bishop, informs them that they have a chance to break the curse if the Bishop is not killed.
Along the way, the viewer is treated to young Philipe’s naive nature and humorous prayers to God. It is this character that brings out the movies flaws. The writers could have been expanded the character and humor of Philipe and included humor from other characters to make the film a comedy, as opposed to a dramatic fantasy film with gratuitous amounts of comic relief from one character. This would have risen the film to the level of The Princess Bride. On the other hand, elimination of Philipe and the humor entrenched in that character would have made this film a solid drama.
The striking thing about Philipe is how completely unnecessary he is to the plot. He contributes nothing worthwhile to the progression of the plot. Navarre claims he needs his help to get into Aquila, but when they sneak into Aquila, Philipe is not the one who comes up with the plan to get inside the city. His only job in the plan is to open a door, which could have been easily done by Navarre’s behemoth of a horse. If the character of Philipe is eliminated from the movie, the plot does not change. The only possible reason for keeping him in the movie is to provide a likable protagonist. Despite being the love interest for the heroine, Navarre is not all that likable. His time as wolf as made him bitter. The character of Navarre was not strong enough to adequately fill the role of hero. Thus, the necessity of Philipe comes into play.
While the character of Philipe is questionable, the performance by Matthew Broderick is not. The pre-Ferris-Bueller Broderick does a superb job at portraying the humorous nature of his character. His prayers to God are reminiscent of his scenes in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the title character speaks directly to the viewers.
Apart from Philipe, this movie fails on so many levels. Granted, many of its failures are due to the era in which it was made. Yet, some of these flaws are too egregious to ignore.
The most obvious failing is the soundtrack. It was accurately described by Rob Vaux of the Flipside Movie Emporium as “the worst soundtrack ever composed.” Plagued by stereotypic 80s music, the soundtrack is completely out of place almost the entire movie, creating a disconnect with the story. This dissonance is so distracting, it makes the film difficult to take seriously.
The director, Richard Donner, also failed to make his shots look right. While Donner did an excellent job scouting out beautiful Italian locations for filming, he failed to make the color and light look appropriate. The most noticeable problem is that it was nearly impossible to tell when it was day and when it was night. In a film where two important characters change form when the sun rises and sets, it is important to make that a clear distinction. One particular scene, where the change was an important plot point, was especially guilty of this error.
Moreover, there are two other elements of this movie Donner overlooked. For example, nothing in the film explains the contrast between how unceremonious the change is in the above mentioned scene and how extravagant it is in a scene towards the end of the movie. Also, a good director keeps extras from upstaging the dramatic moments of the film with comically bad reactions to the main action of the film. One such extra can be seen adding humor to a dramatic death near the end of the film. The performance is so tragically bad it is reminiscent of a sketch from BYUTV’s Studio C.
Despite its faults, Ladyhawke is worth seeing. However, the film should be watched with friends with excellent senses of humor, so that the films flaws are not suffered through, but rather laughed at and are mocked.