Last Updated on July 30, 2021
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at LADYHAWKE!
THE STORY: In 13th century Europe, a young pickpocket (Matthew Broderick) becomes embroiled in an epic romance, where a knight (Rutger Hauer) and a beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) attempt to break the curse that keeps them apart.
THE HISTORY: While often thought of as a journeyman director, Richard Donner remains one of the most successful helmers in Hollywood history. A late bloomer, Donner actually only started concentrating on movie-making when in his late forties, after he’d already had a long career directing TV. In his authorized biography, “You’re the Director, You Figure It Out”, Donner’s craft is explained as a dedication to verisimilitude. That’s why his SUPERMAN – THE MOVIE holds up so well, and why LETHAL WEAPON managed to sustain such a long franchise. He knows how to entertain, but his movies are never too much – a lesson many modern blockbuster directors would do well to learn.
Yet, Donner’s had a few movies that didn’t quite work. Some of them are excellent, little-seen gems (like the exceptional INSIDE MOVES), which others are full-on train wrecks that can’t be defended, such as his troubled TIMELINE, or the botched ASSASSINS. One of his biggest financial disappointments was the 1985 sword and sorcery epic LADYHAWKE. Coming along at a time when CONAN THE BARBARIAN, EXCALIBUR and other swordplay movies were relatively hot, everyone likely assumed LADYHAWKE would do big business. Alas, it was a troubled production.
Even though his career was relatively hot at the time, Donner had a hard time lining up an A-list cast. He wanted Sean Connery for the heroic knight, Navarre, and then Mel Gibson, but eventually settled on Kurt Russell, who apparently got one look at himself in medieval garb and quit the film. Given that Michelle Pfeiffer was largely unknown at the time, and that his second choice, Rutger Hauer, was more of a cult actor than a legit star, he needed a big name to play the third lead, the heroic thief Phillipe “The Mouse.” Dustin Hoffman turned him down, and Sean Penn’s method-acting apparently wasn’t for Donner, so they settled on Matthew Broderick, who was still in his pre-FERRIS BUELLER days.
“Warner Bros didn’t release the picture right. They should have released the picture as a love story in a handful of theaters and let it build.” – Producer Harvey Bernhard – James Christie Interview
As a result of the low-key (but highly appropriate) cast, LADYHAWKE got lost at the box office, losing to POLICE ACADEMY 2 (in its third week!) as well as MASK, and the now obscure CAT’S EYE at the box office, eking out a modest $18 million domestic total. It was a flop, but Donner would bounce back immediately with THE GOONIES, and then move on to LETHAL WEAPON, while LADYHAWKE would inspire a modest cult following, even if it remains largely obscure to non-devotees of fantasy cinema.
“Yet, of all the post-production difficulties, it was the musical scoring of the film that ultimately caused the most stress and tension. ‘No fucking way!’ Baird screamed defiantly. ‘You’ve got to listen,’ the director assured, throwing a dozen albums by the pop group The Alan Parson Project on a work desk, “it’s going to be this cool thing.’… ‘If ever there was a picture that cried out for Jerry Goldsmith,’ sighed the late Tom Mankiewicz with hindsight, ‘this was it.’ – Excerpt – “You’re the Director, You Figure It Out – The Life and Films of Richard Donner. By James Christie
WHY IT'S GREAT: LADYHAWKE is a movie that gets unfairly maligned as cheesy, and it’s all due to a rare poor creative choice by Donner, whose instincts are usually spot on. Apparently, Donner had been listening to The Alan Parsons Project on loop when filming in Europe and began to inextricably associate the film with their music, hence his insistence that they do the score. Tangerine Dream they are not. While I can appreciate he probably thought it was a solid commercial move (although it sounds more like a creative one he was legitimately passionate about) it was all wrong for a medieval fantasy epic, and it violated his own policy of verisimilitude. It’s made an otherwise excellent film prematurely dated, and even when I discovered this film on A&E in the mid-nineties, I thought the soundtrack (other than a few good cues by co-composer Andrew Powell) was god-awful.
It’s too bad because otherwise, LADYHAWKE is legitimately excellent. For one thing, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, with Vittorio Storaro’s visuals giving this a truly epic look. The story is simple but romantic, with the curse being that the knight, Navarre, is human by day but a wolf by night, while his lover, Isabeau, is a hawk by day, while she gets to be human by night. Thus, they’re always together/ always apart. The cast is exceptional. Even if he wasn’t big box office at the time, Rutger Hauer makes for a compelling hero, as the noble but flawed Navarre. He has an edge to him that many of his contemporaries didn’t, and many of his follow-up action vehicles, like WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, THE HITCHER, and BLIND FURY are well worth a look. Michelle Pfeiffer is note-perfect as the elegant, drop-dead gorgeous Isabeau, although Broderick is maybe a little too 1980’s New York for a 13th-century French thief. Also, keep your eyes peeled for Leo McKern in a fun supporting role, and the great Alfred Molina, then at the beginning of his career.
BEST SCENE: Donner went to great lengths to make the choreography and weaponry believable, and the action scenes rank with the best of the genre, even if they’re hampered by the PG-13 rating. Here’s a taste of the climactic battle, which goes on a lot longer, but would spoil the movie if we showed too much.
SEE IT: LADYHAWKE is out on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
PARTING SHOT: Like many other films in this column, LADYHAWKE isn’t a perfect movie, and in many ways is a product of its time. However, it’s unjustly obscure and ripe for rediscovery, even if the soundtrack is oh so dated in a way that ups the cheese factor.