June 17, 2014

I watched Ladyhawke with my two older kids a couple of days ago. Initially, there was resistance to watching a medieval fantasy film with sword fighting and evil wizardry; however, once the film got going, they settled down and had an amazing time.

I first saw Ladyhawke in the theater, when I was eight. I don’t think I figured out what was going on until Leo McKern’s character explained it. However, my ten-year-old daughter figured out that the mysterious woman played by Michelle Pfeiffer was the transmogrified form of the hawk in her first appearance, and then my six-year-old son immediately provided the corollary that the black wolf was the hero, Etienne of Navarre.

I really like all the major actors in the film: Broderick, Pfeiffer, Hauer, and McKern. My brother is (or was) a huge fan of Rutger Hauer. I do not get quite as excited about his lesser work, but he has some impressive moments. His final speech in Blade Runner (which I do not like much, all in all) is rightly legendary. However, I think his finest performance is as the leader of the concentration camp uprising in Escape From Sobibor. It’s a great film, but I don’t think I could watch it again. It is simply too horrible.

The kids wanted to watch Ladyhawke again the next day, but other business intervened, and we haven’t gotten around to seeing it again yet. However, when perusing the LEGO catalog*, the kids noticed that there were Ghostbusters LEGO sets now. My daughter suggested that there should be Ladyhawke LEGOs as well, since the movies were about the same age. As much as I enjoy Ladyhawke, it’s not the cultural icon Ghostbusters is. I would love having Rutger Hauer in LEGO form, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. (There are already LEGO Catwoman figures, so I can pretend those are Michelle Pfeiffer.)


6 Responses to “Ladyhawke”

  1. I loved watching Ladyhawke as a kid, but haven’t thought about it in years. As you say, it’s not the great cultural touchstone some other eighties films were, but it did fantasy well at a time when that was rare.

    I wonder if your kids’ reactions and seeing through the plot are a sign that elements from it have been used so often elsewhere that they’re now obvious. Though it could just be that modern kids are smarter…

  2. Buzz Says:

    My daughter has probably read more fantasy books that involve shapechanging into animals that I have myself (certainly more than I had at her age); it seems to be a popular motif now in “young adult” fiction. She also noticed that there was a specific presentation of sun-moon, day-night juxtaposition in the title sequence, which is not something I ever remember from viewing to viewing.

    While I think Ladyhawke ought to be better remembered, I can see some reasons why it is not. Some of the technical decisions by the filmmakers were poor ones. The Alan Parsons Project sound track sounded dated very quickly; it’s not at all the kind of timeless romantic orchestral score that is more standard in fantasy movies. My brother happened across a CD of the soundtrack in the early 1990s and bought it, because it was inexpensive and he remembered liking the movie. He was shocked when he played it and found out it was mostly ’80s synthesizer pop. I remember laughing about the purchase at the time, although when I watch the movie now, the soundtrack actually works better than I used to think. I suppose having some temporal distance allows me to give the music a more even-handed evaluation.

    The other think that I think really hurt the movie was the way the special effects were handled. There aren’t many of them, and Richard Donner clearly put a lot of effort into giving the visuals a real medieval feel. However, there are several transformation shots in the second half of the film, and there is no consistency in how they are handled. Some are passable, but none of them are strong, and I remember thinking they looked bad even in 1985. One of the transitions is handled with lots of soft focus effects, and it’s probably the worst scene in the film. (My daughter certainly thought so.) Of course, if the film were made now, it would be larded with CG transformations between human and animal forms. I’m not convinced that would be much better, and it was in any case beyond the capabilities of the time; the first memorable CG human-animal transition effect was a few years later in Willow.

    • I have to jump in one more moment and defend the VFX of ‘Ladyhawke’: Dick Donner was no slouch in managing visual effects, and, frankly, I strongly agree with his choice to devote most of the film’s medium-sized-budget to sets, costumes, salaries for good actors, and a reasonable shooting schedule; such a medieval project was very difficult to pull off in the 80s, when fewer resources of all types were available.

      More to the point, though, the scene Lilly apparently objects to (I’m quite certain we’re talking about the 2nd-Act climax of the wolf and the ice, the two beasts meeting at dawn) is a work of art of classical film method, and was simply very close to the best on offer in 1985, outside, perhaps, of a tiny coterie of ILM visionaries beginning to use computers; both ‘The Abyss’ (perhaps Cameron’s only substantial financial failure) with its crude water tentacle, and ‘Willow,’ with its Ladyhawke-analogous transformation sequence, were made three years later, and Ron Howard had to be convinced at length by Dennis Muren of ILM to use the first, very crude, version of morphing that appears in the the equivalent sequence in ‘Willow,’ which, by the way, looks quite as dated.

      The ’80s meld scene’ from ‘Ladyhawke’ I mention above also had specific fans among those who remembered the film, and its elaborate use of dissolves can be rather magical if you hold it to a different standard of effects. These were not immediately dated effects–they were effects that became extremely dated very shortly after (mostly in 1991–which era’s banner FX film is unfortunately also aggressively dated at this point, at least the CG parts).

      • Buzz Says:

        I think most of the transitions are fine, although they certainly could have been improved even then. I do think that the decision to spend the most money and effort on the setting was a good one, since the film has a real medieval feel that is rarely seen. However, just about everyone who sees the film seems to see that one transition scene at dawn as a mistake worthy of commenting on. That was true when we first saw the movie in 1985, and it remains true today. It starts out all right, but when the aggressive use of soft focus and light smearing effects takes over, it interferes with the emotional resonance.

        • I don’t think it helps anything to judge it by the anachronistic revamping of 88-93. I’ve been at more than one viewing where people looked forward to a hushed, um, viewing, of the ’80s meld scene,’ and as I’ve mentioned, Ron Howard planned the exact same in Willow until Muren dissuaded him. In my experience, it’s just not true that people viewed it immediately as an anachronism, and in a way, it’s a representative of a final age of non-CG works of art in film VFX, along with Phil Tippet’s go-motion dragon from ‘Dragonslayer’ (which was almost the technology, upgraded substantially, used for Jurassic Park).

  3. I think it’s still a fairly unique film, not borrowed from too often–and it has the distinction of being in the top three in terms of sheer beauty of cinematography and imagery of any film I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, this 80s film is very severely undermined by a nearly intolerable synth-pop score by the (clearly talented but misdirected) Andrew Powell, presumably intended to make the medieval content ‘contemporary,’ but which mostly just ruins it–atmosphere, suspension of disbelief, everything. It’s equal parts irritating and tragic.

    Rutger Hauer’s character is mixed parts conventional and interesting badass–it’s too bad the script isn’t just a bit stronger, so that both he and the other excellent actors in the film have the opportunity to capitalize better on some rather exceptional and dramatic content. I haven’t seen the film in many years, but can quote 4-5 lines by heart (all Etienne’s), knowing all the while it’s only Hauer’s duty-bound, vengeful warrior’s delivery that makes them worth remembering, rather than the words themselves.

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