“My last and best reason for living” | Ladyhawke (1985)

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In 1980 film producer Lauren Shuler was looking for a screenwriter for one of her developing film projects. Someone at 20th Century Fox told her about a writer named Edward Khmara, whom they thought might be a good fit. To demonstrate Khmara’s writing skills, the Fox representative mailed Shuler a copy of his most recent screenplay: a fantasy romance titled Ladyhawke. According to Shuler, ‘as soon as I saw the script, I said “I want to make this movie.”’[i]

Ladyhawke told the tragic story of two cursed lovers: the swashbuckling knight Etienne of Navarre and the beautiful Isabeau d’Anjou. During the day she was magically transformed into a hawk, and by night he changed into a wolf. They could only glimpse one another at the precise moments of dawn and dusk. With the help of a young thief, Philippe the Mouse, and an ageing monk, Imperius, Navarre and Isabeau fought to break the curse and finally be together.

While the screenplay impressed most who read it, there were not any studios in Hollywood willing to take a risk on the material. Medieval adventure and high fantasy were not perceived as popular genres in 1980, and when a string of films were subsequently released to prove that theory wrong – Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian and others – the argument changed to the exact opposite: there were too many swashbuckling fantasy films being released, and Ladyhawke continued to flounder. ‘People kept telling me I was crazy,’ said Shuler, ‘and I should work on other projects. But I was in love with this movie; this was the movie I was going to make.’[ii]

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Loving Khmara’s screenplay did not mean Shuler was not interested in making changes. The original draft featured a monster that lived in the sewers beneath the cathedral, to which the villainous Bishop would feed his enemies or any henchmen that displeased him. It also featured a love interest for Philippe. Both subplots were excised during rewrites by Michael Thomas (The Hunger). A second rewrite was undertaken by Tom Mankiewicz (Superman) to introduce more humour to the script and give it a cohesive tone and style.

While the screenplay went through its rewrites, Shuler went looking for a director to helm the picture. Her first choice was Richard Donner, then still hot from the success of The Omen and Superman in the late 1970s. ‘After Goonies,’ said Donner, ‘I didn’t know what I was going to do next. There was a young female producer by the name of Lauren Shuler who had a property called Ladyhawke, and she kept calling and sending it over. I just wasn’t in the mood to read at the time but this woman kept nailing me. I had to go to Florida on a trip so I took the script with me and started reading it on the plane and I couldn’t put it down.’[iii]

With Donner onboard, Shuler was finally able to tee the screenplay up with a production company: the Ladd Company, founded by former 20th Century Fox head Alan Ladd Jr.

Richard Donner’s preferred  choices for Navarre and Philippe were Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman had shown interest in the project when Shuler had first optioned it, however the producer was reluctant to delay the project even further by accommodating Hoffman’s inevitable demands for rewrites. With Hoffman out of the picture, the decision was made to cast more youthful actors generally. Connery, in the end, was not even approached.

Donner’s top choice for Navarre was 33 year-old actor Kurt Russell. A former teenage star for Walt Disney Pictures, Russell had redefined himself as a strong, gritty leading man through two collaborations with director John Carpenter: Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). Russell liked the screenplay and agreed to perform the role.

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For Isabeau Shuler suggested Michelle Pfieffer, whom she had seen in the 1982 sequel Grease 2. ‘When we first went to Michelle,’ said Shuler, ‘she was involved in Scarface and wasn’t interested in thinking about her next project. We looked all around and didn’t find anyone we liked as much. We went back to Michelle. By this time, she had finished Scarface and was wondering what to do next. She read the script and accepted.’[iv]

At this stage the production was on so tight a timeline that Pfieffer never auditioned directly for Richard Donner. She videotaped a scene, which was couriered to the director while he scouted for locations in Europe.

‘My character in Scarface was so tough,’ recalled Pfieffer, ‘that I thought it would be nice to play someone who was a bit more humane. Ladyhawke is a very sweet idea, a real fairy tale that’s also unique and entertaining. I knew you don’t get many chances in a career to do a fairy tale like this – maybe once, probably never – and I realised if I was going to do a film like this one, now was the time to do it.’[v]

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Lauren Shuler had wanted Matthew Broderick to play Philippe ever since it had been decided to cast a younger actor in the role. Richard Donner, however, was keen on casting the then relatively unknown Sean Penn. Penn, however, was shooting a film in Northern California and refused to discuss other roles until he had completed filming. In the end Donner went with Shuler’s recommendation: Matthew Broderick was the final actor cast before shooting commenced.

The supporting roles had proved much easier to fill. Leo McKern was cast as the monk Imperius, while English actor John Wood played the villainous Bishop of Aquila. To play the mercenary captain Marquet Donner approached Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, whose performances in Soldier of Orange (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) had impressed him. While Hauer liked Ladyhawke’s screenplay, he did not find the role of Marquet interesting enough to accept the offer. A disappointed Donner cast Scottish actor Ken Hutchison instead.

As production was about to start, the Ladd Company – plagued by financial issues – dropped out of the project. Shuler desperately met with 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Both studios were interested in bankrolling the project. As it was fully cast, developed and about to shoot, it represented comparatively easy money: just fund the production and release it the following year. Ultimately the two studios co-produced the film, Warner Bros taking domestic distribution and 20th Century Fox handling its international release. To avoid complicating the shoot, it was agreed that Warner Bros would supervise the production directly.

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After considering Czechoslovakia, the production shot the film on location in northern Italy. Despite the rich and beautiful landscape, sourcing suitable locations proved difficult. The film was set in the 13th century, and too many potential castles or towns featured more recent architecture. To create the Bishop’s castle, for example, Donner ultimately used three different locations – Arquato, Torrechiara and Soncino. Other scenes were filmed in Veneto, Viterbo, Piacenza and the alpine meadow of Campo Imperatore-Abruzzo.

Actual medieval sewers were used in Rome to shoot Philippe’s early escape from captivity. The tunnels had been repurposed for use as mushrooms farms, so it was not difficult to re-dress them to resemble their original form.

Since shooting inside an authentic Italian cathedral would be extremely difficult, a cathedral interior was constructed inside Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. This set, measuring 250 feet in length and 80 feet in height, was so large it extended outside of its own soundstage.

As some scenes required actors to ride horses inside the cathedral, the set floor was dressed with composite rubber sculpted to look like cobblestones. This enabled the horses to move about the studio floor in comparative safety while muffling the sound of their hooves. Despite the reduced sound, the noise still proved too great. All dialogue recorded in scenes with the horses was re-recorded by the cast during post-production and synchronised with the studio footage.

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As the production neared the principal photography stage, the actor-director relationship between Richard Donner and Kurt Russell started to break down. Russell ultimately walked out on the production ten days before shooting was scheduled to commence.

Desperate to secure a replacement star, Donner took a chance and contacted Rutger Hauer again. While Hauer had not been interested in playing Marquet, he had expressed interest in the role of Navarre. Hauer arrived on the set in Rome four days later, having personally driven his own motorhome 1,600 kilometres from the Netherlands to Italy.

One of the first tasks facing Hauer upon his arrival was training for his character’s numerous sword-fighting scenes. While Hauer had performed with a sword before – his first major role was in a Dutch television series set during the Middle Ages – he had not done so in a considerably long time. ‘I practiced intensely in the little spare time I had,’ he later explained, ‘with a man who was the god of sword-fighting choreography.’[vi] The ‘god’ Hauer describes was William Hobbs, and English fencing instructor and choreography who had arranged the combat sequences for countless films including The Three Musketeers (1973), Robin and Marian (1976), The Duellists (1977) and Excalibur (1981).

‘Son of a bitch, Rutger was a great rider,’ said Tom Mankiewicz. ‘There are battle scenes in Ladyhawke where Rutger’s rearing on the horse, and it’s fabulous that he could ride.’[vii]

Hauer’s performance was not entirely graceful: during the shooting of the climactic sword duel, Hauer tripped on the cathedral’s rubber flooring and badly sprained his ankle. The remainder of the duel was shot ten days later, once the actor had time to sufficiently recover.

Rutger Hauer’s performance forms the centre Ladyhawke. He performs his role with nobility and a softly-spoken sensitivity. He expresses a wonderful sort of wounded quality, indicative of his character’s unfortunate plight. While Philippe is undoubtedly the film’s viewpoint character – it is through his experience that we meet and understand Isabeau and Navarre – it is Navarre who is undoubtedly its star. It’s difficult to imagine Kurt Russell giving a performance quite so perfectly and delicately pitched.

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Four Siberian wolves were used to play Navarre in animal form. ‘Wolves don’t always do what you want them to,’ said Shuler, ‘and they don’t always hit their mark. They tend to be nervous. If you want them to attack a man, they might do it, but they get distracted very easily.’[viii]

It also took four different hawks to play the transformed Isabeau. ‘Their claws are very sharp,’ said Hauer, ‘I noticed that right away. Their egos became very important too. There were four hawks, actually. One was very sweet, two were so-so and the fourth was, ah, aggressive. None of them would hurt me, but when we first started shooting the trainers warned me that if you stare at the hawks, they get uncomfortable and might go crazy. So, for the first couple of days, I was really worried every time I caught the bird looking at me.’[ix]

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On location, Michelle Pfieffer struggled to maintain enthusiasm while shooting the film’s effects sequences. ‘I felt like a complete idiot,’ she said. ‘The Ladyhawke blue screen stuff was a major acting exercise in humiliation. What is the emotional state of falling off a tower and turning into a bird? I felt so stupid. I mean, I asked myself is this what I’ve studied acting for? It was just awful.’[x]

Pfieffer and Donner did not get along during the shoot. ‘Dick will tell you I’m difficult,’ she later told one interviewer. ‘Sure. We fought.’[xi]

Pfieffer’s performance does seem a little lacklustre, but knowing the circumstances of the shoot it’s difficult to determine whether it’s due to indifference or frustration on Pfieffer’s part, Donner’s direction of her, or simply deficiencies in the script. Most of the plot occurs, as one would expect, during the day. This leaves precious little screen time for Pfieffer, and few opportunities for her character to contribute significantly to the plot. She looks outstanding on screen, as one might expect, but she doesn’t seem to have quite enough to do. One does wonder what the alternative Ladyhawke would be like, with Isabeau travelling by day and Navarre taking human form at night.

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Matthew Broderick also found the shoot a challenging experience, having no experience in riding horses, handling swords or even simply working on such a large-scale production. ‘I didn’t realise that when I read the script there were a lot of scenes where it says “he bursts from the water” what you don’t realise is that means two hours of “bursting from water”. I was really cold for a lot of it.’[xii]

Broderick’s performance seems to betray he was a little out of his depth. Certainly his starkly American accent contrasts against the bulk of the cast, and since decades of filmgoers have been led to believe that medieval people all had English accents he doesn’t really sound like he fits within the film. In a film that feels remarkably European in places, Broderick is the part that seems the most like Hollywood.

Throughout the shoot, a debate went on over how precisely to end the film. Should Navarre and Isabeau be seen getting married? Should Imperius be revealed as the new bishop? One idea had Imperius using magic to transform the Bishop into a rat or an owl as revenge. In the end, it was decided that everything after Navarre and Isabeau’s reunion was redundant: the conclusion seen in the finished film is the only one that was shot. That they are together is, after all, all that matters. Few films, particularly those made today, are so wisely economical with their conclusions.

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One of the most notorious elements of Ladyhawke remains its score. Widely mocked and derided, it followed a growing trend in American genre films of the 1980s by eschewing traditional orchestral arrangements in favour of electronic sounds more akin to pop and rock than classical music. In 1984 Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Legend had been replaced by one by pop group Tangerine Dream, while David Lynch’s Dune used the rock group Toto to provide the music.

In the case of Ladyhawke the score was composed by English musician Andrew Powell. Powell had worked as a composer and arranger for the Alan Parsons Project, and subsequently produced the first two albums by Kate Bush.

Powell combined numerous styles of music for the film’s score, including approximately 47 minutes of traditionally arranged orchestral music, scenes of Gregorian chants and medieval flute music and – most controversially – synth-heavy rock music. ‘Richard Donner specifically wanted Alan Parsons Project-type music for all of the horseback scenes in Ladyhawke,’ Powell explained, adding: ‘I think what many of these people actually wanted was a conventional Korngold type of score: this would be 600 years out of period, whereas the small percentage of “rock” music in this score is 650 years out of period: not a huge difference.’[xiii]

Whatever Powell’s reasoning, the score to Ladyhawke simply doesn’t work with too many period adventure movies coming before it. Like Matthew Broderick’s accent seems odd and out of place, so the music feels completely inappropriate for tone and style of the story and the visual imagery. It is distinctive certainly, and even today continues to find its fans – although it doesn’t appear to find many.

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Ladyhawke debuted in American cinemas on 12 April 1985. It launched in fourth place, behind the reigning champion Police Academy 2, the drama Mask, and the new Stephen King adaptation Cat’s Eye. It shifted up to third position in its second weekend, but soon afterwards began to slip out of cinemas. Its final domestic gross was just north of $18.4 million dollars.

Part of Warner Bros’ advertising for the film was that its story was based on a medieval legend. While this gave the film a sense of history and authenticity with audiences, it was also patently untrue. Edward Khmara complained to the Writer’s Guild of America, since the claim denigrated his own achievements, and received both an official apology from the studio and a cash settlement. Unfortunately the claim had a life of its own, and the idea that there is some folk story origin to Ladyhawke continues to be re-iterated online.

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Today, decades after its initial release, Ladyhawke is a fondly remembered production from an era that produced numerous sorts of fantasy adventures and dramas. Its appealing cast, original story and beautiful Italian scenery continue to win it fans today.

In the end it is the aesthetic and tone of Ladyhawke that makes it work. It takes a beautiful, folkloric concept and then tells it in a visually striking, utterly romantic fashion. Hauer and Pfeiffer arguably never looked better than they did in this film, and it’s easy to be swept up into their adventure despite all of the film’s faults. Sometimes, when the story at the core of the film is appealing enough, a handful of faults simply don’t matter all that much.

‘During the shoot,’ said Donner, ‘my good friend the producer separated from her husband. The weekend that it happened she came into the office and I knew she had gone to see her husband. I asked her how her weekend had gone. She said her marriage was off and tears came to her eyes. I’d always seen her as this hard-nosed, tough lady producer – my buddy. But all of a sudden I saw her as this wonderful, vulnerable woman. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I had fallen in love with my friend.’[xiv]

Donner and Shuler were married in 1985. At the time of writing, in 2015, they have been together for almost 30 years. ‘So,’ said Donner, ‘Ladyhawke is the most beautiful love story in the world as far as I’m concerned because it’s my love story.’[xv]

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[i] William Rabkin, “Lauren Shuler: producing Ladyhawke”, Starlog 94, May 1985.

[ii] William Rabkin, “Lauren Shuler: producing Ladyhawke”, Starlog 94, May 1985.

[iii] Robert J. Emery, The Director’s: Take One, Allworth Press, New York, 2002.

[iv] William Rabkin, “Lauren Shuler: producing Ladyhawke”, Starlog 94, May 1985.

[v] Lee Goldberg, “Michelle Pfieffer: the lovely Ladyhawke” Starlog 94, May 1985.

[vi] Rutger Hauer, “Ladyhawke”, Rutger Hauer Official Website, accessed 26 February 2013.

[vii] Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane, My life as a Mankiewicz: An insider’s journey through Hollywood, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2012.

[viii] William Rabkin, “Lauren Shuler: producing Ladyhawke”, Starlog 94, May 1985.

[ix] Lee Goldberg, “Rutger Hauer: knight wolf to a Ladyhawke”, Starlog 95, June 1985.

[x] Lee Goldberg, “Michelle Pfieffer: the lovely Ladyhawke” Starlog 94, May 1985.

[xi] Peter Stone, “New again: Michelle Pfieffer”, Interview, August 1988.

[xii] Quoted in The Making of Ladyhawke, 20th Century Fox/Warner Bros, 1985.

[xiii] Andrew Powell, “Ask Andrew”, Andrew Powell Official Website, accessed 26 February 2013.

[xiv] Robert J. Emery, The Director’s: Take One, Allworth Press, New York, 2002.

[xv] Robert J. Emery, The Director’s: Take One, Allworth Press, New York, 2002.

  1. No mention of the incredible horse Navarre rides? That horse has stayed with me in memory since I saw this movie as a child, it seemed so majestic, so perfect. Now that I’m past being utterly fannish about horses, it’s still one of my most favourite on screen horses 🙂

    Reply

    1. I so agree with you! What a stunningly beautiful horse! This from the Kingdom of Horses site (url below): “The hero’s horse was played by four different horses, but was played mostly by Othello, a 19 year old stallion.

      Reply

      1. that’s kingdomofhorsesdotcom the site here would not let me link, so, sorry about that.

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