One of the best-loved fantasy movies of the 1980s and arguably one of the best fantasy movies ever made Ladyhawke is the timeless tale of a love that will not be denied. Produced at the height of the same fantasy boom that gave us The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Willow, what sets Ladyhawke apart is its simple yet compelling storyline and its understated use of fantastical elements.
A fantasy movie that succeeds because of a lack of fantasy elements? Hear me out-
Ladyhawke is basically set in late medieval Italy. It was filmed in rural locations across Italy, the names of people and places all sound Italian or French and the Church is the most powerful organization in the film. There are no orphan dragons or enchanted woodlands and itinerant wizards are few and far between (ok ok there are none). The only magic to be found in Ladyhawke is a single evil curse- but boy oh boy, is it a doozy…
Two lovers forever divided by an evil spell that transforms one into a wolf at night and other into a hawk during the day. The curse is the work of the Bishop of Aquila, a wicked man who summoned dark powers to punish Isabeau and her lover Navarre when she rejected his advances.
The audience learns of their plight through the misadventures of Philippe Gaston, a young thief played by Matthew Broderick who has just escaped the dungeons of Aquila. At first Philippe or “Mouse” as he is known wants nothing to do with the mysterious knight Navarre and he tries to escape at every turn- but when he meets Isabeau played by the stunning Michelle Pfeiffer he is enchanted by her beauty and decides to help the unlucky couple. Some of the most charming sequences in the film occur when Philippe acts as a go-between for Isabeau and Navarre, telling each what they need to hear and rekindling hope between them.
Not everyone likes Matthew Broderick as Mouse. Some find his wise-cracking annoying. Personally I found his ongoing dialogue with God hilarious and the perfect foil for Rutger Hauer’s sombre Navarre.
Ladyhawke isn’t as epic as the fantasies they make these days, but the relationships are well-developed and the film makers did a lot with the relatively primitive special effects that were available. Clever editing also helps to build tremendous tension at points, like when the bounty hunter is tracking Navarre-as-wolf through the forest and it’s unclear whether he’s alive or dead- and produces one of the tensest edge-of-the-seat climaxes you’ll ever see thanks to the instructions the monk receives from Navarre at the end. What Ladyhawke lacks in special effects it more than makes up for in good old fashioned storytelling and thoughtful plot.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Oh heavens no!
Something needs to be said about the soundtrack- eighties synth was always a questionable development. Ladyhawke has it. Quite a lot of it. In 1986 James Horner composed a vastly superior soundtrack for Name of the Rose, another tale about wicked churchmen set in Northern Italy, so no, not everyone was using synth at the time. When I mention Ladyhawke’s cheesy soundtrack to people Gen Y and younger they claim to love it…but I think they’re doing so ironically. The older the person the more embarrassed they are (“I was there and I did nothing to stop it…”).
Warner Bros please please please rerelease Ladyhawke without the 80s synth! You’ll be doing everyone a massive favour.
Check out the alternative soundtrack by Frank Fojtik here.
The world-building can be a bit incongruous in places too- for example, what’s with the cowled dudes milling around the happy couple in the final scene? Shouldn’t they be reacting in some way? I mean, their Dear Leader was just murdered and now his murderers are making out right in front of them... I don’t get it.
It says a lot about the depth of love out there for this movie that so many people are able to overlook the score (or even embrace it) and continue to count Ladyhawke among their favourite movies. Watching Ladyhawke today it transports us back to a simpler, more pastoral time, when Michelle Pfeiffer’s doe-eyes still reigned supreme and Leo McKern’s quivering jowls provided all the authoritas you would ever need. No matter how you cut it Ladyhawke is soulful fantasy-fare of the highest order that fully deserves a high place in the DVD cabinet of any fantasy enthusiast.