Medieval Matters

History, Fantasy, and Weird Armor: Ladyhawke

I ran a poll a few months ago about which medieval movie folks wanted to see me to take on next, and the answer (by a thin margin) was Ladyhawke (1985), the classic fairy tale reimagining with Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer, and Matthew Broderick. Thank the gods y’all didn’t set me onto Braveheart.

First, you should know that I’m not going to analyze this film’s deeper meanings. That’s not my shtick here. Leah Schnelbach already gave you just such an article, and it’s amazing.

This will stick to historical criticism, and we’ll still have plenty to talk about. Sorry/not sorry.

When I watch a movie for these articles, I take notes as the film proceeds. For Ladyhawke, my notes start off like this:

Medieval cells aren’t built like this at all.

Jeez… these outfits. Patches of mail. Fashion or could they not budget for more?

That’s a very nice Italian town. Aquilla, right?

Yeah. Este Castle in Ferrara.

Such snazzy synthesizers! That’s 80s even for the 80s.

Seriously, what is up with that armor?!?

Is that a double crossbow? WTF? Hahaha

Well, to their credit, the crossbow has a stirrup, which is totally accurate despite the insanity of the double —

Wait. No. Mouse just drew the crossbow back with his hand. OMG. He’s so slight I’m pretty sure I can bench press him. Just no.

Damn everybody is really dirty. Filmmakers really buying into that “no-baths” myth of the Middle Ages, eh?

Ok. Michelle Pfeiffer is amazing. Angelic. Perfect casting. And this has got to be Rutger Hauer’s second-best role (after Blade Runner).

The bad guy’s helm is just killing me. No, ALL his armor is killing me. I think he’s going for a coif, but what the hell is that? And no one wears a sword that way. It’s like a 16th-century executioner’s sword.

“Oh god, is it Lent again already?” Hahahahaha. Screw it. I love this.

Like I said: angelic. Also: check out the real historical surrounds. Take that, green screen!

Yep. That’s my stream-of-consciousness. Then I go back in afterward and fill it out to something more useful and sensible.

When I wrote Seriously, what is up with that armor?!?, for example, what I really meant was this:

Rutger Hauer’s acting is good here, and I really am enjoying this, but his armaments are all kinds of messed up. I remember liking this get-up as a kid — it’s so black and cool! — but it looks a lot different to me now. Ignorance really can be bliss.

So cool. And so very improbable.

His armor, it seems, consists largely of a single, hilariously wee bit of shielding that’s strapped to the right shoulder of a simple black leather get-up. In technical terms this is a spaulder, and it’s a known bit of armor that’s intended to help protect a fighter’s shoulder. It’s hard to tell, but this one appears to be a padded leather over metal, which is a bit odd, but the biggest problem here is that it’s on the wrong side of his body. I mean, you should wear spaulders in pairs, but if you’re only going to wear a single one it should at least be on your leading shoulder (the one most exposed to attack). Since Hauer is right-handed, a useful spaulder would be on his left, leading shoulder.

His leather armor itself has issues, too, the biggest of which (to me) is that his vital neck protection consists of what’s essentially a low turtleneck. Even if it’s made of Kevlar — and I know this is a fantasy, but it ain’t — this itty bit of armor doesn’t reach more than an inch up his neck. That leaves waaaaay too much neck exposed.

And the neck is like Item 2 on the list of things a swordsman ought to be focused on protecting. Item 1, of course, is his head… which makes this a great place to mention that Hauer doesn’t have a helm, either. Sigh.

Then there’s that sword. The big one. I really dug it when I was a kid, but that was a long time before I actually wielded such things. (This constitutes research for me, by the way, which is another reason to love my job.) What Hauer’s swinging around is a Zweihänder. It’s a real kind of sword, which came into use in the early 16th century. It’s  historical. So there’s that.

A close-up of the sword, and a seriously young Broderick.

Of course, Zweihänders are so named because they take two hands to control and Hauer swings his around with one hand like it’s made of plastic. So there’s that, too.

Besides which, Zweihänders didn’t really function like regular swords. They’re so big, so heavy, that they’re really more like polearms. This is why they had such a short life in historical usage: polearms are cheaper and easier to use, so why bother with Zweihänders at all?

Hauer improbably uses his like a sword, though, as I’ve already said. And that would be pretty foolish. In actual military conditions something of that length would be too heavy, too slow, too hard to maintain. It’s more akin to an executioner’s beheading tool than a melee weapon.

Even on a basic level of transport it’s silly. Honestly, you’d be truly foolish to have an exposed sword of that length strapped to the side of your trusty steed — if the blade doesn’t hack up the horse’s leg, its edge is gonna get beaten to hell by road debris and the general elements. But okay, even if we set that aside … how is Hauer gonna pull it out? From tip to Parierhaken (those angled spikes on the side of the blade that are there to help protect the second hand) it looks to be about as long as his leg. Basic anatomy says his arm will have trouble reaching high enough to get the thing free without some unwieldy (and no doubt comical) contortions.

But you know what? It’s still not as bad as that “claymore” that William Wallace wields in Braveheart.

Again: thank you guys so much for not assigning me that one.

All that said, I really enjoyed this film, even after all these years. I like the acting — the main cast is solid, and the surrounding crew is amazing at times — plus the story has so very much to recommend it (see, again, Leah’s article above). And even on a historical level I really love the filming locations, which are often very real places.


Arms and armor: 2 out of 10 wolves.

Everything else: 8 out of 10 hawk(e)s.

Put those pieces together — in that perfect balanced moment between fantasy and history, night and day — and Ladyhawke remains a well-deserving classic.

Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of HeavenThe Gates of Hell, and the newly released The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books.


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