20 Fantastic Facts About The 1985 Sword And Sorcery Film Ladyhawke
The 80s was a great time for sword and sorcery movies, one of the most magical and romantic of the era being 1985’s Ladyhawke. Directed by Richard Donner, the medieval swashbuckler casts Matthew Broderick as a young thief who falls in with a brave warrior (Rutger Hauer) and a beautiful lady (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose love for one another is torn asunder by a terrible curse which sees her become a hawk by day, and he a wolf at night.
Here are some facts about the 1985 fantasy adventure which you might not have known.
20. Sean Connery was the first actor asked to play Navarre
Ladyhawke spent a good few years in what is typically referred to as ‘development hell’ before making it to screens.
As tends to be the case in these instances, the project underwent various changes during its lengthy development process.
For instance, had director Richard Donner gotten the film before cameras in its original form, it may have starred Sean Connery.
The original James Bond was the first actor approached to play Ladyhawke’s central hero, the cursed knight Etienne of Navarre.
This was not to be – although not long thereafter Connery landed another medieval sword-swinging role in 1987’s Highlander.
Connery was of course used to taking on some more – shall we say – eccentric roles, such as 1974’s Zardoz.
19. Mel Gibson was also courted to play Navarre
Once Sean Connery was out of the running for the Ladyhawke lead, the project underwent a significant rethink, with the hero’s age drastically lowered.
The next actor at the top of director Richard Donner’s wish list was Mel Gibson, then best known for the Mad Max movies.
The director recalls having met the actor and, finding him “fascinating,” offered him Ladyhawke along with producer Lauren Shuler (later Donner’s wife).
Gibson turned the film down, however; Donner suspects “at the time maybe he was a little afraid to do period pieces. And then, of course, later on he turned around and did Braveheart, one of the greatest period pieces of all time.”
Donner and Gibson would finally work together on 1987’s Lethal Weapon – and then proceeded to reunite on that film’s three sequels, as well as 1994’s Maverick and 1997’s Conspiracy Theory. (A fifth Lethal Weapon, starring Gibson and to be directed by Donner, is also said to be on the cards.)
18. Kurt Russell was cast as Navarre but dropped out in rehearsals
Once the initial production fell apart, director Richard Donner spent several more years trying to get Ladyhawke off the ground before he finally got the green light.
As the film came closer to a production start date, John Carpenter favourite Kurt Russell was cast as Etienne of Navarre.
However, while the cast were in a rehearsal period shortly before principal photography began, Russell dropped out.
At this point, Donner turned his attention to Rutger Hauer – who had originally been offered the role of the bad guy, the Bishop of Aquila.
Happily for the Ladyhawke cast and crew, Blade Runner star Hauer agreed to play Navarre at short notice.
17. Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn were considered for Gaston before Matthew Broderick
The role of Ladyhawke thief Phillipe Gaston was a bit of a breakthrough role for the young Matthew Broderick.
Broderick had previously taken the lead in 1983’s WarGames, but the actor was still a year shy of landing his signature role in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It may come as a surprise that prior to Broderick’s casting in Ladyhawke, two very different actors were approached for Gaston.
Dustin Hoffman, a well-established star and Oscar winner, was at one point considered for the role, back when they had Sean Connery in mind for Navarre.
Once Connery was out, the filmmakers recognised they needed a younger actor, and so prior to Broderick they looked at Sean Penn.
16. Making the film convinced Rutger Hauer to stop pursuing Hollywood leading roles
After playing bad guys in Blade Runner and Nighthawks, Ladyhawke gave actor Rutger Hauer one of his few heroic parts.
However, while the actor had a good time making the film, his experience turned him off pursuing further big Hollywood leads in favour of smaller, less mainstream fare.
Hauer explained in his later years, with such fame “(there) may be money… but there’s no privacy.”
The 80s saw him take leading roles in Flesh and Blood, The Hitcher and Wanted: Dead or Alive, but after that he largely retreated from big productions.
Hauer died at home in the Netherlands at the age of 75 in July 2019, following a short illness.
15. A then-unknown Kevin Costner read lines with Michelle Pfeiffer in her audition tape
Michelle Pfeiffer was still establishing herself as a star when it came time for her to audition for Ladyhawke.
The actress had taken the lead in 1982’s Grease 2 and had a juicy supporting role in 1983’s Scarface, but her Hollywood leading lady status had yet to be cemented when she was trying out for Richard Donner’s fantasy epic.
To help out with her videotape audition for Ladyhawke, Pfeiffer asked a friend of hers to read the scene with her: a then-virtually unknown actor by the name of Kevin Costner.
Costner read lines as Gaston opposite Pfeiffer’s Isabeau in the tape that helped her land the part.
Costner himself would get his breakthrough role in western Silverado, which opened just three months after Ladyhawke in July 1985.
14. Rutger Hauer brought his own 55-foot trailer to the Italian set
When Rutger Hauer accepted Richard Donner’s offer to play Navarre over the phone, he told the director, “make sure you have a parking space for my 55-foot trailer.”
The director laughed, assuming the actor was making a joke about Hollywood stars and their over-sized luxury on-set accommodation.
However, Hauer was 100% serious – he had a mobile home of his own which really was 55 feet long.
The actor had built the mobile home himself, and personally drove it across Europe to the Ladyhawke set.
By all accounts, Donner and the crew were not best pleased when Hauer arrived in this mighty, home-built vehicle.
13. It was Michelle Pfeiffer’s idea for Isabeau to have un-princess-like short hair
One surface detail which is striking about Michelle Pfeiffer’s Isabeau is her short hair and fairly gender-neutral dress sense.
This was a fairly radical departure not only from the actress’s own usual look, but also from the standard representation of women in such fantasy films of the era.
Pfeiffer says Isabeau’s look was something she and director Richard Donner clashed over, as the original vision for the character was more stereotypically feminine.
The actress recalls she was not interested in “playing a beautiful princess romping through the woods… that’s the way it was (originally) written. I didn’t want to be running around in a flowing white gown, with long tresses hanging down.”
Pfeiffer and Donner butted heads over the look for some time, until the director finally relented to Pfeiffer’s wishes and allowed her to play the role her way.
12. Rutger Hauer caught his first hawk without even trying
As cursed lover Navarre, who can only be with his beloved Isabeau by day when she takes the form of a hawk, Rutger Hauer needed to be comfortable around real hawks.
During filming the actor was required to have several of the birds of prey perched on his wrist, and had to take instruction in hawking.
It seems Hauer was entirely at ease with this from the very first time he tried on a hawking glove off-camera, while the actor was casually eating lunch with his instructor.
Reportedly, as soon as Hauer held up his gloved wrist, a nearby bird unexpectedly swooped down – flying through the open door into the dining room – and perched on his wrist immediately.
Naturally many nearby were taken aback, but according to eyewitnesses Hauer himself didn’t even flinch.
11. Hauer pranked Broderick by making his horse run away with him
As well as being comfortable around hawks, Rutger Hauer was also an experienced horse rider, which was helpful for his role as Captain of the Guard.
However, the same could not be said of his younger co-star Matthew Broderick, who was comparatively uneasy when required to shoot scenes on horseback.
At one point during filming, Hauer took advantage of Broderick’s anxiety to play a practical joke on the young actor.
A scene required Hauer’s Navarre to give a gentle pat on the rear of the horse carrying Broderick’s Gaston – but Hauer deliberately struck the horse too hard.
This prompted the horse to gallop away at speed with the nervous Broderick powerless to stop it, unable to do anything but wait for the horse to slow down of its own accord.
10. They filmed it in Europe for the architecture – then had to build their own church set anyway
Ladyhawke was filmed primarily in Italy, the filmmakers having previously looked at England and the former Czechoslovakia as potential locations.
Europe was the logical place to shoot the movie, given that it was where the story was set, and that it has the landscapes and medieval buildings the production needed.
Even so, the Ladyhawke crew still ultimately had to build an all-new church set specifically for the film.
This set was required partially due to concerns about the safety of the existing medieval church ruins that were available.
However, it was also in part down to church officials objecting to the film’s content; Ladyhawke does cast a Bishop as the bad guy, after all.
9. Michelle Pfeiffer took up painting on-set to distract her from the loneliness of shooting in Europe
Ladyhawke was Michelle Pfeiffer’s seventh film role, and the first that had required her to spend a significant amount of time outside of the US.
The actress recalled in a 1988 interview: “It was a very difficult movie, and I was away for five months. It was the longest and the farthest I had ever been away from home.”
Because of this, Pfeiffer says, “I decided I needed something that I could feel as passionate about as acting, and something in which I could completely lose myself.”
With this in mind, the actress took up painting in her spare time, and it became an enduring passion which she pursues to this day.
Years later, Pfeiffer remarked that she “probably would have done more movies had I not taken up painting.”
8. Matthew Broderick shot in cold water for two straight days for the moat scene
Shooting for months on end in Europe wasn’t always a barrel of laughs for the Ladyhawke crew, as they were working on location in generally low temperatures.
This proved a particular issue for Matthew Broderick when it came time to shoot the scene in which Gaston swims a castle moat.
While this read as a brief scene in the script, the nature of filmmaking meant it took a couple of days to film completely.
Broderick subsequently had to stay in the cold and murky water for almost the entirety of shooting on those days.
For much of that time the actor was given wet suit insulation under his costume, but this was not allowed on certain shots when it would have been visible on camera.
7. Hauer lost 20 pounds from wearing the suit of armour
It wasn’t just the adverse weather conditions that proved an endurance test for the cast of Ladyhawke.
The costumes were also the cause of considerable discomfort – not least in Rutger Hauer’s case, as he was often required to wear a suit of armour.
While Ladyhawke isn’t the most historically accurate film you’ll ever see (there’s the whole wolf-hawk curse thing, for one), the costume makers and props team did strive for period authenticity.
As such, the suits of armour and swords worn by Hauer and others were made of real metal, and consequently were genuinely heavy.
Hauer claimed that the weight of the suit and sword combined with the physical exertion of shooting fight scenes with them caused him to lose 20 pounds in bodyweight by the end of production.
6. Three hawks and four wolves were used to portray cursed Isabeau and Navarre
When Ladyhawke went into production, neither puppetry nor CGI were quite sophisticated enough to do what was required with hawks and wolves.
Thus, the animal sequences were shot the old fashioned way: using the real thing live on set, with animal handlers in close attendance.
Reportedly the production used three different hawks at different times to represent the cursed Isabeau by day.
One of these hawks wound up being difficult to shoot, as – perhaps due to Hauer’s previously mentioned comfort with the birds – it would ruffle up its feathers in his company because it enjoyed being with the actor.
Meanwhile, four Siberian wolves – imported from California to Ladyhawke’s Italian set – were used to represent cursed Navarre.
5. The studio claimed the film was based on a real medieval legend. This was a lie
Some of Ladyhawke’s promotional materials from studio Warner Bros claimed that the film’s story was modelled on a genuine European legend from medieval times.
This was not true, as the story is in fact entirely the invention of writer Edward Khmara.
Khamara – whose other writing credits include Enemy Mine and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story – was not best pleased by this claim in the marketing.
The disgruntled screenwriter took legal action against Warner Bros, and was awarded an undisclosed cash sum in settlement.
Even so, the misleading claim that Ladyhawke was based on a real legend was not removed from the offending marketing materials.
4. It was a WarGames reunion for Broderick and Aquila actor John Wood
As we’ve mentioned already, before his casting as Navarre, Rutger Hauer had originally been offered the role of Ladyhawke’s villain, the Bishop of Aquilla.
When Hauer booked the film’s lead instead, the filmmakers did what Hollywood does so often when casting villains: they looked at British actors.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger was at one point considered for the part.
However, the role of the evil Bishop of Aquilla ultimately went to British actor John Wood.
This made Ladyhawke a bit of a WarGames reunion, as that earlier film saw Matthew Broderick play teen hacker David Lightman opposite Wood’s Professor Falken.
3. Alan Parsons was hired to produce the soundtrack just because the director was a fan
If there’s one thing that makes Ladyhawke unmistakable as a product of the mid-80s, it’s the synth-rock soundtrack.
Some critics have long felt this score was out of place given the film’s medieval setting, but the director of the film wholeheartedly disagreed.
Richard Donner insisted on using such a score as he’d been listening to progressive rock band The Alan Parsons Project non-stop whilst developing the film.
As such, Donner hired Alan Parsons himself to produce the soundtrack, which was composed and performed by his collaborator Andrew Powell.
Powell’s career in movie music was short-lived – he composed the score for only one more feature, 1988’s Rocket Gibraltar.
2. It was nominated for two Oscars, but didn’t win either of them
Ladyhawke wasn’t a huge hit at the box office (earning back less than its $20 million budget from US ticket sales), but it had a relatively warm reception from critics.
The film even received a little recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (i.e. the people who vote for the Oscars).
Robert G. Henderson and Alan Robert Murray received an Oscar nomination for Ladyhawke’s Sound Effects Editing, whilst Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander, Vern Poore and Bud Alper were nominated for Best Sound.
Unfortunately, Ladyhawke left that year’s ceremony empty-handed, with the Sound Effects Oscar going to Back to the Future, and the Best Sound Oscar to the big winner of the evening, Out of Africa.
Still, sci-fi/fantasy/horror awards show the Saturns gave Ladyhawke one of their top gongs, declaring it the Best Fantasy Film of 1985.
1. Musician Ladyhawke took her stage name from the movie
New Zealand singer-songwriter Philippa Brown adopted the stage name Ladyhawke in honour of the movie.
Formerly a member of bands Teenager and Two Lane Blacktop (another name borrowed from a movie), she released her self-titled solo album in 2008.
Brown says she settled on Ladyhawke as her professional moniker because it was “such a good name… and the movie’s amazing.”
Ladyhawke has since released two further albums: 2012’s Anxiety and 2016’s Wild Things.
Her first album saw her take home six awards at the 2009 New Zealand Music Awards, and she has also been nominated in the Brits, the NME awards and the MTV Europe and Australia awards.