Ladyhawke (Warner Bros, 1985) lost millions at the box office before becoming a cult fantasy decades later, but it did ignite an interest in the Friesian, a breed largely forgotten in the ’80s except by enthusiastic Dutch stalwarts and a handful of Americans.
Having escaped from the dreaded dungeons of Aquila, petty thief Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) falls in with Captain Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and his hawk. This noble knight is cursed to spend each night as a wolf while his true love, the Lady Isabeau, (Michelle Pfeiffer), must spend the day as the hawk. Gaston presents them with the chance to finally break the curse.
Richard Donner, who went on to direct all four Lethal Weapon movies, filmed Ladyhawke in and around the Italian castle Rocca Calasciole, with extra footage shot at Cinecitta studios in Rome. Donner, who had considered Sean Connery as the knight, cast Kurt Russell in the role but he left before production began, allegedly to be with Goldie Hawn. Dutch actor Rutger Hauer finally got the part. He had played the replicant in 1982’s Blade Runner where his “tears in the rain” dying monologue became part of film history.
At one stage Mick Jagger was considered for the evil bishop but due to extended timelines and obscure locations he wouldn’t commit. The part eventually went to John Wood – the British actor, not the Australian in Blue Heelers.
Upon hearing he had the lead, Rutger Hauer drove his motorhome 1,600 kilometres across Europe from his home in the Netherlands to Cinecitta. He had built the 16-metre motorhome himself and it was his pride and joy. The director was unimpressed as it got in the way.
Hauer was just as handy when it came to riding – the 38-year-old had been doing it since he was 15. The starring horse was Othello, a 19-year-old Friesian. Named ‘Goliath’ in the movie, the stallion, by Ritske 202 out of Paulowna, was a circus performer. His rider, Manuela Beeloo, who was famous for her high school act combining a horse and ballerina, was the main trainer of all the film’s horses, which included a few black doubles and an Andalusian.
This grey stallion makes his entrance in the final battle scene in a cathedral, which was really a film studio, ridden by a stuntman. He confronts Hauer atop the Friesian and both stallions rear and whinny.
The suit of armour Hauer wore and the sword he carried were so heavy he lost 9kg shooting this climactic fight scene.
The studio floor was covered with composite rubber sculpted to look like cobblestones. This muffled the sound of hooves and enabled the horses to move in comparative safety. Despite the reduced sound, the noise still proved too great during the filming of the action. All dialogue recorded in scenes with horses was re-recorded by the actors in post-production and synchronised with the other footage.