Dutch actor Rutger Hauer celebrated his 70th birthday two weeks ago, on January 23rd, which makes me feel very old indeed. When a figure who seemed only yesterday to be the embodiment of swaggering, superhuman indestructibility – thanks to turns in movies like Blade Runner and The Hitcher – becomes a septuagenarian, you realise you must be advancing significantly in years yourself.
Born in Breukelen in the Netherlands, Hauer started adult life doing a variety of jobs – as a deck-cleaner on board a freighter, a joiner, an electrician – before he found his way into an experimental drama troupe. He was in his mid-twenties when he came to the attention of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who would later find infamy in Hollywood as the maker of bludgeoning, blood-soaked science fiction satires like Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers and trashy, salacious bonk-busters like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Verhoeven first cast Hauer in Floris, a popular Dutch TV adventure show set in the Middle Ages and then had him star in a quartet of Dutch movies that he directed.
The first of these, 1973’s Turkish Delight (in Dutch Turks Fruit) features Hauer as a Bohemian sculptor and chronicles the rise, fall and tragic end of his relationship with a well-to-do young woman (Monique van de Ven) whose family disapproves of his lifestyle. At the time of its release, more than three million people went to see it in Dutch cinemas, which constituted more than a quarter of the Dutch population. Indeed, such has been the enduring popularity of Turkish Delight that in 1999 it was named Best Dutch Film of the Century at the Netherlands Film Festival.
Hauer and Verhoeven’s next movie was 1975’s Katie Tippel (Keetje Tippel), which is about a 19th-century woman – van de Ven again – and her struggle with poverty and prostitution. Hauer plays the duplicitous banker who begins a relationship with Katie but then abandons her.
(c) Samuel Goldwyn Company
In 1977’s Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje), Verhoeven casts Hauer alongside another Dutch actor who’d later make a name for himself in Hollywood, Jeroen Krabbé. It tells the story of a group of student friends who react in different ways to World War II – collaborating with, fighting against or imprisoned by the German occupiers of their country. Soldier of Orange is considered another classic of Dutch cinema. In 2010, it was even turned into a musical that employed a cool-sounding ‘Scene-Around’ system whereby the audiences’ seats revolved to face different stages as the show progressed. The set-up was so elaborate that the musical had to be staged inside a former Dutch airbase hangar.
Hauer and Verhoeven’s final collaboration on their native soil was Spetters in 1980. This gave Verhoeven his first major taste of something he’d receive again in Hollywood – controversy. Spetters’ portrayal of homosexuals, Christians, the police and the media upset a lot of people, although one mightn’t have expected such controversy from a film that is ostensibly a coming-of-age story involving, of all things, motor-cross racing.
Inevitably, Hollywood – always on the lookout for European actors to play psychotic scumbag terrorists who speak sinister non-American-accented English – recruited Hauer in 1981 to play the baddie in the Sylvester Stallone action-thriller Nighthawks. I’m no fan of Stallone and his monosyllabic, humour-free acting style, but I quite like this movie thanks to its excellent supporting cast, which in addition to Hauer has Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner, Indian actress Persis Khambatta and distinguished English actor Nigel Davenport, who unfortunately passed away late last year. But Hauer’s performance in Nighthawks would be overshadowed by the work he did in his next Hollywood film That was Ridley Scott’s science fiction epic Blade Runner, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, in which Hauer played Roy Batty, leader of the replicants – artificially-engineered and super-strong humanoids to you and me.
Blade Runner is a movie that’s difficult to talk about objectively these days. It’s proved massively influential and its dystopian, rain-drenched metropolis (“Hell after the property developers have moved in,” as one critic described it), flavoured with aesthetics of 1940s film-noir and of modern Tokyo, seems to have turned up again in a thousand science-fiction movies and rock videos made in the decades since. Indeed, it’s said that writer William Gibson, soon to become the leading light in the cyberpunk genre, watched Blade Runner for about 15 minutes and then walked out of the cinema – many of the ideas Gibson had been toying with, which he’d shortly incorporate into his novels like Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, were already up on the screen and he didn’t want to demoralise himself any further. However, for all Blade Runner’s visual impact, Hauer and his fellow cast-members make sure that the human characters (and the artificial human characters) aren’t swamped by the film’s production design.
Played by Hauer, Roy Batty is fascinatingly multi-faceted. By turns he’s brutal, ruthless, terrifyingly physical, animalistic, child-like, icily intellectual, tender, tragic and – when he finally shows mercy to Harrison Ford’s Deckard character and saves him from falling to his doom from the top of a vertiginous skyscraper – noble. In fact, he becomes more sympathetic than Deckard himself, whom we’ve seen blasting down two female replicants, played by Darryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy, during his work as the blade runner of the title, i.e. a bounty hunter who ‘retires’ rogue replicants. (When Scott finally got to release his Blade Runner: the Director’s Cut in the early 1990s, he gave us clues to suggest that Deckard is not the simple cut-and-dried character he was in the film’s original version.) In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the replicants have no capacity for human emotions and are presented purely as a threat. In Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script for Blade Runner, however, they’re given a pre-programmed four-year lifespan that means their situation has a tragic, almost Milton-esque aspect – they’re not simply running amok but are searching for the corporation head who created them, in the hope that he can extend their lifespans beyond four years.
The film concludes with one of cinema’s great lump-in-throat moments when Hauer, after rescuing Ford, and just before he dies, gives his famous tears-in-the-rain speech – “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.” Hauer improvised the soliloquy himself and no doubt it’s the film clip that’ll be shown on TV news reports on the day that the great Dutchman goes to meet his own maker. But hopefully that won’t happen for a while yet.
(c) Recorded Picture Company
With Blade Runner, unfortunately, Hauer had already hit his peak. Whatever he did afterwards, no matter how good it was, couldn’t help but be slightly anti-climactic. But he certainly got some decent roles over the next few years. In 1983 he appeared with Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci in Eureka, directed by the legendary Nicholas Roeg. Dismissed at the time as the weakest of Roeg’s movies, Eureka has more lately been reappraised, positively – Danny Boyle, for instance, has championed it.
The same year, Hauer starred in another underrated film by another legendary director, Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend. Based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, it’s a complicated and sometimes uneasy mixture. It combines a conspiracy thriller with a satire of the growing CCTV / surveillance culture that was turning countries into real-life equivalents of George Orwell’s 1984, and Peckinpah also throws in those bloody, slow-motion action sequences that he could have directed in his sleep by then – indeed, this was his final film. Nonetheless, The Osterman Weekend is entertaining and its cast (Hauer, John Hurt, Dennis Hopper, Craig T. Nelson, Meg Foster and Burt Lancaster) is a pleasure. It certainly wasn’t the worst way that Peckinpah could have ended his career.
In 1985, Hauer teamed up with his old colleague Paul Verhoeven for the violent medieval adventure Flesh + Blood, which was supposedly based on unused material from the Dutch TV series Hauer had starred in, Floris. I’ve never seen Floris, but if it resembled the fest of blood, breasts, buttocks and bubonic plague that is Flesh + Blood, it must have been pretty racy for the standards of TV at the time. (Verhoeven also considered Hauer for the lead role in his next, and best, Hollywood film, Robocop, but eventually he opted for Peter Weller.)
(c) Warner Brothers
And in 1985, Hauer appeared with Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawke, which was one of a glut of fantasy movies made during the 1980s – see also Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, Krull, Legend, Labyrinth and Willow. I’ve always considered Ladyhawke an elegant and charming film, thanks largely to its leads. However, it’s another Hauer movie that’s been unfairly underrated and neglected – perhaps it needed to have David Bowie playing the King of the Goblins to lodge in people’s memories.
The following year, Hauer got his second-most memorable role, as the title character in the horror movie The Hitcher. Wearing a long dark coat and with a Nietzschean gleam in his eye, he plays a mysterious hitchhiking psychopath who stalks the near-empty highways of the American desert and butchers anyone hapless enough to stop and offer him a ride. C. Thomas Howell picks him up early on the film and isn’t too happy when Hauer starts reminiscing about the previous driver to have given him a lift: “…I cut off his legs… and his arms… and his head. And I’m going to do the same to you.” Howell manages to outwit him, but then finds himself embroiled in a desperate cat-and-mouse game with the dark-clad monster.
As a relatively modern country, the USA doesn’t really have any ancient myths for filmmakers to exploit – unless they dig around in the folklore of the Native Americans – but The Hitcher, with its bleak desert vistas and lonely, nocturnal road-scapes, and with a main character who seems almost supernatural in his malevolence and omnipotence, manages to tap into something primordially American. It evokes, for example, the Doors song Riders on the Storm (“There’s a killer on the road…”) I’ve also seen a painting by the artist Peter Booth in a gallery in Australia – another young country of wide open spaces and long, straight highways – that somehow captures the vibe of this particular movie. Here’s the painting. If that central figure doesn’t look like Rutger Hauer, I don’t know what does.
After The Hitcher, alas, the quality of Hauer’s movies nosedived. Many of them went straight to video (or later, straight to DVD), and the best that can be said of them is that some fall into the ‘enjoyably stupid’ category. Definitely in that category is Philip Noyce’s Blind Fury in 1989, in which Hauer plays a former soldier, blinded in battle, who’s learned to use his remaining four senses to become an expert in the martial arts – meaning he’s deadly at wielding a samurai sword but useless at driving a van when trying to escape from the baddies. (Needless to say, Noyce inserts a sequence where the sightless Hauer has indeed to drive a van to escape from the baddies.)
I’m also quite partial to the cheap science fiction actioner Wedlock (1991), in which Hauer plays a convict who escapes from a futuristic prison and sets off to find the villains who’ve double-crossed him. The catch is that the prison inmates are paired off and forced to wear deadly explosive collars that blow up if they pass beyond a certain distance from each other – meaning that Hauer has to escape with his collar-wearing partner (played by Mimi Rogers) and keep her close while they’re subsequently chased by the authorities. (It would make more sense if the convicts’ deadly partner-collars weren’t worn by other convicts but were kept locked up in a vault in the middle of the prison – nobody, surely, would try to escape then.) The film is helped by deliciously villainous performances by Joan Chen, as Hauer’s treacherous ex-wife, and by the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, as the slimy prison governor.
While Hauer’s film output stayed mostly below the radar during the 1990s and early 2000s, he was also busy in television, appearing in series and one-off dramas such as Alias, Escape from Sobibor, Fatherland, Hostile Waters, Inside the Third Reich, Merlin and Smallville. He was also, for a while, the face of the advertising campaign for Ireland’s national drink, Guinness stout. He presumably got the job because with his shock of blonde hair and his trademark black clothes he rather resembled a pint of Guinness himself. When I saw Blade Runner: the Director’s Cut in a London cinema in the early 1990s, there was a roar of laughter when one of Hauer’s Guinness adverts popped up on the screen just before the main feature.
But after a decade-and-a-half in the straight-to-DVD wilderness, Hauer’s movie fortunes seemed to improve again. In 2005 he was given villainous roles (though admittedly minor ones) in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Perhaps the fact that both films owe an obvious visual debt to Blade Runner influenced Hauer’s casting. More recently, he appeared in Cyrus Frisch’s experimental movie Dazzle, acclaimed as one of the best Dutch films of 2009. He was also the star of 2011’s Hobo with a Shotgun, the full-length spin-off from one of the fictitious movie trailers in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse project. I haven’t seen Hobo with a Shotgun, but my brother has – he says it’s the worst film he’s ever seen, so it might actually be worth watching.
Recently, Hauer has appeared as Van Helsing in Dracula 3D, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel by the once-great Italian director Dario Argento. Reviews of Dracula 3D have not been good, to say the least, and it sounds like it’s another nail in the coffin of Argento’s reputation. Come to think of it, Hauer has a poor track record with vampires – he played a rather camp Vampire King in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a crude and disappointing movie prototype for the much, much better TV series that would appear in the late 1990s. Hopefully he’ll have better luck with the currently-running vampire TV show True Blood, for whose sixth season he has recently signed up.
Away from the film and television cameras, Hauer is a keen environmentalist and he’s been involved in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. (There’s also a Rutger Hauer Starfish Association, which is not, as you might expect, a group dedicated to conserving starfish, but is in fact an AIDS awareness organisation.) Hauer’s environmental concerns may explain why, the last time I visited his website (http://www.rutgerhauer.org/), there was film footage of penguins on it, cavorting about on the ice.
Then again, they might have been replicant penguins…
(c) Tristar Pictures