Leiden University in 1938, and a group of students are being initiated into their fraternity, though three of them, including Erik Lanshof (Rutger Hauer) manage to hide from the mayhem under a table and begin chatting. However, as the chair Guus LeJeune (Jeroen Krabbé) arrives and they sit down for dinner, the trio are noticed and brought before him for further humiliation. Erik is forced to sing while Guus ladles soup over his head, and when he's still out of tune he gets the bowl plonked onto his bonce which knocks him out cold. It was a strange way to commence a friendship, but war was coming so would it last?
Soldier of Orange was a fictionalised version of the Second World War memoirs of Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, essentially the character Rutger Hauer was playing, who was a remarkable man for whom war hero was just one of his achievements. He was a national treasure in The Netherlands, which was why the choice of Paul Verhoeven for director was one which proved controversial in light of his scurrilous movie making with the likes of Turkish Delight under his belt by this stage, and so it was that the finished film had a mixed reception from his fellow Dutch. Though where some believed he was somehow disrespectful as he went to his usual extremes, actually nothing could have been further from the truth.
In tracing the fates of six Leiden students through the conflict Verhoeven put across a curious mix of tones both irreverent and deadly serious, so what could have appeared as a send-up to some viewers would strike a chord in others who perceived its devil may care attitude as portrayed by the main characters actually masked a very deep concern for the world which once identified was truly inspiring. With as much intrigue as any good war novel could have provided there was certainly an abundance of adventure, and the director kept the pace moving along swiftly so that even for a film lasting a good two-and-a-half hours you never felt it peter out: the whole experience fairly rocketed along.
Taking in around seven years in the lives of the characters from just before the start of the conflict to the very end to see who survived, just as the real lives of these people could be cut short, we saw many of them exit the story as their choices, whichever side they were on, landed them in life or death situations, often death. Erik is our protagonist, and it's the raising of his consciousness which informs his path through what was often a sprawling epic, but Hauer acted as if he knew he had one of his finest roles and more than lived up to that, crafting a three-dimensional soldier who nonetheless succeeded where others may well have failed, whether he be on a mission doomed to disaster or surviving dire circumstances with immense flair and skill.
Not that this was a one man show, as his co-stars, some better known outside their native land than others, were more than up to the job of delivering what Verhoeven required of them, and it was so satisfying to see a cast, even the non-Dutch members, who were so much on his wavelength. The narrative began with the young men realising this was a graver kettle of fish than individuals of their age would have allowed for as one of them, the Jewish Weinberg (Huib Rooymans) alerts the others to the evils of Nazism and what could happen to them, not only him, should they be allowed to win. Yet they were not going to gloss over the fact that many Dutch were collaborators, just as in Verhoeven's later return to the subject of the war years of his early childhood Black Book, and it turns out here that there is a traitor in their midst who is not working for the Resistance at all. Building to excellent scenes as the tango at the party and the escape from the Nazi shelling on the beach, Soldier of Orange was a terrific war movie and proof of its director's true talent. Majestic music by Rogier van Otterloo.
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more.