The film is set in medieval Europe. Phillipe "The Mouse" Gaston (Matthew Broderick), a peasant thief, is imprisoned in the dungeons of Aquila and set for execution for his petty crimes — but he escapes by crawling through the prison sewers to freedom. He makes a run for it into the countryside away from the city.
His escape comes to attention of the evil Bishop of Aquila (John Wood), who rules over his portion of France with an iron grip. The dungeons of Aquila are considered to be inescapable and so the Bishop fears that news of Phillipe's escape could "ignite the flames of rebellion". The Bishop sends his captain of the guard, Marquet (Ken Hutchinson), into the country to find Phillipe and kill him. Phillipe uses his cunning to survive a while, but is soon found by Marquet and several of the Bishop's guards. As he is about to be killed, Phillipe is saved by a strange knight in black (Rutger Hauer), who is identified as Etienne Navarre. Navarre battles and defeats all the soldier s present, riding away with Phillipe. Marquet warns the Bishop of Navarre's "return."
Navarre, a quiet man who travels with a companion hawk, tells Phillipe that he intends to ride back to Aquila and use Phillipe's unique knowledge to get inside the prison. Once inside, Navarre intends to kill the Bishop. Navarre reveals very little about his background or motivation. Phillipe refuses to return, but agrees only after Navarre passively threatens to kill him if he should decide otherwise. As the pair begin to take the long journey back to Aquila, Phillipe starts to notice that Navarre disappears at night, while a wolf seems to always be prowling in his absence. He also notices that the hawk disappears at nightfall, and a beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) manifests out of nowhere each evening.
Marquet's men capture Phillipe one night and use him to find Navarre. They battle and Navarre manages to defeat the Bishop's guards, but both he and the hawk are wounded by crossbow bolts. As the hawk barely clings to life, Navarre seems broken. Navarre looks to the sunset and orders Phillipe to travel down a nearby road to an old monk named Imperius (Leo McKern) who will "know what to do." Phillipe finds Imperius, who heals the wounded hawk. Imperius then tells Phillipe a story that confirms what he already suspects, and informs Phillipe that the name of the woman is Isabeau. Years ago, Isabeau, a young French beauty, fell in love with Navarre, the captain of the guard. The Bishop saw Isabeau and fell in love with her but Isabeau "sensed his wickedness" and rejected his advances. Imperius says that in a drunken confession it was he who had informed the Bishop of Isabeau's love for Navarre. Enraged with jealousy, the Bishop made a pact with the Devil to place a transformation curse upon both the lovers, swearing that "if he could not have her, then no man would". With the curse in effect, Isabeau becomes a hawk during the daytime while Navarre becomes a wolf during the night. They are eternally apart and only see each other for the briefest of moments during sunset and sunrise, and even then they do not have time to touch. They also have no memory of what they did while in their other form (Isabeau doesn't know what she did while she was a hawk, and Navarre doesn't know what he did while in wolfish form). Navarre later laments that while hawks and wolves mate for life, the Bishop did not even leave them that option.
Three of the Bishop's guards arrive the next day and storm Imperius' castle. Phillipe manages to get Isabeau away but they are both trapped by the guards on top of a tower. Navarre arrives in human form to save Imperius, Phillipe and Isabeau (who is now a hawk). Imperius says that he has a found a way to break the curse, explaining that in three days, there will be a "day without a night. A night without a day." During that brief moment, he and Isabeau will both be in their human forms, and must confront the bishop together as man and woman to break the curse. Navarre refuses to accept Imperius' suggestion as the monk had already betrayed Isabeau and Navarre before when he told the Bishop of their love, and didn't want it to get any worse.
Meanwhile, the Bishop concocts a plan. As he seems unable to kill Navarre in his human form, he instructs a hunter, Cezar (Alfred Molina), to trap wolves, hoping to actually kill Navarre during the night when he is in his wolf form. He is instructed to look for a black wolf. Isabeau sees the wolf pelts on Cezar's horse and she rides into the forest to save Navarre from Cezar's deadly traps. She sneaks behind Cezar with a dagger in her hand, but before she can kill him, Navarre enters the scene in his wolf form. Cezar sees the black wolf, but before he can get to Navarre, Isabeau kicks him to the floor and he falls into one of his own traps and is killed.
Phillipe tells Isabeau of Imperius' plan. Phillipe, Isabeau and Imperius develop a plan to trap Navarre when he is in his wolf form so that they can prevent him from killing the Bishop before the day that Imperius has told him to confront him on, the "day without a night". Phillipe and Imperius dig a hole to trap the wolf in while Isabeau tries to summon him, but before Navarre can reach the trap he falls through the ice crossing the river. Phillipe jumps into the water to save him. The next morning, Isabeau in her human form awakes alongside the wolf in the hole that they had dug to trap him in. The sun rises and Navarre transforms into a human. The two lovers see each other, but before they can reach out to touch one another, Isabeau transforms into a hawk. Navarre learns that Phillipe saved his life, and he finally seems to agree to follow Imperius' plan.
Navarre and company continue on and reach Aquila. Imperius says that he must confront the bishop now or the curse will never be broken, even though Navarre would rather kill the bishop. Navarre orders Imperius to kill the hawk should he not return by the time the bells ring (signaling the end of mass) for this will likely mean his quest has ended in death and he will then meet Isabeau again in the afterlife. As Phillipe uses the sewers to get into the cathedral and unlock the main door, Navarre rides into the cathedral on his horse during the evening mass. After a series of jousts and battles in the cathedral, a window in the ceiling is broken, and Navarre sees the eclipse, the "day without a night, a night without a day". Unfortunately one of the soldiers rings the bell before Navarre can stop him, and Navarre knows that Imperius will have heard that and will probably kill Isabeau. He tries to get to Imperius to tell him to stop, but Marquet jumps him and forces him to fight. Navarre defeats Marquet in combat, and just as he is about to kill the defenseless bishop in revenge, Isabeau walks in — appearing in human form. Everyone present is awestruck. By looking at the both of them, the Bishop breaks the curse and the lovers are freed. The enraged Bishop's anger begins to show and he arms his spear, preparing to kill Isabeau. Before he can attack, however, Navarre throws his sword at him like a javelin and the corrupt Bishop is impaled onto his altar. Navarre and Isabeau embrace in the cathedral, while Phillipe and Imperius feel proud of their work in the adventure.
Dr. E.C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, cites the film in his book Beyond the Blue Horizon as a modern example of archaeoastronomical eclipse imagery. The shapeshifting elements are shared with two medieval Breton lais by Marie de France — "Bisclavret", the tale of a werewolf , and "Yonec", in which a knight transforms into a falcon — and are also reminiscent of the ancient symbologies of solar hawk and night wolf.
The music of the film was composed by Andrew Powell, a composer and orchestrator most well known for his work with Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson for The Alan Parsons Project. Donner stated in the soundtrack's liner notes that he had been location-scouting with a steady soundtrack of the Projects' albums, and so he married music style to pictures in his mind before the film was even begun. Powell wrote the score and approached Parsons to produce the music, thus making it appear to be an instrumental album of the band. Parsons is often mistaken as the composer for the film.
Ladyhawke's soundtrack draws much criticism from those who feel that the 1980s synthesized pieces clash with the medieval setting of the film, though it has to be noted that the soundtrack also includes orchestral works and genuine medieval and renaissance tunes; when Phillipe and Isabeau dance in the stables, the tune they dance to is a genuine Italian 14th century dance named Trotto. The film also includes a genuine Renaissance piece by John Dowland.
A kind of "alternative soundtrack" has been written by the German composer Frank Fojtik (*1977). His symphonic poem Ladyhawke retells the story of the movie in about 18 minutes by using a Wagnerian leitmotif technique and a musical language in the tradition of romantic composers such as Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss.
Ladyhawke was filmed in Italy, principally in the Province of L'Aquila, as well as in the provinces of Parma, Piacenza and Cremona. Castles include Torrechiara, Fontanellato, Bacedasco and Castell'Arquato. Some of the exterior scenes were shot in Campo Imperatore, a high plain adjacent to the Apennines' highest peak, and at the ancient ruin of Rocca Calascio, both in the Province of L'Aquila and within Italy's Gran Sasso National Park. Other locations include Rocca Sforzesca in Soncino in the Province of Cremona.
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