Soldier of Orange was in 1977 the most expensive Dutch film to date. Paul Verhoeven directed a truly epic wartime true story based on the memoir by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema for producer Rob Houwer. I use the term ‘epic’ carefully as the film shares a couple of formal elements with the fashion for roadshow films produced in Hollywood and the UK from the 1950s through to the late 1970s. It is long (155 mins) and even comes with an intermission on the DVD I watched. But it isn’t spectacular in terms of the visual image which is presented in the standard European widescreen 1.66:1 rather than any of the more exotic Hollywood formats. But it is presented with flair and terrific vitality. It’s a co-production with the Rank Organisation in the UK and includes roles for two well-known British actors and it’s also epic in terms of the incredible story it tells about Erik Roelfzema during the Second World War – with the name changed to Lanshof. The adaptation was by Verhoeven working with Kees Holierhoek and Gerard Soeteman.
The success of Soldier of Orange certainly helped Verhoeven to move to Hollywood in 1985 and to work there for two decades before returning to Europe. In some ways his 2006 film Black Book (Zwartboek) is a re-working of much of the same material as Soldier of Orange, albeit offering a different perspective in the form of a woman working for the resistance in the Netherlands. Both films form part of what might be termed a ‘wave’ of films exploring ‘National Popular’ narratives set in Occupied Europe in 1940-45. Soldier of Orange is early in this cycle which in the 2000s has included films such as Max Manus (Norway 2008), Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008) and Black Book. These are three films that deal with resistance to occupation by the Nazis and appeal directly to national pride in local heroes rather than to the broader generic pleasures of the British/American World War II films. We could perhaps also add the Polish film about 303 Squadron (UK-Poland 2018) and Dark Blue World (Czech Republic 2001) which both deal with pilots in the RAF from occupied countries.
Soldier of Orange begins in 1938 at the prestigious University of Leiden where Erik Lanshof is one of a group of first year students undergoing one of those awful initiation ceremonies. Lanshof (Rutger Hauer) is from a wealthy family and seemingly able to take care of himself but on this occasion comes up against the student president Guus LeJeune (Jeroen Krabbé) and suffers quite badly. Nevertheless he and LeJeune become part of a group of six students and the narrative follows what happens to the individuals in the group over the next seven years. A central strand follows Erik’s relationship with the studious Robby (Eddy Habbema) and his girlfriend Esther (Belinda Meuldijk). She becomes the seventh central character and the group represents characters whose backgrounds and interests are such that the overall narrative presents weaves diverse threads about the impact of Occupation when it arrived in May 1940. The Occupation lasted five years before the Canadian Army led the liberation in 1945. Much like Denmark and Norway, there was little the Netherlands could do to prevent the German forces over-running the country. Verhoeven uses the image of a Dutch Army patrol on bicycles just before the Luftwaffe and parachutists arrive. His signature approach is fully developed here with its mixture of sex, violence and squalor but above all sheer vitality. Erik was an adventurer and initially had little political or ideological fervour – he was taking a law degree before the university was closed down. But others in the group had very different concerns. One has a German mother, two are Jewish and a couple quickly become involved in a ‘student resistance movement’.
Erik eventually decides that he wants to become a pilot and train to fly for the RAF. First he has to get to London and then he faces the problem that he has poor eyesight making him unfit to fly. But these are minor problems for Erik who will eventually get to London and will indeed by 1945 be flying a Mosquito over Europe as a Pathfinder. The film’s title refers to the House of Orange, the Dutch Royal family and Erik will become Queen Wilhelmina’s Adjutant in London where she is exiled. In what seems like the most contrived part of the plot this will see Erik (and Guus) working with British Intelligence on a mission for the Queen and co-operating with Edward Fox’s Colonel Rafelli and his assistant, a glamorous ATS Subaltern played by Susan Penhaligon. This means Erik becoming involved in a very risky mission back in the Netherlands alongside Guus and other members of the student resistance group, featuring betrayal, capture, torture etc. Verhoeven portrays the Nazi security forces and the local Dutch fascists (as many as 100,000 in the NSB) as skilled in their forms of deception. He also kills off characters we might expect to survive. Alongside this Erik is involved with both Esther and Subaltern Susan, who must disrobe for the plot and the male audience. Several of the killings are brutal but at least one has an element of comedy. This is indeed a recognisable Verhoeven film.
The conditions in the Netherlands under Occupation are also presented in films like Winter in Wartime ( Netherlands 2009) and the resistance in British wartime pictures such as The Silver Fleet (1943) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (UK 1942). This Verhoeven film deals with some familiar issues but the perspective of the ‘students’ from the Dutch equivalent of Oxbridge with its social cachet certainly adds something new that I hope is educational for audiences outside the Netherlands as well those in its domestic audience. The film seems to have been distributed in various versions with some featuring cuts and a dubbed soundtrack. In the UK, Rank had the rights and seemed to have released a dubbed, shortened print under the baffling title of Survival Run in 1978 or 1979 but I can’t find any evidence of this print actually appearing in cinemas. I presume it sneaked out as a programme-filler, although even in cut form it would be long for a B picture. It did however appear as a VHS release under that title. The print I watched on DVD was subtitled with a full length running time of 147 minutes after PAL speed-up. Do be careful to find that print. It seems to be streaming on Amazon in the UK.
I found Soldier of Orange to be solid entertainment and very engaging. Rutger Hauer is very good indeed and leads a talented cast. I was also impressed by the cinematography of Jost Vacano who would shoot many of Verhoeven’s films up to Hollow Man in 2000. I couldn’t find a decent trailer but here’s a famous scene in which Eric has returned to the Netherlands as a British/Dutch agent and attends a party where he meets his student friend Alex now in the Waffen-SS: