Monday, December 3, 2012


Matthew Robbins, 1981
Starring: Peter MacNichol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, Chloe Salaman

The wizard Ulrich is petitioned by a group of peasants from the kingdom of Urland to journey there and defeat the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative (yeah), who regularly wreaks havoc and is only appeased by human sacrifice. The king insists on a biannual lottery, where all the virginal women of the kingdom (except his daughter) are up for sacrifice. Valerian, the boy who has led the Urlanders to Ulrich, convinces the wizard to join them, but he is killed by one of the king’s guards. The king and his men think it is folly to try to kill the dragon, and that it will only further endanger the kingdom. Ulrich’s apprentice, a young man named Galen, is forced to take up the cause and travel to Urland, even though he is not a full wizard and relies on Ulrich's amulet.

Though Dragonslayer is flawed, it is a notable early sword and sorcery film and is one of the most important dragon films ever made. This is a co-production between Disney and Paramount and marks Disney’s entrance into the PG-13, more mature film world, which later turned into their sister company, Touchstone Pictures. By today’s standards, Dragonslayer is mostly family-friendly, but it includes violence, some nudity, and implications of sex. The incredible effects were also probably terrifying for children at the time. The impressive looking dragon was created at Industrial Light and Magic, previously only used by Lucasfilm for Star Wards and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The effects team used a variation of stop-motion animation, “go motion,” which allowed the dragon to fly, breath fire, and move around. This technique ensured a number of award nominations for the film, which still has some of the best practical (non-computer/CGI) monster effects ever captured on film. 

The set is believably grungy and dirty. Director Matthew Robinson insisted on medieval realism and refused to include any elements that he thoughts were too glamorous. The English/Scottish sets add a haunted air that is very effective. The cast is all realistic looking, which is to say no one looks like they walked off of a runway. Most cast members and extras are costumed in realistically grubby medieval attire. It’s odd to see Peter MacNichol (TV shows like Ally McBeal, Numbers) in a starring role, but he is surprisingly believable as the ambitious, but flawed Galen, who tries his best, which ultimately isn’t good enough. Caitlin Clark (Crocodile Dundee) is refreshing as Valerian, the main love interest, but is occasionally stiff. Ralph Richardson (Tales from the Crypt and Time Bandits) is wonderful, if campy as Ulrich, but his screen time is too brief.

Influenced by the legend of St. George and the Dragon and by “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from Fantasia, Dragonslayer is also notable for its refusal to follow fantasy tropes.The film is not named after Galen, who does not really slay the dragon, but after the spear created for him. There is no hero. Galen does not become a full wizard throughout the course of the film (though the end hints that he might still have potential) and he does not save the kingdom. Ulrich returns to life and kills the dragon with a little help from Galen, but it is a jarring, anticlimactic ending. The people of Urland claim the dragon’s death is by the grace of god and the king also tries to take credit for it. The lack of any triumphant ending is thoughtful and subversive, but may rub a lot of viewers the wrong way. The romantic subplot is also unexpected. The peasant boy who leads the Urlanders to the wizard turns out to be a girl, one disguised from birth so that her father could keep her out of the lottery. 

Disappointingly, Valerian dons a dress and adopts feminine behavior as soon as she is able, despite years of acting like a boy. The princess stubbornly sacrifices herself to the dragon, but does not even have a dramatic death -- she is found being eaten by adorable baby dragons. The depressing arrival of Christianity, which winds its way throughout the film, is another troubling element. On a bright note, Ian McDiarmid plays an unfortunately barbecued priest. His next role would be the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi

I recommend Dragonslayer for fans of sword and sorcery films or movies with dragons, but it is important to keep in mind that the dragon is the real star of this film. The plot is occasionally slow moving, with some stiff acting and forced dialogue, and the ending is abrupt and frustrating. Still, it’s a worthy, interesting entry in ‘80s fantasy cinema. Though it lacks any special features, the Paramount DVD presents Dragonslayer with quality picture and sound. 

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