In the years before Peter Jackson took us to Middle Earth, we fantasy fans were desperate for big budget movies with dragons and elves and dwarves and unicorns and whatever, and even the most flawed among them still have enthusiatic cult followings that will try to convince you that Legend is a masterpiece, which only goes to demonstrate the power of both nostalgia and recreational drugs. And we revisit one of the biggest here, director Matthew Robbins’ Dragonslayer. This differs from the other films I’ve covered so far in that I’ve actually revisited it a few more times in my adult life, though only two or three times. It also differs in that (unlike Megaforce or Return to Oz) it’s not a film I watched over and over as a kid. Megaforce was one my brothers and I talked my Mom into renting for us several times in our early days as VHS owners, and we definitely didn’t illegally copy Return to Oz by hooking together two VCRs with a coaxial cable after my Mom learned how, and anyway the guy from the video store told us it was legal if it was for “Personal Use” so if anything he’s the one who should be arrested, and I lost those tapes about 17 years ago anyway so shut up. But for whatever reason, we only rented and watched Dragonslayer once.
I vividly remember looking forward to eventually seeing this as a kid. Siskel and Ebert reviewed on the same episode of their original PBS show Sneak Previews where they covered Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II, and I recorded and watched the episode over and over to watch the clips. But what money we had for moviegoing that year was spent on numnerous return trips to Raiders and Superman II (a choice I will happily stand by for eternity), so Dragonslayer waited until video. As such, it’s not a film I knew as well as the last two, though it’s arguably more iconic, and seems to have a more enthusiastic cult following. Each time I’ve watched this again I’ve pshyched myself up to love it as much as its biggest fans do, and each time I’ve managed to be a little bit disappointed. Which is not to say it’s not a good film, because it is. But it falls short of the greatnesss that sometimes feels within its reach.
The kingdom of Urland is terrorized by a dragon named Vermithrax Pejorative, which in hindsight they should have known was never going to be a name that sold toys. The King Cassiodourus Rex (he’s part Roman Emperor and part dinosaur) has devised a “wise policy” which appeases the Dragon: Once every year, a lottery is held in which a young virgin maiden is chosen to be sacrficed to the dragon (Mitt Romney actually implemented a similar policy as Governor of Massachussetts.). But a group of villagers, tired of sacrificing their beloved daughters instead of working them to death as farmhands or selling them to potential husbands, decides to take matters into their own hands by finding the great sorcerer Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Ralph Richardon, whom modern audiences will remember as the wizard from Dragonslayer), and asks him to slay the dragon. The villagers are lead by a young man named Valerian, whose feminine features and odd voice that’s high but is trying to sound low mark him as clearly either a disguised girl or Crispin Glover. Ulrich agrees to go with the villagers, but is killed in the most ill-conceived test ever when a sneering soldier named Tyrian (George R.R. Martin definitely didn’t steal the name, how dare you think that?) stabs him with a dagger to prove he’s not a wizard. Seriously? Making something fly or turn into a newt wasn’t an option?
Ulrich’s apprectice Galen Bradwarden, a young Luke Skywalker wannabe that works as Ulrich’s apprentice, is chosen by Ulrich’s magical amulet to be Ulrich’s successor. Galen is played by Peter MacNicol, whom most of us remember as the goofy/creepy Janosz Poha from Ghostbusters II, because we tried to get into Ally McBeal but it really wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was. Galen follows after the villagers, proclaiming himself to be “The sorcerer you seek.” Soon Galen follows young Valerian to bathe in a pond, where “his” secret is revealed, which as I think about it is probably the scene that stopped my Mom from letting us rent it again (Valerian is definitely not Crispin Glover.). Galen performs a spell to cause an avalanche which everyone think he has killed the dragon, but of course it didn’t, and the corruption of the lottery is exposed when it is discovered that King Cassius Clay had kept his daughter, Princess Elspeth, out of the running, and has taken bribes from the rich to protect their daughters, letting only the poor girls be sacrificed, which you can imagine outrages the crap out of Bernie Sanders. Galen then chooses to wield a lance/spear type thing called Dragonslayer, carry a shield made of dragon scales, and go into the dragon’s lair in a last vain hope that they can sell at least two action figures.
Some of this really works, and most of what doesn’t is only just a little off. Vermithrax was long celebrated as the greatest dragon in film history, and the F/X wizards at ILM were actually quite disappointed when they lost the effects Oscar to themsleves, winning for Raiders of the Lost Ark, as they considered Vermithrax the pinnacle of their work to date. Of course those Phil Tippet Go-Motion effects look more than a little dated today, with some jerky movements and the dragon sometimes really not blending very well in with the matte paintings behind it. That’s not to say these aren’t still spectacular effects, especially with the context of the time, but they’re definitely 1981 effects, no matter how much the virulently anti-CGI crowd will try to claim they still look better than Smaug. The production design, by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘s Elliot Scott, is also very good, as is Alex North’s score. And director Robbins (who wrote Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical film, The Sugarland Express, and did uncredited work on Jaws and Close Encounters) had a deft touch, which makes it a shame that he only helmed a few more films after this. And he and writing partner Hal Barwood gave us a screenplay that at its best is smart and has a nice darkly satirical class warfare theme going on beneath the surface. But the script underwhlems in its charactizations, which feel fairly shallow.
MacNichol is a good actor, but he doesn’t really have a leading man prescence, and Galen’s character arc is severly underdone. He lacks the relatability of a Luke Skywalker, and his excess of confidence isn’t charming in the way Han Solo’s was. He just comes off as arrogant much of the way, doing with a dragon more to prove what a great sorcerer he is than out of any altruistic motives. And a strong argument can be made that a lot of homes are destoryed and people killed unecessarily because of his arrogance (then again, the lottery made for fewer deaths but wasn’t exactly moral.). When he does finally begin to experience self–doubt and guilt, it’s barely explored and has little emotional impact. It might have helped to give the character more of a backstory. Where did he come from? Did he have a family, or is he an orphan? I’m going to pretend he had parents named Brad and Warden, and they sold him to Ulrich for a handful of magic beans.
Caitlin Clarke as Valerian fares all the better now when we can’t help but compare her to Dane DeHaan’s performance as a character by the same name. This can’t have been an easy role to cast, as they needed an actress who could be at least semi-believable as having never tipped off the rest of the village to her true sex, yet pretty enough to be the requisite traditional love interest for the hero. Clarke does as well as much as anyone could have, but it’s hard for me to believe most adult filmgoers hadn’t figured out her secret long before Galen does. But she has charisma and screen prescence.
Ralph Richardson as Ulrich plays more than a little like how Obi Wan Kenobi would have been if he’d lived long enough to get senile, and it’s the kind of “Distinguished British Actor” character and performance where he gets to kind of phone it in and wildly chew the scenery at the same time. That said, he adds an undeniable sense of prescence to the film, and I found myself wishing he’d been in more of it.
The most sympathetic and truly heroic character in the film is Chloe Salaman’s Princess Elspeth, who discovers she has been the beeficiary of treachery and nepotism her whole life, but don’t compare her to anyone named Ivanka because she choose to right that wrong through a great act of nobility and sacrifice.
The climax of the film is demonstrates the tricks memory can play on you. BIG SPOILERS: After Ulrich returns from the dead (I am not making up the fact that he decided to die and be ressurected because it was easier than walking the whole way from Craggenmoor to Urland), he tells Galen to destory the amulet and therefore Ulrich as well, and he’ll know when the right time is. This takes no great power or insight on Galen’s part, as he keeps telling the anxious Valerian “He said I’ll knwo when it’s time” but he knows because Ulrich screams “Galen!” as he’s being carried off by the dragon. Seriously, why even say “You’ll know when it’s time” if you’re going to scream out to tell him when it’s time? Anyway, Galen smashes the amulet with a rock, and Lurich and Vermithrax explode like the plane at the end of Die Hard 2. But the way I remember it and expect it to happen every time I watch it is that the amulet starts to glow, and Galen has a suddenly epiphany that he’s supposed to twirl it like a sling, and then hurl it at the dragon like an anti-aircraft rocket, bring down the great beast in an enormous fireball. I can only assume that as a kid this idea popped into my head and it’s what I thought was going to happen. Whether this re-written climax would be better or worse is something I’ll never know, but it played nicely in my head and I’m always a little disappointed by the realization that it doesn’t happen that way. Maybe writing it down will finally cause me to remember that’s not what happens and I won’t be surprised next time.
All in all, imperfect through it is, Dragonslayer is one of the better ’80s movies of its kind, and in many respects age has only improved its sociopolitical subtext. As I watched this a couple of weeks ago when i wrote most of this article, I found myhself now wanting to watch it again. I also can’t stop thinking about my idea for a Force Awakens type 30 years later sequel called Dragonslayers, where it turns out some of the offspring of Vermithrax (most of whom Galen kills in a scene that’s kind of a downer because killing baby anything always come of as a bit of a dick move) turn out to have survived and come back to terrorize the now civilized and enlightened kingdon of Urland. Someone who grew up on the stories of Galen Bradwarden decides to go search for him and finds that (as the film shows) he’s no longer a sorcerer now that his amulet has been destroyed, and he has lived the rest of his life as a simple farmer. Valerian has passed away (because Caitlin Clarke did) and Galen has three daughters he has raised as sons in a badly thought out tribute to her. So they have to assemble a group of adventurers (which I insist includes a dwarf) as a kind of cross between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Magnificent Seven to go back and fight the dragons, and of course eventually Galen discovers that the magic was never in the amulet, but in (sniff) himself. I have to go write the screenplay now.