'80s fantasy films, 1980's, baby dragons, Caitlin Clarke, cinema, Conan the Barbarian, debut acting role, Disney films, dragons, Dragonslayer, fantasy, film reviews, films, Galen, Industrial Light and Magic, John Hallam, John Milius, King Casiodorus, Matthew Robbins, Movies, Oscar nominee, Peter MacNicol, Ralph Richardson, romance, special-effects extravaganza, sword and sorcery, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Touchstone Pictures, Tyrian, unlikely hero, Valerian, virgin sacrifice, wizard's apprentice, wizards, writer-director
When I was a wee young’un, I was a bit of a fantasy/sword and sorcery buff. Okay: I was actually more of a fanatic but let’s not split hairs. During those all important formative years, I watched (and re-watched) dozens of knight/wizard/dragon/mysterious land epics, although there were two that I found myself returning to more often than the others: Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Dragonslayer (1981). To this day, Conan the Barbarian still stands as one of my favorite films: I re-watch it on a regular basis and will defend its merits to my dying day. In fact, if you haven’t seen John Milius’ awe-inspiring classic, drop what you’re doing and fix that error, post haste…you’ll thank me later.
Although my lifelong love of Conan the Barbarian has never waned, I must admit that I haven’t actually sat down to watch Dragonslayer in at least a decade, although it may be closer to 15 years. When I was putting together my recent viewings, I had the bright idea to revisit the film and see how it holds up today. Despite my former obsession with the film, I honestly couldn’t recall much more than the hero’s frizzy hair and a scene involving baby dragons. Would this be a case like Clerks (1994), where a formerly beloved movie has turned into vinegar, or had Dragonslayer become a “fine wine” over the years?
It would appear that the people of Urland have a bit of a problem: an ancient, spiteful, fire-breathing dragon has been terrorizing the kingdom for years and the people are held in the icy grip of fear. In order to convince the dragon to quit setting everything on fire, King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre) has been holding a lottery twice a year, a lottery which all female virgins in the kingdom are required to participate in (with the exception of his own daughter, Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), of course). The “winners” of the lottery get to become dragon snacks, while the “losers” get to look forward to the next lottery. As is noted later, the rich denizens of Urland tend to buy their way out of the lottery, so it’s only ever the poor daughters who get sacrificed to the giant lizard.
Seeking some way out of their present situation, a small group of Urlanders, led by the scrappy Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), go to see the all-powerful wizard Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), paying a visit to his creepy, isolated castle. Ulrich may be cantankerous, forgetful and given to rather vague proclamations but he’s also the only wizard left in the land and someone has to be able to take on the dragon. Upon examining one of the dragon’s recovered scales, Ulrich notes that the beast is ancient: it must be decrepit, miserable, in constant pain and spiteful. In other words, Ulrich recognizes a kindred spirit and offers his services, along with those of his loyal apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol, of Ally McBeal fame): he’ll take out the dragon, as requested, although his reasons seem to involve ending its pain as much as saving Urland.
As the group is about to set out for Urland, disaster strikes in the form of Tyrian (John Hallam), King Casiodorus’ blood-thirsty man-at-arms. Tyrian and his men have been sent by the King to prevent the citizens from “stirring the pot,” as it were: the King quite likes the delicate balance in the kingdom, particularly since it doesn’t really impact his family and is worried that a pissed-off dragon might mistake unacceptable rich folks as snacks versus the court-approved poor slobs. In the guise of testing Ulrich’s powers, Tyrian ends up killing him, seeming to put an end to the quest before it even leaves the castle’s front yard. Luckily for the Urlanders, Galen is a plucky young lad and, with the assistance of Ulrich’s faithful manservant, Hodge (Sydney Bromley), he eagerly offers to take up the quest himself. He might not be an all-powerful wizard, like Ulrich, or a steel-nerved swordsman like Tyrian but he has something that neither of them had: really frizzy hair. He also has a magic amulet, which will probably prove useful, and a sack full of Ulrich’s ashes but the hair, presumably, is what makes the difference.
Along the way, Galen comes to the shocking realization that Valerian is actually a young lady, after a skinny-dipping incident in which he notices that her hidden parts look different from his. In a rather awesome parallel, this actually seems to tie Dragonslayer in with Just One of the Guys (1985), a stereotypical ’80s comedy in which a young lady impersonates a young man in order to get the scoop on a high school football team: how’s that for synergy? Galen and Valerian banter back and forth and, despite an ever so brief moment where it appears that Elspeth and Galen might hook up, it should be pretty clear that this couple is “meant to be.”
Back at Urland, Galen comes across as a bit of a jackass: in a bid to impress everyone and bring a hasty conclusion to the nasty business, he causes a landslide to bury the dragon’s cave opening. After the dust clears, Galen wipes off his hands, beams and waits for the applause to roll in. The King isn’t quite as overjoyed with this development, however, for reasons already mentioned, and has Galen thrown right into the dungeon. If the young whelp is right and the dragon is dead, the King will release him and throw him a party. If, however, Galen just ended up pissing off the dragon, as the King suspected, Galen will be choosing the prize behind Door Number 2: a swift execution. When the dragon makes an appearance, opting for a real scorched-earth policy, all signs point to Galen being kinda screwed. Fear not, faithful readers: this is a Disney movie, after all, and good must eventually succeed over evil. Freed from his prison, Galen must use all of his training and courage, along with some able support from Valerian and his magic amulet, to finally destroy the dragon and free the kingdom. Sometimes, however, young pluck is not enough to overcome ancient evil. Sometimes, you really do need a hero…or a wizard.
For a time, in the early-mid ’80s, Disney seemed to be trying to break from their squeaky-clean image with a group of films that were decidedly darker, more “mature” and violent than previous films. This trend seemed to begin with the ultra-dark, sci-fi epic The Black Hole (1979) and would continue with The Watcher in the Woods (1980), Dragonslayer, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), The Journey of Natty Gann (1985), The Black Cauldron (1985) and Return to Oz (1985). Eventually, Disney would create Touchstone Pictures to handle these “more adult” films, scrubbing a bit of the mire off Disney’s tarnished “innocence.” In certain ways, then, Dragonslayer is a bit of a watershed moment in that it reflected a fundamental change in the Disney ideal, during the early ’80s. It’s also notable for its consistently impressive special effects, effects which earned it an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects, which it lost to some forgotten film named Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Without a doubt, the effects in Dragonslayer are pretty amazing, especially for the time, even if they might seem a bit dated by modern standard. In at least one instance, however, the effects in Dragonslayer seem to be at least the equal of modern films: as the dragon rears up and blasts Galen with a huge stream of fire, we get a truly awe-inspiring wide shot of the action. With the dragon occupying one side of the frame and Galen and his enormous shield occupying the other side, the shot looks just as beautiful and immaculately composed as any illustration or painting, with the added benefit of the cinematic sense of motion and space. Tt’s a heady moment that absolutely thrilled me and was, I’m pretty sure, at least 70% responsible for my previous love of the film. Bottom line: it’s a fantastic shot that could easily compete with the best of Jackson, Cameron, et al.
In general, the effects work (by Industrial Light and Magic) is strictly top-notch, featuring a great use of puppetry (the aforementioned dragon pups), a really neat flaming lake location and the dragon, itself, which ends up looking just as realistic, in close-up, as many of the dinosaurs in Spielberg’s groundbreaking Jurassic Park (1993). While the effects are never less than stupendous, the image, itself, can be a little dark, at times, or given to a “bleary-smeary” filter effect that makes it seem as if the viewer is mildly intoxicated. I didn’t mind the occasionally too dark image, since it really complimented the film’s atmosphere, but the bleary lens got a little tiresome: at times, this felt like one of those old Liz Taylor perfume ads with a Vaseline-smeared camera lens.
As with other films in Disney’s “dark era,” Dragonslayer doesn’t shy away from more graphic material. The bit where Ulrich is killed is a little disturbing, as is the scene where Tyrian murders Hodge, but neither of them really compare to the later scene where the baby dragons end up eating one of the main characters alive. As this was one of the very few aspects of the film that I could (kinda/sorta) recall from my childhood, I’m pretty sure that it made a big impression on me. Whether it’s responsible for any of my current morbidity is an issue up for debate, of course, but I’m sure it at least contributed. The film also features some brief, full nudity, thanks to Valerian’s skinny-dipping scene, which was probably a bit of a concern for parents who took their children to, presumably, the newest Disney family film. By comparison, try to remember the last time you saw full female nudity in a Disney film: I’m betting you can’t come up with anything. While this element adds nothing whatsoever to the story (although it does provide for a nifty visual reveal of Valerian’s true identity), it certainly gives the proceedings a more “mature” quality.
The acting in Dragonslayer is decent, if more than a little hammy, at times (which is perfectly in line with almost every sword and sorcery film of the ’80s, to be honest). Peter Eyre is kind of a fidgety mess as the king (he is one severely weird lookin’ dude, let me tell ya) but John Hallam is pretty great as Tyrian, playing his character as such an unrepentant son of a bitch that his final battle with Galen has some real emotional potency to it: we really, really want to see Galen kick his ass in a most righteous manner. Ralph Richardson is a more than suitable Ulrich and there may even be hints of the Ian McKellen version of Gandalf in his quirky idiosyncrasies. Finally, Peter MacNicol and Caitlin Clarke make a pretty cute couple as Galen and Valerian but I never quite bought MacNicol as a hero: he was always too goofy and self-deprecating, less like someone thrust into a dangerous situation and more like someone goofing around to kill time. Clarke, for her part, makes a suitably spunky heroine but her mid-film transformation into an “actual” young woman is one of those eye-rolling “Ugly Duckling” moments where removing someone’s glasses and letting her hair down transforms said person into Helen of Troy. It’s silly and clichéd but, at the very least, the filmmakers skewer the convention a little by having Galen pull her onto the “dance-floor” as a medieval band strikes up a “tune.” While Valerian’s “transformation” is old hat, this parallel with more conventional teenage romances seemed to be rather subversively clever. At the very least, I got a good chuckle out of it.
While the action occasionally gets a bit silly, writer-director Matthew Robbins tends to keep things fairly straight-faced and a little less bombastic than the competition. Robbins would go on to direct The Legend of Billie Jean (1985) and *batteries not included (1987), although he’ll probably be best known as a writer: he had a hand in the scripts for The Sugarland Express (1974), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), MacArthur (1977) and Mimic (1997) and is currently attached to Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Crimson Peak horror project. Robbins’ script for Dragonslayer isn’t amazing but it is rather tightly plotted and features several genuinely thrilling beats, moments which are replicated pretty exceptionally in the film, itself. Again, while nothing exceptional, Robbins brings a sure and steady hands to the proceedings which certainly gives the film a little added weight.
To return to my original question, however: did the film hold up for me after all these years? Absolutely. While it wasn’t amazing (with the exception of that wonderful dragon/Galen shot and the mean scene where the dragon pups chow down), Dragonslayer is consistently good, easily the better of other films in that particular subgenre like The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), The Beastmaster (1982), Krull (1983) and Deathstalker (1983). I was particularly taken by the film’s dark, mysterious look (those damned Vasoline shots notwithstanding) and must admit that the superb final fight did make me feel like a kid again: it’s the best kind of ass-kicking, fantasy-badassery and ends the film on an enthusiastically high note. Throw in some last-minute, but no less timely, observations about the ways in which both religions and governments tend to take credit for the work of others and you have a film that sets a pretty high bar and manages, for the most part, to hit its marks.
Dragonslayer isn’t the best ’80s sword and sorcery film by a long-shot (that is, was and always will be Conan the Barbarian, with honorable mention going to John Boorman’s batshit-nuts Excalibur (1981), a film so insane that it belongs in its own category altogether) but that doesn’t prevent it from being superbly entertaining in its own right. Matthew Robbin’s film is a reminder of the days when fantastical worlds weren’t necessarily a given in the world of film and viewers had to work a little harder to get that suspension of disbelief. It’s a little more work, to be sure, but I think the rewards are a little bigger, too.