Dragonslayer (1981) ***
There was an interesting dichotomy on display among fantasy films in the 1980’s. The cheap ones tended to be set in a Robert E. Howard-inspired “time before time” that cannot easily be identified with any period of actual human history, and to feature Robert E. Howard-inspired muscleman heroes who said little, but looked pretty damn good in a loincloth. You know the movies I’m talking about here-- The Barbarians, The Beastmaster, the Deathstalker series, Lucio Fulci’s bewildering Conquest, Ator the Fighting Eagle. The expensive 80’s fantasy films, on the other hand, had a distinctly medieval flavor to them, and their heroes tended to be smaller and smarter, triumphing as much through their wits as through their skill with a sword. Ladyhawke, Excalibur, and Flesh & Blood would all be good examples of this latter strain. There are exceptions of course; Conan the Barbarian cost a great deal of money, while Hearts and Armour seems to have been made for about $4.95, but if you’ve watched more than a couple of these movies, I’m sure you’ve noticed the pattern I’m referring to. Dragonslayer was very expensive. So expensive, in fact, that Industrial Light and Magic was called in to create the movie’s spectacular monster, and the producers were able to pay Lucas’s company enough that they developed a whole new technology to bring it to life. Closeup shots of individual pieces of the dragon used the standard 80’s-issue cable-controlled animatronics. The full-body shots used a stop-motion dragon, and it was here that ILM added their new wrinkle. You may have noticed that even the best stop-motion animation seems strangely jerky and somehow separate from the scenes into which it is added. This problem (such as it is) is inherent to the process; it just isn’t possible to move those little models in small enough increments to make their apparent motions on the screen look really smooth. What ILM came up with was a way to get around this limitation. Their technicians figured out that if you move the camera very slightly when you shoot each frame of the stop-motion action, you create a barely-perceptible blurring that has the effect of making the animated creature’s motions look more realistic by conveying a sense of its mass and momentum. The result was well worth what it must have cost Dragonslayer’s producers; Vermithrax Pejorative is one of the most impressive stop-motion monsters in cinema history. Unfortunately, her movie is a bit less impressive than she is.
Dragonslayer begins with a delegation of peasants from the kingdom of Urland arriving at the home of Ulric (Ralph Richardson, who played God in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits earlier the same year), apparently the last wizard in the world. The peasants of Urland, led by a strangely effeminate-looking boy named Valerian, have come because of a problem they’d like Ulric’s help with-- they want the world’s last practicing sorcerer to come to their kingdom and destroy Vermithrax Pejorative, the world’s last practicing dragon. Vermithrax moved into a cave in the mountains of Urland many years ago, and ever since then, life in the kingdom has been characterized by constant fear. On the one hand, you have the undeniable possibility that the dragon might come to your village and burn it to the ground one day, and on the other, the deal that King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre) has struck with the monster to prevent that from happening is almost as bad for the peasantry as the depredations it is intended to stop. Twice a year, on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, a lottery is held that selects one teenage maiden from the kingdom to be given to the dragon as a sacrifice. (In fact, one such sacrifice is taking place even as Valerian makes his case to the sorcerer.) Theoretically, every virgin girl in the kingdom is eligible for the lottery, but in practice, the nobility and the wealthier commoners pay to have their daughters’ names kept out of the drawings. It is this injustice more than anything else that has moved Valerian and his people to seek Ulric’s assistance. After a big but largely empty show of reluctance, Ulric agrees to take on the assignment, despite the facts that he is unfathomably old and that Urland is over a hundred leagues’ journey away. But before he sets out to accompany the Urlanders home, fate tosses a rather large monkey wrench into the works. That monkey wrench is named Tyrian (John Hallam, from The Wicker Man and Lifeforce), and he is one of King Casiodorus’s men-at-arms. Tyrian has followed Valerian’s party to the sorcerer’s home because he’d rather the old man stayed there. Tyrian (and as we shall see later, his king) doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have would-be dragonslayers running around Urland making Vermithrax mad. He doesn’t think anybody, let alone a dotty old man, could possibly kill the thing, and it is his considered opinion that Urland will be much worse off after a failed attempt on the dragon’s life than it would be if the monster were left alone to go on eating two virgins a year until she dies of natural causes. But Tyrian knows this line of argument will get him only so far with the peasants, so he frames his objections as concern that the wizard’s power is unequal to the task, and demands that Ulric prove himself. Over the objections of his servant Hodge (English character actor Sydney Bromely, a very busy man who’s played small roles in such films as Island of the Burning Doomed, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, and The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck) and his apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol, from Ghostbusters II), Ulric agrees to a test of his power. He hands Tyrian a dagger, and tells him to stab him in the heart-- “Go on,” he says, “You can’t hurt me...” Maybe this trick worked better when Ulric was a young man; instead of beginning the journey back to Urland, Hodge, Galen, and the Urlanders spend the afternoon cremating the wizard.
But Galen is undaunted. Though still a very young man, he’s been studying under Ulric for most of his life, and he thinks he’s learned enough to be of use to Valerian and his people. Taking Hodge with him, he catches up to the party from Urland, and offers them his services in the capacity of dragonslayer. The Urlanders don’t take him very seriously at first, but a few small parlor tricks convince them that he is, at the very least, a magician of some talent. The following trip to Urland is notable for two major developments. First, Galen catches Valerian skinny dipping and discovers that “he” is really a girl (Caitlin Clarke, of The Stepford Husbands)! Now that is a smart way to get around Casiodorus’s lottery! Secondly, Tyrian (who’s been trailing the peasant party to make sure they don’t do anything contrary to royal dragon policy) notices Hodge traveling with them, and snipes him with an arrow in the back. Hodge’s last act before he dies is to give Galen a pouch containing Ulric’s ashes, telling the boy to throw them into “the burning water.” Hmmm...
Valerian and company have to pass Vermithrax’s cave on the way back to their village, and Galen detours them to its entrance when they do. He wants a chance to size up his enemy, you see. After having a look around the entrance to the cave, however, Galen gets it into his head that this is as good a time as any to try his hand at dragonslaying. Drawing power from a magic amulet that Ulric used to wear, Galen brings the entire cliffside crashing to the ground, sealing the entrance to Vermithrax’s lair. It’s a crude strategy, but a seemingly effective one, assuming of course that dragons need to breathe oxygen and eat. When he finally reaches the village, a celebration is held in his honor, and the euphoria runs so high that Valerian picks that moment to come out of the closet, as it were, and reveal for the first time even to her friends and neighbors that she’s actually female. Now, the fact that the movie is less than half over at this point says to me that she probably ought to have waited a bit before trading her breeches for a dress, and Tyrian’s unexpected arrival at the party with an invitation for Galen to come see King Casiodorus would seem to support this intuition further. Casiodorus, correctly as it turns out, does not believe the dragon is dead, and he throws Galen in the dungeon for meddling in royal business. Then, just to be on the safe side, the king calls another lottery, even though the equinox was only a few days ago. See-- I told you Valerian should have kept her pants on!
But as it happens, this lottery proves to be unlike the ones before it for reasons above and beyond its non-standard timing. In the dungeon, Galen has a chance meeting with Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), the daughter of the king. While talking to Galen, the princess learns for the first time that her name, like those of the wealthiest Urlanders, has been kept out of all the lotteries yet held, and she leaves Galen’s cell determined to rectify this injustice. When the king’s chamberlain draws the “winning” lot, it is inscribed with Elspeth’s name-- as indeed is every lot in the tub. The princess herself has engineered this subversion of her father’s policy, and by her appeal to the people of Urland, she is able to force Casiodorus to accept her as the sacrifice to the dragon. Meanwhile, Vermithrax has dug her way out and is demonstrating that a new sacrifice is, in fact, called for by burning up the countryside surrounding her lair. Galen takes advantage of the chaos and destruction caused by the dragon’s attack to escape from the dungeon and go looking for Ulric’s amulet, which the king confiscated when he imprisoned the boy. Casiodorus catches him rifling through every box and coffer in his chambers, but the king is in a forgiving mood. Now that it’s his own daughter’s head on the chopping block, His Majesty has changed his tune regarding the wisdom of efforts to kill Vermithrax, and if Galen thinks he can do it, the king is willing to let him try.
Of course, he’s going to need some weapons to pull this particular trick off. And fortuitously, Valerian’s blacksmith father has in his possession a formidable-looking spear he once forged expressly for the purpose of using it on Vermithrax if ever the opportunity presented itself. Valerian herself meanwhile collects a basket of Vermithrax’s cast-off scales, from which she makes a shield that might protect Galen against the dragon’s breath. The boy, thus armed, goes to the lair on the night of Elspeth’s sacrifice, but he is prevented from saving her through a combination of Tyrian’s interference and the princess’s unwillingness to cooperate in her own rescue. By the time Galen has finished with Tyrian, Vermithrax’s young have already made much headway in eating Elspeth. The blacksmith’s spear is more than a match for the baby dragons (as you might expect a weapon that can cut the tip off an anvil to be), but Vermithrax herself is another matter. The spear’s edge can cut through her hide, alright, but she’s just too big to be hurt much by a weapon built on a human scale. Galen’s lucky to escape with his life.
But while he was poking around in the cave, the boy noticed that the center of Vermithrax’s lair was occupied by an underground lake, whose water was inexplicably aflame. Wait a minute... didn’t Hodge say something about throwing Ulric’s ashes into the burning water? Goddamn right, he did. Suddenly it all comes clear. Ulric knew the dagger would kill him, knew his body would be cremated, knew Galen would in his youthful arrogance try to take his master’s place, and knew that sentimental old Hodge would bring the sorcerer’s ashes with him wherever he went after Ulric’s funeral. The whole chain of events was just a scheme to allow the wizard to make a journey he was too old and weak to undertake by more conventional means! While the dragon is out burning things, Galen sneaks back into the lair and carries out Hodge’s instructions. Sure enough, Ulric returns from the dead the moment his ashes hit the water. Now we’ll see how tough that dragon really is...
Dragonslayer has a lot going for it. In addition to the amazing special effects, it accomplishes that most difficult task of the fantasy film, convincing the audience to believe in a world unlike their own, where the rules governing our reality don’t necessarily apply. The fantasy world of Dragonslayer is very fully realized, and while it presents few ideas that are actually new (the concept of the waning days of an era of magic was used to great effect by Tolkien, and has also figured in many variations on the legend of King Arthur), it puts all the pieces together in a way that is satisfying and internally logical. The most intriguing aspect of this world, to me, is Christianity’s place in it. The religion of Rome is only just making inroads into the lives of Urland’s people, and it is in direct and rather fierce competition with the magical paganism of old. And interestingly enough for a movie as old as this one, this subplot depicts the old ways as being stronger and truer by far than the new, while the Christian holy men who figure in the story are shown to be clueless, attention-mongering hypocrites, ever ready to step in and take credit for other people’s success. At one point, an itinerant priest stages a direct confrontation with Vermithrax, and is ignominiously burned alive. And yet, when the dragon is finally killed by Ulric and Galen’s magic, not three minutes go by before another self-aggrandizing priest arrives on the scene to bill the monster’s death as a display of his God’s power. This fascinating portrayal of the struggle between Christianity and paganism is set with little fanfare in the shadow of the main storyline, and it is this willingness on the filmmakers’ part to devote a lot of creative energy to dramatically secondary plot elements that makes Dragonslayer so believable. It implies the existence of a wider, larger world outside the scope of the film’s primary action.
On the other hand, the entire carefully constructed edifice is put in peril by the movie’s two stars. Peter MacNicol and Caitlyn Clarke, both in their first cinematic roles, lack the skill and experience to make their characters work. Galen and Valerian look vexingly like a pair of modern American teenagers transplanted into the film’s elaborate quasi-medieval fantasy world. Even the similarly youthful and inexperienced Chloe Salaman is more credible in the role of the princess, and the seamless way that the rest of the cast fold themselves into the movie’s world makes MacNicol’s and Clarke’s shortcomings stand out just as surely as if they and only they had been filmed in 3-D. The rest of the movie is too good for them to sink it altogether, but their weakness in the leading roles can’t help but have a detrimental effect, pulling Dragonslayer down from the heights that it might otherwise have reached.