Directed by Matthew Robbins
June 26, 1981
A young apprentice must take his master’s place and kill a dragon that is terrorizing a small kingdom.
Dragonslayer is an early 80s fantasy film and from a time when it was much harder to do such things. It is quite possibly one of the first dragon movies I ever saw so I approach this with a bit of nostalgia. Most of my youthful encounters with these creatures of fantasy and their opponents were in cartoons or books so this was a bit of a treat for me.
Being that the title is Dragonslayer and that the focus is killing a dragon we must talk about the dragon in this film first. The need for a slayer is brought about by a 400-year-old dragon called Vermithrax Pejorative terrorizing the small kingdom of Urland. I love the dragon’s name and I do not think there has been another film dragon with one similar. It feels very old world. It feels like the name one would give to such a threatening beast.
In film the dragon was brought to life in part with a technique called “go motion” where a model of creature in question was filmed actually moving rather than using stop motion which creates a choppy look. What you get by photographing something moving are blurring and other nuances that add to realism. This was in addition to larger pieces for the actors to interact with like feet and a head. This was in a time before computers could pop a creature into the shot and give you something akin to Smaug.
Peter MacNicol is Galen Bradwarden, a young and eager apprentice to Ulrich of Cragganmore (Ralph Richardson) who is apparently the last remaining wizard in the area if not the world. Ulrich’s seemingly early demise at the hands of Tyrian (John Hallam), the Captain of the Royal Guard for King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre) of Urland, opens a window of opportunity for our hero to play, well, the hero. Prior to this he been merely a student but now he sees saving this small kingdom as his opportunity to become a hero and become seen as a real wizard too.
Richardson was perfect as the slightly aloof wizard who understood a show for those that came to see him was as important as what he could do for them with his abilities. Richardson’s performance came off a bit as an aged showman. His character understood marketing himself was as important as what he could do.
The dragon slayer of the story is not some knight placed on a quest but rather originally to be Ulrich. I was used to the whole knights with spears and armor thing, so this was more than a bit refreshing. It was a different spin on things.
Peter MacNicol as Galen is the eager young protégé that does not quite get it all. He sees the power and possible glory because he focuses on Ulrich’s showmanship but does not see the responsibility that comes with having the power he is training for. He does not see that it is not all about potions or incantations.
Sydney Bromley plays Hodge who is Ulrich’s loyal and irritable long time assistant. You may remember him as Alf in An American Werewolf in London or Engywook in the original The NeverEnding Story. The man had quite the career but those are the two that jump out. Just something worth noting about one of the actors here.
The Kingdom of Urland is not too keen on upsetting the balance that has been established. As explained their system is an effort to wait until the dragon dies-whenever that is. I do not recall any mention of how long dragons live but given that Vermithrax Pejorative is 400 years old I am guessing there might be a long wait. Seems like a bad plan.
Previous efforts to kill Vermithrax Pejorative (if I use that name too much sorry but it is cool) have been met with disaster. Many have gone after it but none have returned. Female victims to be offered are chosen twice a year via a lottery system that is rigged to exclude the wealthy as well as the king’s own daughter (Chloe Salaman). What? Is that a little social commentary on the draft which would have still been somewhat topical to the public? That occurred to me while watching. I am not too sure on that, but it did help to give things a little deeper feel.
Apparently some peasants have been hiding their daughters as boys until they age out of eligibility for the lottery. Dangerous but the only real option for the common folk. Enter Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) who is a member of the party that seeks out Ulrich for help. Her gender reveal is no party, but it is interesting though not too much of a shock.
One interesting cast member to pop up among the supporting cast is Emperor Palpatine himself Ian McDiarmid as Brother Jacopus who is a local priest. Dragonslayer was set just after the fall of the Roman Empire with Christianity not being too dominant which avoided many of the usual tropes of this kind of story. I felt though that the character was a little extraneous. He contributed nothing much to the story nor did he really detract from it. I think his moments could have been transferred to the character of Greil played by Albert Salmi whose voice was dubbed by Norman Rodway. After all in the final moments of the movie he did take over Jacopus’s duties.
Dragonslayer does a pretty good job of establishing the environment. The sets are great and I am more than willing to believe that these were mostly if not entirely medieval structures that they filmed in. They look it.
They do fall a little short in the costumes. They look a little cheap. Specifically those of the king and his court. I felt like they were borrowed from a community theater production of Henry the VIII or something. And the color scheme at times feels random and the fabric looks cheap. They are ill fitting garments and I swear the crown was cheap plastic. I understand the period in which this is set but I cannot imagine they would look this bad.
The pacing of the story is slow. It moves casually along until the final confrontation with the dragon that needs to be slayed. The problem is that it feels only a little faster and while entertaining, the stakes do not feel too threatening to the characters. Life looks like it will go on pretty much the same whether or not the dragon lives. I think it needed to be more frenetic.
Dragonslayer tries to straddle between being a fun adventure as well as being a serious film. And when it focuses on either attempt it works. However that just creates an uneven tone and that is where the movie suffers. The actors though take the material seriously rather than treat it as a joke. Sure there are some goofy moments but the actors are delivering their lines with all the seriousness you would have any other drama. They are not going for camp or just a general laugh. That helps smoothe over any rough edges.
Despite its flaws Dragonslayer in the end is an enjoyable example of early 80s fantasy filmmaking. It is not groundbreaking like Conan the Barbarian nor is it cutting edge with its effects as was the original Clash of the Titans, but it is a fun and enjoyable film. Watch it!