Only a visually-impaired person could look at the history of popular cinema over the last half-century and not notice the huge spike in the number of SF movies in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, courtesy of (need it even be said) George Lucas and his stellar conflict franchise. Many of these movies were hugely popular and quite accomplished in their own way – I’m thinking here of films like Alien, Flash Gordon, Moonraker, The Terminator, and so on.
However, what I think gets forgotten sometimes is that the big SF boom sort of obscures an equivalent spike in the number of fantasy films that were made at the same time (Lucas’ project being fantasy at least as much as SF, after all) – in some respects a more notable trend, as SF films had a fairly distinguished pedigree as a genre prior to 1977, while genuine fantasy films not aimed at children were much rarer. I know in the past I have occasionally expressed the opinion that the majority of ‘traditional’ fantasy films released before 2001 usually verged on the awful, but considering early-80s movies like Excalibur, Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, and Krull… well, many of these films are not bad, to say the least. Also very much not bad is Matthew Robbins’ 1981 movie Dragonslayer, which I watched again recently for the first time in many years.
Set in a conveniently vague region of Dark Age Europe, the story opens with supplicants arriving at the tower of the world’s last sorcerer, Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Ralph Richardson), begging for his help. The visitors are led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), who reveals that their home, the kingdom of Urland, has been ravaged by the ancient dragon Vermithrax Pejorative for decades. To placate the great worm, the king has instituted a policy where twice a year a virgin is selected by lot and sacrificed to the dragon. Feeling this is not satisfactory, not least because the wealthy have been quietly buying exemptions for their children, Valerian has led some of the common folk to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing the beast. (There’s a plot bit about Clarke having been raised as a boy in order to keep her from being subject to the lottery, but it’s not exactly central to the story, and as a twist it doesn’t quite come off – it’s quite obvious that Caitlin Clarke is a woman even before her revelatory nude scene).
Unfortunately, the villagers have been followed to Craggenmoor by Tyrian (John Hallam), a soldier of the king, and to the surprise of all involved he kills Ulrich before the journey even gets underway. However, Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), inherits his mystic powers, and promises to kill Vermithrax Pejorative himself…
The very least you can say for Dragonslayer is that it is solidly plotted, looks fantastic for most of its running time, and has a great supporting cast. You can forgive a certain degree of confusion on the part of the film-makers as to where exactly the film is set (there seems to be the implication that King Casiodorus is in some way Romano-British, which is rather at odds with other points suggesting an Irish setting), for there is a mostly quite authentic Dark Ages feel to the film. There’s also an interesting subtext to the film, which is essentially about the passing of magic from the world and the rise to dominance of a different kind of world-view: while initially happy to ask a sorcerer for help, by the conclusion of the film the villagers are all adopting the new faith of Christianity (an almost indecently young-looking pre-Palpatine Ian McDiarmid plays a missionary who meets a sticky end).
However, for this to really be effective, the contrast between the grimy quotidian mundanity of Dark Ages life and the fantasy elements of sorcery and the dragon would have to be somewhat better realised than it is here, and this is at least partly a question of special effects. Now, this is a 1981 movie, made using technology of that period, and I would still say that Vermithrax Pejorative is still one of the very best dragons in movie history, in terms of overall presentation – by which I mean it’s a beast of terror and mystery. It’s just that, well, the dragon’s big set pieces never quite grip or excite, although this may be down to the direction and editing as much as any shortfall in the effects. (It seems to me that Robbins’ handling of the dragon in the early part of this film was an influence on how Spielberg depicted the tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, but that’s by the by.)
Some people have criticised this movie for having rather too much of a modern sensibility, at least in terms of its characterisation – the heroine is a bit too bolshy, the king rather too much of a politician, Tyrian too much of a brutal pragmatist – but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, if you consider that the story is trying to subvert or undermine the traditional fairy-tale archetypes. If the film has problems in this department, they are two-fold – firstly, Ralph Richardson is the actor you really want to see, and he’s not in it enough (Richardson made a string of late-career appearances in genre movies, but never quite hit the jackpot in the same way as his peer Alec Guinness), and secondly… well, I’m not sure if this is a writing or a casting problem, but I’m talking about Peter MacNicol.
Peter MacNicol is one of those actors who is never less than interesting to watch, and of course he does eccentricity very well, but here he is called upon to play a character who in the course of the film is a young apprentice, a romantic lead, and an action hero, to name just three things. There’s plenty of opportunity here for the right actor to turn Galen into an unusually well-rounded fantasy hero, but unfortunately MacNicol is always just a bit too much of an odd little hobbit to really convince in the part. (Plus the romance between Galen and Valerian appears out of nowhere, between two characters who seem to have absolutely no chemistry together.)
Then again, it’s not entirely MacNicol’s fault – Galen and Valerian are somewhat sidelined during the climax, which promises the epic battle to the death between the world’s last sorcerer and its last dragon. That’s quite a big promise to make to an audience, the stuff of proper high fantasy, and whether it’s the gear-change from the decidedly low fantasy of the rest of the movie, or the limitations of 1981 technology, or the slightly laborious direction… it never enthralls or even really thrills you as it should, for the film to really deliver the ending it needs.
There’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in Dragonslayer, but most of it is ambient, if not completely incidental: the real strengths of this film are its atmosphere and many other things all going on in the background. It has an interesting and smart take on one of the great mythic tales, but the problem is that when it really counts, it’s just not quite convincingly mythic enough.