Visits to my childhood continue with the recent viewing of the 1981 film Dragonslayer on one of our (many) streaming services. The movie looked as good as I’ve ever seen it, and I rank it as one of the best examples of its genre.
I saw the movie in a theater when I was 11 years old and remember it as grim, scary, and pretty damn terrific. It is in some ways better than many of the science-fantasy films of the past few years. Funny, but on VHS, and even some early DVD versions, the movie looked grainy and fake — its age truly showed. But in the digital streaming format, it holds up to anything you can name, including, probably, The Lord of the Rings (which seems to have taken many of its cues from this film).
Dragonslayer was part of a spate of sword-and-sorcery films that came out in the early 80s. There was also Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, and a host of others that seemed to die out after just a couple of years. By and large, these films were grimy, bloody, cheesy, and filled with soft-core porn. Excalibur, for example, opens with a hot sex scene in which a knight in shining armor bangs a naked wench. Pardon me, while I cue that up …
OK, I’m back. Dragonslayer doesn’t have any sex — its heroine is, in fact, very pointedly a virgin — but it does have all the gritty violence we’d come to expect in our S&S adventures. It’s also the best of them. I’d rank its scariness and violence up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark, which might as well have had a dragon flying around in it, for all its fantastical elements. (Really, who can survive getting dragged under a truck?)
When I say it’s scary, I mean it — Dragonslayer is a scary movie. It has a horrible, fire-breathing, scaly, clawed, hostile, subterranean beast that burns people alive. It has a treacherous king who has devised an inhuman lottery system that’s rigged against the poor. It has a homicidal knight dressed all in black who murders old people. It has frightening magic, stony wastelands and gloomy woods where sprites might run around. It has dank, gloomy fortresses and frightening caves. There is wind and lightning. The movie goes to the trouble to create an unpleasant environment where people expect to have their faces gnawed off at any second. This is not a place for children.
Yet for all its gloom and doom, Dragonslayer looks great. The camera moves as if Spielberg himself were behind it, and the action scenes are concise, well-choreographed, and a tad gory. I’d say there is not one ounce of cheese in the whole thing. Yes, it’s about a sorcerer’s apprentice who pits himself against a fire-breathing dragon, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s almost as if the filmmakers picked up from 1981 and traveled to this place. (All or most of it was, in fact, filmed on location in Scotland, giving it a wild, rugged look.)
Set sometime during the demise of widespread “magic” and the rise of something that might be called primitive Christianity, the film impressively balances its supernatural aspects with a more realistic approach to the Dark Ages. The dragon is tied closely to the survival of the last great wizard, Ulrich, played with dry wit by the great Ralph Richardson. Ulrich is ancient, and so is the dragon, unforgettably named Vermithrax Pejorative. (Really, how great a name is that?) A small group of sojourners arrives at Ulrich’s castle one stormy night and asks the old wizard to come back to their kingdom and use his magic to slay the dragon. Ulrich, up for one last challenge, agrees, bringing along his apprentice, the wonderfully-named Galen Bradwarden (Peter MacNicol, doing his best Luke Skywalker impersonation).
Galen has no real sorcery experience, but he is learning. His education kicks into overdrive when a villainous knight arrives and murders Ulrich, seemingly at the old man’s command. This knight, appropriately named Tyrian, wants to maintain the status quo, which the king has established by setting up a lottery system that feeds one virgin girl per year to Vermithrax. (Hey, if it ain’t broke …)
After much intrigue, during which we learn that the boy who recruited Galen, named Valerian, is actually a girl in disguise, the team arrives at the dragon’s lair. (Vermithrax has already torched a virgin in a scene of visceral horror.) Galen speaks a few words and brings down a landslide, seemingly burying Vermithrax underground. But that’s only the beginning of the story. He is soon forced to enter the lair itself and confront the beast with little more than a semi-magical sword, a semi-magical amulet, and a shield cleverly made of dragon scales.
The movie might have been made in 1981, but its visual effects translate well into the digital age. Vermithrax is an intimidating, outright terrifying beast, especially when his size and hostility are merely suggested with a swipe of the tail or some lowering talons. The director, Matthew Robins, who never did anything else of note, does a great job of hinting at the dragon’s size by putting it in proportion to the human characters, or filming from the monster’s point of view. Simply put, the dragon in Dragonslayer is still the best dragon of all.
The rest of the movie reminds me of nothing less than an earthbound Star Wars. Galen and Valerian are Luke and Leia, Ulrich is Obi-Wan Kenobi, Tyrian is Darth Vader, and, I guess, Vermithrax is the Death Star, which has to be blown up in the end before it kills everyone with fire. There’s a sword battle, the death of an elderly mentor, a young trainee learning to master an unseen force, even a stand-in for a lightsaber. Yet the movie feels totally original and invests its characters with their own strong personalities. Also, the acting is slightly better than Star Wars. Just saying.
I would call for a remake, using today’s technology to reinvent Vermithrax and introduce him to a whole new generation, but what with the dragons in “Game of Thrones,” etc., there’s little point. But here’s a surprise: this gory, grim, surprisingly adult fantasy film was released by none other than Disney. I doubt the Mouse House would ever release a film this dark again.
Here’s more cool-ass Sword & Sorcery stuff from the Early Eighties:
And the trailer for this one, which I never saw but seems pretty definitive: