Dragonslayer

For me, one of the joys of watching Dragonslayer is rediscovering what a great fantasy film it is. I’m not quite sure why I manage to forget, each time, how much I like it. Perhaps it’s down to the lack of extras on the DVD — something which always makes me feel a favourite’s going underappreciated — or perhaps it’s because it got a mixed critical reaction on its release, or that, being released in 1981, it lost out to Raiders of the Lost Ark for both a visual effects Oscar and a Hugo. To my mind, though, it’s as good a film as Raiders, it’s just that the way it tempers the straight-ahead heroism of its George-and-the-Dragon storyline with less purely archetypal, more humanly-believable characters — the very thing I like it for — may have weakened it in the public’s eye, particular when compared to the very obvious heroism of Indiana Jones.

Set in an authentic-feeling Dark Ages kingdom called Urland, Dragonslayer begins with a group of villagers, led by the young Valerian, setting out to ask the ageing sorcerer Ulrich (played by Ralph Richardson) for help against the best-named dragon in movies, Vermithrax Pejorative. (Latin is the language of magic in Dragonslayer.) Ulrich dies before he can help, but his young apprentice, Galen Gradwarden, decides to earn a reputation as a great sorcerer by fulfilling his master’s task. And he makes a good go of it, too, using his magic not to face the dragon directly, but to bury its cave in a massive rockfall. Everyone goes home to the village to celebrate, and Valerian reveals himself to be Valeria, a girl raised as a boy by her blacksmith father so as to avoid the lottery by which King Casiodorus picks maidens to sacrifice to Vermithrax. Then greedy Casiodorus confiscates Galen’s magical amulet (wanting to see if he can use it to turn lead into gold), and Vermithrax bursts free, meaning another lottery has to be held, another sacrifice made. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that, despite his protestations of the lottery’s fairness, King Casiodorus’s daughter’s name has been conspicuously absent from the drawings.

One of the most striking surprises of Dragonslayer is that, despite having the Disney name attached (it was a joint Disney-Paramount production), it’s very far from the traditional Disney style of fairy tale/fantasy — a point underlined by the scene where Galen enters the dragon’s lair intent on saving the sacrificial princess, only to find her dead and being eaten by baby dragons. Galen underlines the un-Disneyishness of the scene by sticking the baby dragons with his spear.

Vermithrax itself is one of the best pre-CGI dragons in movies, at least in those scenes where we get to see the whole of it. When it (or parts of it) interacts with humans, it’s less convincing (obviously being played by a large, robotic head, for instance), but when it wing-hobbles, bat-like, through its cave — a scene produced by a variant on stop-motion called go-motion, where rather than being animated a frame at a time, the dragon model was designed to perform a small motion each exposure, thus leading to a more fluid motion — is excellent, as are the scenes where it soars through the sky.

Quite often, it’s the little details that make the film. One of the best comes near the end where, with Vermithrax lying not just dead but partly exploded on the ground, King Cariodorus turns up to stab it with a sword, and thus be proclaimed dragonslayer. This is a world, you can’t help feeling, where although the most obvious evil (the dragon itself) has been dealt with, the background of petty human evils will remain. Our heroes have to set off for another land in search of their happily-ever-after.

And it’s one of the film’s plus points that Valeria and Galen share the hero’s role. Galen may be the one who wields the spear “Dragonslayer”, but Valeria is just as heroic, venturing into the monster’s lair to gather scales to make a fireproof shield, and, most surprising of all, not ending up having to be saved by her male counterpart at any point.

In contrast to the film’s dragons and sorcery, there’s a more historically authentic-seeming Christianity creeping into this post-Roman world via wandering holy men. Dragons and sorcerers are dying out, and Christianity is taking the place of the villagers’ superstitions. This actually seems to put the film’s Christianity in a rather odd light. Just as Casiodorus is going to make sure he goes down in history (which is written not by the heroes, but those in power) as the slayer of Vermithrax, Christianity is, rather by default, going to assume the same role in the eyes of the peasantry. They seem happier to believe it was God who slew the dragon, despite the earlier scene where a holy man (played by Ian McDiarmid, looking surprisingly young considering he would soon be the aged Emperor in Return of the Jedi), taking Vermithrax for Satan, tries the usual “get thee behind me” lines, and ends up being roasted alive. But by the end, the magic has left this world — not with the feeling of poetic loss you get from the departure of Tolkien’s elves, but, rather, like the exhaustion of an old-world magic the new world has no room for.

It’s the departures from what you’d expect of a heroic fantasy film that make Dragonslayer what it is. But it could well be these very departures that mean it’s not as appreciated as it ought to be. People no doubt expect a film called Dragonslayer to be a heroic tale in which some guy slays dragons. It is that. But it’s also so much more.

Disney’s Robin Hood

Rotten Tomatoes describes Disney’s Robin Hood as “one of the weaker Disney adaptations”, lacking “the majesty and excitement of the studio’s earlier efforts”, but it’s one of my favourite Disney films, thanks in part to an early memory of seeing it at the cinema and being captivated by one particular moment which has stayed with me for years.

In reality, the fox would now eat the rabbit

Robin Hood was released in 1973, but I can’t imagine myself remembering it from then (I’d have been 2). It was re-released in the early 80s (1982 in the USA, though IDMB has no record of when or whether it was re-released in the UK), and I distinctly remember seeing it in the very crowded, deep red gloom of the East Grinstead cinema-that-was, a gloominess I can’t help feeling added to my appreciation of this particular moment.

Of course, the fact it was a Disney take on an English legend may have helped, but I don’t particularly remember liking it for that reason. (Though I may have been unconsciously responding to the voices of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and Terry-Thomas as Hissing Sid — I mean Sir Hiss — both of them part of that wonderful family of actors you come across time and time again in old British films.) But this would have been before the TV series of Robin of Sherwood, so I wouldn’t have had any particular fondness for the legend, Robin Hood up to that point always seeming to me a bit pantomimish, particularly if Robin was represented (as he is here) in a silly be-feathered cap and the sort of Peter Pan-style tunic you’d rather have seen on a thigh-slapping young woman only pretending to be a boy.

I think it was the mood of the film that got me. Robin Hood is (for Disney) an uncharacteristically muted film, both in terms of emotional tone and colour scheme. Yes, it still has the sort of slapstick moments you’d expect (all the outwitting of the rhinoceros guards after the archery contest, for instance), but there’s a tantalising air of weariness and resignation throughout, just behind the action, like a light, damp English mist that’s seeped into the usually sunny Californian optimism.

The troubadour rooster who acts as the storyteller, for instance, seems to have a particularly world-weary tone, as if to suggest that for all Robin Hood’s triumphs, the outlook for the poor and downtrodden in England is grim in the long run. Friar Tuck is another character whose voice seems burdened by the weariness of Prince John’s relentless, greedy and wilful oppression. Prince John’s voice, on the other hand, plays wonderfully on the essential selfishness and childishness of the character (he’s a lion without a mane, so presumably physically immature, too), rather than a more traditional Disney evil — there’s a feeling that all this misery is the result of one character’s pettiness, self-absorption and inability to grow up, a boorish bully rather than the sort of raging adult evil you get from, say, the Queen in Snow White.

PJ in his PJ's

The moment I most remember from this film, and that brings me back to re-watch it, isn’t an action sequence, and in fact occurs when there are no characters on screen. It’s just after the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (here, a mere village) has clapped pretty much everyone in jail for non-payment of recently doubled/trebled taxes, and we’re closing in on the outside of the jail. It’s just a scene-setting slow zoom. For some reason that mood of sadness and defeat, combined with the gentle rain and muted colours of the usually bright Disney, took me right into the film’s world. It was like it was one of the first moments in my cinema-going history when I really thought, “Yes, I know exactly how that feels.”

It’s a moment that happens in many Disney films, of course — the low point just before the hero snaps out of it and devises a plan to turn things round. But here, this particular air of sadness and defeat seems to be characteristic of the film as a whole, an undertone that has been sounding gently throughout, mostly drowned out by the antics of baby rabbits and thumb-sucking lions, but which is here allowed to come to the fore for one brief moment, because there’s no other action to distract from it.

So, in a sense, it was that very lack of “majesty and excitement” that makes the film what it is, for me. A moment of pure cinematic poetry.