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.