- Movie Rating -

Dragonslayer (1981)

| June 26, 1981

Dragonslayer arrives at a very particular moment, after John Boorman’s Excalibur and just after the Ray Harryhausen extravaganza Clash of the Titans.  Given those two epics, you might assume that this material would feel a bit worn down.  Thankfully, you’d be wrong.  The three films are all playing in the same fantasy arena but seem to approach it from varying points of view.  Excalibur tried to find the legend of King Arthur in a very adult-sized epic and Clash of the Titans took on Greek mythology from the point of view of a boy’s adventure story.

But now, here’s Dragonslayer which binds its sword and sorcery leanings within the realm of the Middle Ages as they seemed to have happened.  Yes, this movie is a fantasy but somehow you feel that it is born out of how the Middle Ages might really have been.  Often movies about this period feel like they exist in Hollywoodland, with plastic sets and flashing lights.  But the setting for this film is so real, so authentic, so grimy that I got the feeling for what it might have really been like to live at that time.  That makes the fantasy feel a little more organic.  I can’t really explain it, but somehow the dragon seemed more real because I believed the world in which he existed. 

When it was over, I think I appreciated it more than when I was watching it.  For one thing, the movie is not very fast-paced.  It takes time to build the story out of legend and lore and dialogue and you never feel that the screenplay is doing a rush-job to get to the fire-breathing lizard.  In fact, he doesn’t show up in the film until the film really needs him.  The movie is two hours long, and I was surprised how long the movie kept the dragon hidden, and I was dazzled by the deliberate way in which it took its time to reveal him slowly.  Mercifully, by the time we get to the dragon, it’s worth the wait.  He’s big, he’s mean, he’s in a foul mood, and we sense his size and weight against his minuscule adversary.

The adversary is maybe not as impressive.  Peter McNichol plays Galen, a very earnest sorcerer’s apprentice who seems maybe a little too earnest.  Methinks, I smell a reprise of Luke Skywalker in this fresh, blonde young hero.  Anyway, Galen is the student of the ancient wizard Ulrich, played in a wonderful performance by Sir Ralph Richardson, whose days on this Earth are waning and who has just been summoned by the villagers to solve their dragon problem.  Seems that the King has made a pact with the lizard to feed it a virgin via lottery in exchange for not having the local crops, homes and citizenry burned to a crisp.  It isn’t long before Ulrich meets his maker and the young Galen is sent off on his quest to do away with the dragon once and for all.

I liked this story because it isn’t as simple-minded as I expected.  There are complications in facing down this dragon.  There are issues to be dealt with, up to and including the king’s lottery which chooses a young virgin to be sacrificed.  Also, Galen has more than one confrontation with this dragon – that I didn’t expect.  I expected a lot of training, a lot of talk, then a showdown and the movie would be over.  But there are false starts, preparation, issues to deal with and the dragon who seems dead at one point comes back again and Galen’s battle starts all over.

Dragonslayer is a much smarter and much more exciting movie than I had expected.  I got caught up in this story.  I got caught up in Galen’s plight both with the dragon and with his romance involving a young woman who is on the quest with him.  Most of all, I had a sense of time and place.  I felt that I was somewhere between the reality of the Middle Ages and the caverns of Dungeons and Dragons.  It takes talent to pull off such a balancing act and this movie gets it absolutely right.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized