A fusion of the old tales The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Saint George and the Dragon, Dragonslayer was a co-production between Paramount and Walt Disney Pictures, and is quite a few steps away from the kid-friendly fodder that typified the latter studio’s core output during the seventies.
The basic story concerns an abitious apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol, in his film debut), who takes advantage of the star vacuum left when his mentor, Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) suddenly dies before journeying to the high mountains to battle the giant dragon Vermithrax, a fire-spewing beast whose wrath upon the kingdom is only tempered by devouring a sacrificial virgin (of course), drawn by lot.
Empowered with Ulrich’s amulet, Galen presents himself as the new sorcerer to the group of needy and desperate townsfolk, headed by a priest named Greil (Albert Salmi), and Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), a lad later revealed to be a blacksmith’s daughter whose masquerade as a boy saved her from the dreaded dragon lottery.
Using the spells he managed to cram into his little brain over a few days, Galen smothers the dragon’s lair with a landslide. Believing his good deed to be wholly successful, Galen then worms his way into the royal court, where he performs half-assed tricks that fail to impress the king, and is both stripped of Ulrich's amulet, and thrown in the dungeon. The king’s daughter, Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), frees him when she believes Galen’s claims that her luck with the dragon draw stems entirely from royal bribery and privilege.
Galen is eventually re-entrusted with the amulet, and with the aid of Valerian, he seeks out to rescue the Princess Elspeth, soon to be BBQ'd by the dragon’s toxic breath, as well as slay the blasted thing and bring peace and harmony to the musty kingdom.
From a production standpoint, Dragonslayer is first-rate, boasting stunning locations in Wales and Scotland (where the sorcerer vs. dragon duel was filmed), beautiful rustic sets, a fabulously dissonant score by Alex North, and Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, which employed grungy natural light.
The cast is equally impressive, with a weird but workable mix of American and British thespians, although Albert Salmi’s role must have been whittled down during editing, since the veteran character actor has a handful of lines, and his voice appears to have been dubbed by a British actor. Both Clarke and MacNicol looks and act appropriately naïve, and Ian McDiarmid (Return of the Jedi) has a small role as a priest.
Where the film gets wobbly is in the dialogue that’s neither deep, interesting, or evocative of a primordial and paranoid Medieval era; and the familiar characters, whose backgrounds and concerns about fate feel perfunctory. Galen’s arrogance, in turn, must simply be attributed to the idiocies of youth, and mentor Ulrich doesn’t have enough scenes that establish the bond between the two men with vast age differences.
The final duel between sorcerer and dragon is visually striking, but the steps Ulrich takes to kill the beast seem to exist to exploit the the production's special effects department rather than a series of logical tactics rooted in ancient supernatural lore.
Unlike Clash of the Titans (also released in 1981), the optical effects are more successful (and clean), and while the details of the dragon’s wings fall into blackness now and then, Vermithrax is nevertheless a fantastic creation, vivified by G-Motion (computer-generated stop-motion figures, used in ILM’s Return of the Jedi creatures).
A minor but vital character to the film’s design is fire, and there are several distinct colour schemes – the blazing amber-redness of the dragon’s breath, the swirling green that signals the rebirth of sorcerer Ulrich, and the bluish-amber in the pools of intense heat which pepper the dragon’s cavernous lair.
(There’s also the scene where Galen protects himself from Vermithrax’ incendiary breath using a shield made of the creature’s scales, but even from the side shots it’s obvious the flow of the smothering flames should’ve turned the wannabe sorcerer into a human briquette, but didn't, because of of some physics-defying qualities known only to the screenwriters.)
The combat scenes are nicely choreographed, and the sharp editing by Tony Lawson (Straw Dogs) teases us with brief glimpses of the dragon that nevertheless manage to convey its bulk and venomous fire. Cinematographer Vanlint, whose roots lay in commercials, only photographed four films – the short Simon Simon (1970), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Dragonslayer (1981), and his lone directorial effort, The Spreading Ground (2000) – during an otherwise prolific career making commercials in Toronto, Canada.
Like Disney’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), Dragonslayer has dark and adult elements, and it is surprising to see some nudity (during a river swim, Galen discovers Valerian isn’t a boy after all) and fairly graphic gore. The most shocking scenes include the blazing head of a priest, and Galen discovering the cadaver of the Princess Elspeth being devoured by the dragon’s brood, with her foot getting torn and noshed by an aggressive reptilian tyke.
As a fusion fantasy tale set in a Medieval Neverland, Dragonslayer works well, but the script’s limitations start to affect the film’s flow once Galen is jailed by the king, and one doubts that in a world were dragons existed, men still referred to friends and acquaintances as ‘chaps.’
Paramount’s DVD is in need of a remastering, given this is an old single layer release with a Dolby mix fraught with high-end distortion. The dim cavern lighting is muddy, and flashes of intense flames blow out into hot whites. The dimensions of North’s score also feel rather shallow, and there are zero extras for what was a high-profile release for both studios. (Dragonslayer was released in standard 35mm and a 70mm blow-up with multi-track sound, as well as the short-lived optical surround sound format Vistasonic.)
Robbins’ subsequent directorial efforts were all youth oriented - the cult idiocy The Legend of Billy Jean (1985), the Steven Spielberg treacle *batteries not included (1987), and the pooch flick Bingo (1991) - whereas Barwood would continue to collaborate on the odd script with Robbins, most notably the virus thriller Warning Sign (1985), which Barwood also directed.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan