Dragonslayer is an impressive film. During the 1980s, there was a bit of a renaissance of Fantasy Films. Though few of them were ever financially successful, films like The Never Ending Story, The Dark Crystal and Willow set the stage for the fantasy boom we’ve been experiencing since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Sadly, many of these films have faded over the years into obscurity. For films like Dragonslayer, that’s a special shame.
What is Dragonslayer?
Dragonslayer is the brain child of Hal Barwood and Director Matthew Robbins, who had previously worked with Stephen Spielberg on the acclaimed Close Encounters of the third kind. Barwood explains that he and Robbins were inspired by Fantasia’s famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence, and came up with a story after having researched Saint George and the Dragon.
When the two of them attempted to approach producers to fund Dragonslayer, they were turned down repeatedly due to their inexperience in budget negotiation. However, Paramount Pictures, in a joint deal with Walt Disney Pictures, accepted the script and in exchange for an $18 million budget in late 1979.
Despite being released to positive reviews, Dragonslayer only managed to gross about $14 million in the US. However, in spite of its disappointing box office performance, the film has been regarded as a cult classic selling relatively well on home video.
What is Dragonslayer About?
Dragonslayer is set after the Roman departure from Britain, but just before the arrival of Christianity. The small kingdom of Urland has been terrorized by Vermithrax Pejorative, an ancient dragon. After his brother and a band of men attempt, unsuccessfully, to kill the dragon and never return, King Casiodorus begins a lottery to select one of the kingdom’s female virgins to sacrifice to the dragon every Winter Equinox and Summer Solstice to appease it, and the kingdom is left in relative peace.
Valerian and a small group of men from one of the villages in the kingdom, make the 100 league journey to find Ulrich of Craggenmoor, one of the last sorcerers still alive, in the hopes that his power might be able to kill the dragon once and for all. Before they arrive, Ulrich sees their plight in a vision and tells his apprentice, Galen, that he will soon die, and that a task of consequence to him will soon begin.
When the emissary arrives, Ulrich agrees to go with them. However, when the are about to depart, a brutish general from Urland, Tyrian, blocks their way demanding that, for the good of the kingdom, Ulrich give him a test of his power. Ulrich agrees and sends Galen to get his dagger, which he then gives to Tyrian. Casting a spell on the dagger, he commands Tyrian to stab him through the hard claiming that “you can’t hurt me.” Tyrian does so and, to everyone’s shock, Ulrich collapses dead.
After Ulrich’s cremation, Galen inherits the wizards magical amulet, which gives him his dead master’s powers, and takes it upon himself to travel to Urland and slay the dragon.
What Happens in Dragonslayer?
Dragonslayer, apart from how it may appear at first glance, is a very slow film. The first two acts are mostly dedicated to character development as we are introduced to our main characters and the kingdom with the dragon itself making limited appearances. When the dragon does appear, most of it is reserved offscreen, only allowing the audience to see a clawed hand or the back of its head.
At first glance, this could be considered a strike against Dragonslayer (and, to be honest, will kill it for some viewers) but the rest of the film actually holds up pretty well. The main characters are all likeable (unless your supposed to hate them) and the casting is always on point. Galen, the main character of the film, starts out a bit annoying but grows up as the story progresses. The real standouts for me are the princess (who manages to be memorable in spite of a relatively small role) Peter Eyre as the cowardly King Casiodorus, an elderly Ralph Richardson as Ulrich and Caitlyn Clarke, who really steals the show as Valerian with a memorable backstory.
In spite of its slow start, Dragonslayer really picks up for the third and final act. After tantalizing hints and glimpses, we finally get to see Vermithrax in all of her glory, and it really pays off.
For me Vermithrax, Dragonslayer’s primary antagonist, is one of the best dragons ever put on film. It all culminates in a final battle where they pull all of the stops and give the film a worthy climax (which I won’t spoil here).
How are the Special Effects in Dragonslayer?
Dragonslayer is an older movie. As such, many of it’s effects do seem dated when compared to those of our all digital era. However, when one takes into account what was available back then, as well as the techniques actually used, they really are impressive and still manage to look decent today.
The real standout here is the dragon itself, Vermithrax. Throughout the film, two effects are used, with life-sized puppets of various body parts being the dominant during the first two thirds. These are highly detailed and, generally, shot very well. However, they can come across as a tad stiff from time to time in the few shots they are used in Dragonslayer’s third act and climax. The biggest culprit is a sequence where Galen jumps onto the back of the dragon’s neck and begins stabbing it repeatedly. Fortunately, the problematic shots are extremely short and easy to miss but they do become more apparent with each viewing.
For the full body shots, Dragonslayer uses an effect known as go-motion. Go-motion is, essentially, an updated version of Stop-Motion (an effect where a stationary model is moved incrementally between frames of film). The model is connected to a series of pumps and rods that record the movements the animator makes with it and record them into a computer. Afterward, the model is automatically reset to it’s prior position and the computer redoes the movements at the exact instant the camera shutter opens, creating motion blur.
Phil Tippet, the effect’s inventor, first used Go-motion in Star Wars Episode V to animate the Tauntauns as they ran on Hoth. For Dragonslayer, he took it a step further by animating the Dragon’s whole body in every sequence with the technique. The result is a spectacular performance that, to the untrained eye, is still convincing at times. It’s too bad that, since the dragon is hidden until the last third of the film, we don’t get to see the go-motion effects until the last 20 minutes. However, it does make them 20 minutes to remember.
Apart from the dragon itself, Dragonslayer doesn’t have many effects to talk about. Sure, there’s the occasional spell or such, which use standard rotoscoping techniques, but the real effects magic doesn’t appear until the end. Fortunately, it’s a good end.
How is the Soundtrack in Dragonslayer?
Dragonslayer’s soundtrack was composed by Alex North, who also composed the music for Sparticus and an unused score for 2001: A Space Oddessy which can be heard here. North’s scores don’t tend to be the most pleasant to listen too on their own but, insteand, emphasize the imagery on screen. That, in a nutshell, describes Dragonslayer’s soundtrack for me. I wouldn’t necessarily listen to it on the road, but it does enhance the visuals and set the right tone going into the film.
Is Dragonslayer a Good Movie?
Dragonslayer is a very good movie, as long as you know what you’re getting into. It’s a slow burn with the dragon itself barely showing up at all until the last 20 minutes or so of the film. However, even during the first two acts, the world and story are compelling enough to keep the viewer’s interest. All of it builds up to an impressive and memorable spectacle of a final battle.
Because of its slower pace and more somber tone, Dragonslayer isn’t a movie I find myself watching as much as other films. But, when I do, it’s always a positive experience.