For how awesome dragons are, there aren’t that many good movies with them. One of the few is 1982’s Dragonslayer, which resists being a pure action or fantasy film and injects plenty of social and religious commentary, manages some excellent special effects for its time, a dragon design that has no dinosaur influence, and an interesting take on magic. It has a slow start, but is very rewarding, as its tale references the draft and the entitlement of those in power, and also gives us one of the meanest and bloodiest dragons in movie history. Until we get to see Smaug rendered by Jackson and del Toro, I think this is the best we’ve got.
In Peter MacNicol’s first role, he plays Galen, a young acolyte to the aged and powerful wizard Ulrich, played by Ralph Richardson. The people have come beseeching him for aid in stopping the dragon that lives in the mountains. The king, Casiodorus Rex, has put in force a lottery in which all unmarried girls take part, even his own daughter. Those chosen are sacrificed to the dragon, left chained before its lair, and this keeps it from ravaging the countryside. It’s a bargain with the devil, and the people have had enough; they want Ulrich to kill it.
They are led by the young Valerian, still boyish of face but brave and charismatic. He brings a dragon scale to show Ulrich, who gives us the whole backstory in a mere sentence: If it weren’t for sorcerers, there wouldn’t be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them. Magnificent horned backs, leathern wings… soaring… and their hot-breathed wind. Oh, I know this creature of yours… Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit… crippled… pitiful. Spiteful! Ulrich seems also to be one of the last of his kind, old and nearly forgotten- but still feels responsible for the dragons his sorcerous kind unleashed on the world with their magic. As they implore him, the king’s chief thug Tyrian arrives to taunt him. The wizard is a threat to the king’s power, so Tyrian demands a test of his magic, to shake the people’s faith in him.No, of course not. They never do tests. Not many real deeds either. Oh, conversation with your grandmother’s shade in a darkened room, the odd love potion or two, but comes a doubter, why, then it’s the wrong day, the planets are not in line, the entrails are not favorable, “we don’t do tests”! So Ulrich does a test, plunging a dagger into his heart… oopsie! He didn’t pass the test. But his wisdom lasts beyond the grave. He sends his acolyte Galen and his doddering servant Hodge to bring his ashes to the Lake of Fire, and the adventure begins. They follow Valerian and his retinue on the road back to their village, with Tyrian not far behind, still plotting his murderous chicanery. Along the way, Galen goes for a morning swim with Val against his wishes, and finds his secret- he’s a she, raised as a boy by her father to keep her from the lottery. When I first saw this- they played it in the Franklin Middle School library, along with The Dark Crystal, to keep us from gnawing on the books during Study Hall- I remember the teacher’s aide’s shock at the boobies. We all tittered. Nowadays she’d have been fired, but we didn’t tell on her.
Galen being the cocky hero of the film, he decides to take on the dragon all by himself. He has Valerian lead him to its lair, where prior to their arrival, the King’s men have sacrificed a lovely lass to it. We get to see her bloody struggle with her shackles, only to be roasted alive by the great beast. The film doesn’t reveal the dragon’s full form until late in the picture, but we see it grab for her with a birdlike talon and smash a wagon with its immense tail. When Galen arrives, the drake is sleeping off its food coma of virgin flambe, so when he causes a rockslide to block its lair, he thinks that’s that. And goes to tell the King that he’s solved their dragon problem, and all the virgins can stop being roasted, and be deflowered instead. Even Valerian buys into the false hope, as her village throws a festival and burns a straw dragon, and she reveals her long-kept secret. Bad move.
Tyrian drags Galen before the King, where he performs some silly magic tricks; he’s nervous and has performance anxiety. Casiodorus Rex is a pompous fellow who doesn’t care much for his people, and he keeps his own daughter Elspeth from the lottery. When the dragon bursts forth from its lair and goes all Trogdor on the villages and the peasants, he imprisons Galen for his impudence, and holds a special lottery, planning to fix it so Valerian will get toasted.
Luckily Elspeth visits Galen, and he tells her she’s been spared all these years by her father. And with youthful outrage, she decides to pay back the people for his mistreatment, by putting her own name on all the lottery tiles. The lottery mimics the draft, which is supposed to be fair, but always seems to have loopholes that tilt it in favor of the well-off; Elspeth’s noble sacrifice emphasizes the corruption of her father; she’s so disgusted by him that she’d rather die.
Once his daughter’s fate is sealed, the King releases Galen to let him fight the dragon. The local priest, played by Ian McDiarmid- who’d go on to famously play the Emperor in the Star Wars films- has already tried calling forth the Hand of God on the creature, and got barbecued for his trouble. So Galen is their only hope. He approaches Valerian and her blacksmith father, who just happens to have a totally kick-ass spear he’s been hiding. His best work, he shows off its puissance by shaving shards of metal off a horseshoe with it. Galen fires it up with Ulrich’s magic amulet, and they make a weapon worthy of dragonslaying out of it. Valerian, being the smart one, wanders to the creature’s lair and gathers its fallen scales to make a fireproof shield.
The story follows the legend of St. George and the Dragon somewhat, with the lottery and virgins appeasing the beast, but it has plenty of its own nice touches. Before Galen rides off, Valerian is miffed with him; she doesn’t want him to die to save the princess. Now, in a common story he’d save her and get him some royal nookie, but this one has better ideas. Ones that got Disney a lot of hate mail for producing this picture, even though Paramount distributed it. Tyrian, the crabby bastard played with evil glee by John Hallam of Lifeforce (full review) tries to kill Galen one more time before he can save Elspeth, but her noble sacrifice won’t be denied- she crawls into the dragon’s lair while they’re battling.
When Galen goes after her, he finds her gruesome end, as the dragon’s litter fights over the meat on her bones. The little ones look and act like hungry bulldogs, and I’m sure many a child’s nightmares were stoked by the image of her severed foot in one’s mouth! This is what makes the movie so memorable- it sank it at the box office, but made it a sure cult favorite. It’s so nasty. And to make it even better, Galen kills all the dragon babies before going after momma. Compare this to pap like Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World where it is morally repugnant to kill giant lizards that want to eat your intestines, and aiming a gun at one is a sure death sentence that the audience is supposed to cheer. I’m waiting for Jurassic Park 4: Nuke the Site from Orbit before I watch another JP sequel.
The dragon itself, when Vermithrax Pejorative finally reveals itself, is quite impressive. It is birdlike, but looks like it can really fly, with its huge bat wings, a pointy tooth-spangled snout unlike the saurian faced one in Dragonheart. And it is frickin’ huge. Galen wisely lures it out after his shield saves him from huge gouts of flame, and stabs it with his magic spear, but it is just too powerful for one man to kill. He gets dashed around and barely escapes with his life. Valerian finds him outside, after the dragon sees its dead babies and goes to take vengeance on the countryside. He is about to give up, when he remembers the whole point of the quest- to bring Ulrich’s ashes to the Lake of Fire.
You don’t pay for a big name like Ralph Richardson and just kill him off in the first five minutes. Ulrich couldn’t make the journey, so he killed himself and resurrected! Talk about lazy. But it works. And he’s a great wizard- he was God in Time Bandits, he’s got that great voice and presence, with profound eyebrows punctuating his every expression. He takes the dragon head on, battling a spectacular clifftop duel with his powerful magic- making a solar eclipse and a thunderstorm for starters- against the dragon’s malevolent fire and ferocity. It’s well done and imaginative, and we get a fantastically gory dragon corpse at the end. What’s not to like?
Writer-director Matthew Robbins, who also gave us the quirky Legend of Billie Jean (full review) we’ve covered before, gives a marvelously cynical ending where the people come upon the dragon’s corpse and praise God for delivering them from its terror, ignoring all the work Galen and Ulrich did. And to top it off, Casiodorus Rex struts up to stick a sword in it, and his head flunky declares him “the dragonslayer.” It’s a wonderful bit of commentary in an otherwise straightforward fantasy film, and Valerian and Galen ride off into the sunset, to make sure she can’t be a virgin sacrifice anytime soon.
Dragonslayer flopped at the box office but was a smash on cable where I watched it many times. The shooting locations in Wales, well documented on Wikipedia, are gorgeous and often unearthly, cementing our belief in the fantasy realm that is never named. The little hints that sorcerers created dragons give us a peek at an interesting backstory without dwelling on it too much or miring itself in verbal exposition. Peter MacNicol, who’d go on to Ally McBeal and great roles in Sophie’s Choice, and most memorably over the top in Ghostbusters 2 (full review) made a great debut here. This is the kind of great trash you can enjoy, even if Pauline Kael probably wouldn’t.
Caitlin Clarke did a fine role as Valerian in and out of drag, and had a bigger theatrical career than one in film. She does appear in Penn & Teller Get Killed, Crocodile Dundee and Blown Away, but tragically, she died in 2004 of ovarian cancer. She had an organic talent, and her nasal voice and pleading blue eyes, paired with her plucky attitude made her quite adorable in this film. Rest in Peace, Caitlin, and know you infatuated many a young teenage boy back in ’82. I think you made me wear out the VCR’s pause button.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Can’t see why not.
Quotability Rating: low
Cheese Factor: mild English cheddar
High Points: the dragon, dude!
Low Point: slow in spots, and an insipid score.
Gratuitous Boobies: split second, but nice.