Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Fantasy movie done right: Dragonslayer (1981)

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As I probably already mentioned I am currently on a sword & sorcery roll, so last night I took some time off to watch again Dragonslayer, a Disney movie (no, really!) released in 1981.
The film was written and directed by Matthew Robins, whose writing credits include the original story that became George Lucas’ THX1138, as well as both story and screenplay for Sugarland Express. He was also uncredited among the contributors to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and recently wrote Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.
On Dragonslayer, Robins worked with his often co-author Hal Barwood, whose credits include Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, one of the greatest Indiana Jones stories ever written (and yes, it’s a videogame).

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And it is really a pity Dragonslayer is not more popular, because this is to me one of the best fantasy movies ever made.

The plot in brief: the peasants from a kingdom plagued by a dragon seek the help of the last great wizard, but he dies (or does he?) during a misguided experiment, and his young apprentice accepts to face the dragon in his place. Things don’t go as expected.

There’s nothing in this movie that does not approach perfection: the cast – which includes Ralph Richardson, a young Peter McNicol and the beautiful and talented Caitlin Clarke -, the costumes and production design, the locations (the movie was shot in Wales), the monster (certainly one of the best dragons ever to appear on movie), and the special mechanical effects, a great, disquieting soundtrack by Alex North, and most of all the story.

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The movie was supposedly criticized because of its mature themes – a lot of viewers went in expecting a Disney movie for kids, and were treated to death, murder, devastation, a Middle Age world that looks really medieval, mud and all, and even two brief glimpses of nudity.

All this – and the fact that for some weird reason they kept comparing this movie to Star Wars – apparently distracted the moviegoers from the fact that Dragonslayer offers an intelligent, well-plotted story, with well-drawn characters and good dialogues, complete with lots of references to classic myths about dragons and assorted folklore.
The script also weaves in a bleak (if sympathetic) look at the Catholic faith trying to get a foothold in a pagan world, and adds a cruel reflection on the nature of power (and the fickleness of the masses) at the very end. And it features two beautiful, unconventional female characters.
It is sword & sorcery, it is pseudo-historical fantasy, and it is a damn fine movie.

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Dragonslayer is, in other words, what good fantasy should be – a ripping yarn, filled with monsters and perils and heroics, that also pushes some thoughts and reflections our way,and talks to us about our real life. Good, solid fun, but the sort of fun that adults can appreciate without making excuses.

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In case you missed it, be sure to check it out.
One year after the untimely disappearance of Dragonslayer, John Milius unleashed Conan the Barbarian on the screens, initiating a new fantasy reinassance at the movies.
But when all is said and done, Dragonslayer is still one of the five best movie in the genre.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “Fantasy movie done right: Dragonslayer (1981)

  1. I agree. IIRC the stopmotion portion of the SFX was done by Harrihausen.

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  2. And–late to this one too!–How I agree! And HA! I well remember the flap it caused in the media, with parental units outraged with the VIOLENCE and GRAPHIC NATURE of the film, when they took their kids to a Disney movie, expecting something like “Pete’s Dragon” I suppose! THAT was a selling point for me, however! And of course, the “graphic nature” of the violence is laughable these days, considering what is on TV sets everywhere every night! And though, yes, the “FX” are dated, compared to today’s standards, it’s STILL a damn good dragon, ACTING like a dragon, and no primate’s buddy! I still consider it one of THE BEST dragon genera movies to date myself, as well. Wouldn’t it be a HOOT if they dredged up what few actors from it that are still with us, and did a SEQUEL? Like, they DIDN’T quite get ALL of those little dragonletts in the cave…….I for one, I’D pay good money to see that!

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    • It would be nice to get an Episode Two – but also a proper remake or reboot (or a miniseries on Netflix!) would be great.
      It’s fantasy that feels like it’s set in a different age and with a different mindset – and it works fine.

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  3. Completely agree with your rap on DRAGONSLAYER. Superb dragon, great script, realistic plot and dialogue … and quite a bit of gritty realism. Not to mention top casting. One of the things that stayed with me — there were plenty — was the consistent lesson that you can’t do anything necessary, urgent and difficult — like run a country or slay a dragon — UNLESS YOU KNOW HOW. You can be young, brave and well intentioned, like the wizard’s apprentice, or noble and self-sacrificing like the king’s daughter, or crafty and manipulative like the king, or strong and brutal and skilled in battle, like the captain, but you can’t kill the dragon unless you know how. (The captain’s comment when Galen confronts him with the super-spear he’s forged, is classic. “Very impressive,” he sneers. “Can you use it?” And it turns out that he can’t. Not well enough to kill the dragon Vermithrax, anyhow.) I had just one minor reservation. Some of the names. They didn’t have to call the apprentice Galen or the king, Cassiodorus. Probably that wouldn’t jar on people unless they knew Galen was a great medieval doctor and Cassiodorus was a sixth-century historian … but that also proves how memorable I found the movie.

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    • Yes, the theme of competence and of good intentions not being enough is one of the things that make Dragonslayer a great movie for both grown ups and kids, I think.
      And maybe it’s because I grew up with Hammer movies, but I never found Dragonslayer so brutal and violent and unsuitable for younger audiences as many claimed.

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