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).
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.
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.
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.
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.