I ask you, parishioners: how did it happen?
In mythology and literature, the dragon has historically been one of the most fearsome of all monstrous beasts. Destroyers of kingdoms, devourers of maidens, guardians of treasure and remorseless hero-incinerators--dragons are the archetypal Great Enemies, the Final Bosses to end all others. Think of St. George and his most heroic of hero-quests; think the Beast of Revelation, with the Whore of Babylon riding astride him; think Tiamat and Smaug.
And yet, the movies have seldom done justice to the Terrible Fire Lizard. If the dragon *is* presented as a monster, it's often a bit character (Harry Potter), and usually with video-game styled CG, like an old-school tattoo come to life. (The less said about Reign of Fire, the better.) More often, the dragon becomes a misunderstood nice guy with a heart as golden as his hoard. Pete's Dragon. Donkey's paramour in Shrek. The powerful playful pets of How to Train Your Dragon. Sean Connery in Dragonheart. Talkative, unthreatening, a mere sidekick to the hero who by rights should be struggling with it for his life.
Not so in Dragonslayer. The dragon here is not interested in doing what's right. It does not interact with humans except to roast and/or eat them. It is not interested in conversation. It is a monster, a beast, a malevolent force of nature so powerful that even to attempt to face it is a fool's errand, a death wish it is more than happy to grant. And that's why Matthew Robbins' 1981 fantasy epic is still, for my money, the greatest dragon movie ever made.
From the beginning the movie immerses us in its fantasy medieval world, as we follow a small band of villagers trekking over swamps and craggy outcroppings, approaching the castle of the mighty sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson, who later that year would play the Supreme Being in Time Bandits). This is not a gleaming, idealized realm such as the Camelot of John Boorman's Excalibur (released the same year)--Ulrich's castle is dirty, dusty, and littered with broken alchemical contraptions, and the peasants at his gate are likewise believably gritty. Led by tough-talking young "boy" Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), the ragtag group has come to Ulrich with a desperate plea: to rid their kingdom of one of the nastiest fire-breathing dragons ever to hatch. After conferring with his clumsy but eager apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol in his film debut), the old man agrees.
However, before the show can get on the road, a group of the King's guards arrives, led by John Saxon fanclub member Tyrian (John Hallam, who made a career of acting in fantasy movies, with imdb credits for Kull the Conqueror, Ivanhoe, Arabian Nights, and others). The king has forged an uneasy peace with the beast by holding a yearly lottery in which the names of all the virgin girls in the kingdom are put in a big drum and one drawn at random. The lucky winner gets the honor of becoming that season's Vierge Flambe, which sates the dragon's appetite and keeps the hovels un-scorched. Not wanting to upset the status quo, the King has sent Tyrian to put an end to this whole dragonslaying foolishness, which he appears to do by stabbing Ulrich through the heart, killing him.
Excalibur has less wizardry and fantasy creatures in it by many factors, its look is far less "realistic" than the world created here.
Deprived of the prospect of getting his Wizardly Diploma, Galen figures he might earn a GED by taking up the dragonslaying quest himself, and so he joins Valerian and the Peasants* in their return trip. Galen proves himself to be somewhat adept at magic--at one point making a heavy backpack float and then stripping the robes off his aged manservant Hodge (character actor Sydney Bromley, who met a much less terrifying dragon in The Neverending Story, in a small but memorable role). However, Valerian shows him an even better trick when, surprised at a wayside swimming hole, the peasant performs the storied Disappearing Penis Illusion! Yes, the "boy" is actually a girl, raised as a male by her blacksmith father in order to protect her from the Dragon Kibble Lottery. (Why Galen never proposes the obvious solution to Valerian's whole "virgin lottery" problem is beyond me--there's more than one type of lance to save you from a dragon, IYKWIMAITYD.)
*Yet another good band name.
And such a fatherly impulse is more than understandable, since as I said, this dragon is not a lizard to be toyed with. In an early scene where we see the dragon collecting its yearly prize, Robbins does a fantastic job building the suspense and menace, showing us the dragon only in bits and pieces. A billowing cloud of smoke from the cave mouth, a growl like an earthquake, a spiked tail destroying a hay cart, a massive claw barring the frightened girl's escape--all of which not only emphasizes the beast's size and terror, but make the best possible use of the impressive practical effects. In fact we won't see the dragon in full flight for nearly an hour into the movie, but it is nonetheless a terrifying presence, even in the scenes in which it doesn't appear at all.
Stopping off at the dragon's lair on the way back to the kingdom, Galen tries to levitate a rock over the mouth of the cave to block the beast's egress, and ends up inadvertently causing a massive avalanche that accomplishes the same thing. Thinking themselves free of the beast's reign of terror, the villagers throw a party, at which Valerian appears in woman's dress for the first time, capturing Galen's heart and entering the sexual fantasies of 14-year-old boys everywhere, or at least in that one cinema in Little Rock.
extremely pissed dragon erupts from its rocky tomb like a volcano, bringing its full wrath down on the shrieking villagers. The vindicated king, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), has Galen thrown in jail and holds another lottery to appease the beast. But when Galen tells the virginal Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman) that the king has shielded her from the lottery all these years, the virtuous girl rigs the vote and becomes the next course on the dragon's menu. The king, desperate, frees Galen in the hopes that he can save the princess, just like a hero is supposed to do.
Rewatching this movie I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the puppetry and blue-screen effects of the era, but to the director's credit the FX are still very impressive, and hold up extremely well. Part of this is the aforementioned piecemeal method of showing the beast, but even when the dragon is in full flight, there are only a couple of blue-screen gaffes, and nothing terribly distracting. Even the baby dragon puppets are lit and filmed in such a way as to be truly frightening, instead of the Muppet rejects they might have been. Best of all is how the flick engages the viewer's imagination, which makes it easier to forgive small mistakes because the whole experience is so satisfying and yes, magical. (Something modern CG-heavy movies regularly fail to do, imo.)
The battles with the dragon are filmed excellently, and are pleasingly gruelling--it's no small feat to kill a dinosaur with a spear, and Galen's attempts to do so aren't made to look easy at all. They're very grueling and suspenseful, in fact--even when Ulrich reappears in Obi-Wan Kenobi mode, his incredible powers are not enough to dispel the dragon's death-dealing dangerousness. And the script even provides a nice bit of bittersweet subtext drawing a line between the death of the dragon and the death of magic and mythology in history; the group of villagers singing Christian hymns and renouncing their pagan ways once the dragon is slain foretells a new age, with different (and, I think it's implied, less fantastic) myths and legends of its own.
MacNichol does a good job as the sorcerer's apprentice, using bravado to cover his youthful lack of self-confidence. Richardson is fantastic as Ulrich the Magician, hitting just the right balance between Nicol Williamson's Merlin and Alec Guinness's Obi-Wan. (In fact I think I noticed several other Star Wars nods, from MacNichol's Luke Skywalker-ish outfit to a "lightsaber" duel with Tyrian.) Clarke is okay as Valerian, though sometimes her delivery is a bit stilted. (The actress sadly passed away of ovarian cancer in 2004.)
3 thumbs for Dragonslayer--to paraphrase John Waters' sentiments about Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, it is simply the best dragon movie ever made, and is quite possibly better than any that will be made in the future. ;)