Monday Movie Retrospective

June 26, 2017


There be monsters here. Today’s Retrospective is on 1981’s “Dragonslayer“.

I love how this movie addresses magic and age.

The magic is like not-quite-stable high technology, where those experienced in its use are familiar with and even bored by the proceedings, while using lesser, more gimmicky “magic tricks” for their day-to-day things. For example, to extinguish all the candles in a room, the wizened old wizard gestures to indicate the whole room, the gestures to turn off the light. All the candles are immediately, magically snuffed out. On the other hand, when introducing himself to new visitors, he steps through a cloud created by ordinary flash powder, to impose his worth as a magician. It’s a wonderfully corny way to “impress the yokels”, suggesting that using the true power of magic  is not worth the effort on such lowly, common folk.

Then there is the issue of age. Apparently, in this movie, dragons and wizards are somehow linked. You get the impression that for every dragon, there was a wizard. Unfortunately, both the wizard and the dragon are so old, that they are decrepit. The wizard even describes the dragon as decrepit. Plus, the wizard knows the dragon’s name, and it is one of the best names ever. Very Latin. You can really sink your teeth into the dragon’s name, just as it could sink its teeth into you.

I think the casting is great. Peter MacNicol plays Galen, an energetic young apprentice to Sir Ralph Richardson’s Ulrich, the wizened wizard. Caitlin Clarke plays a young lady who lives as a man, to avoid being in a lottery, which the king, played by Peter Eyre has maintained, in order to randomly select virgins to sacrifice to that last dragon, to keep it happy and to prevent it from destroying crops and generally wreaking havoc. After the young lad(y) comes to the wizard’s castle, asking for help with the dragon in order to end the barbaric lottery, the scene moves to the following morning. The young lad(y) and friends have been followed by one of the king’s guards, a despicable man played by the great, scowling John Hallam.

Side note: Sadly, Peter MacNicol seems to be embarrassed by this first film role, but I think it’s a perfectly fine performance, where the plucky hero is suitably plucky and eager to prove himself. For instance, I found him much more likeable in this role, than in his weirdly-accented character in Ghostbusters 2. Nevertheless, I think he’s a good actor with a lot of fun roles. I liked all the characters in this movie.

Meanwhile, back in the movie, after some brief and effective intimidation tactics are used by the scowling guardsman that next morning, the group returns to their home, disappointed that only the wizard’s apprentice has come to help. The wizened wizard’s helper, a barely-functional old man, played by Sydney Bromley briefly accompanies the apprentice, but can’t go far. Nevertheless, for the brief time we have him, he’s a fun little character.

Another fun character is the intelligent and surprisingly brave princess, the king’s daughter, played by Chloe Salaman. This princess character is perhaps the bravest of all. When the wizard’s apprentice is arrested and thrown in the dungeon, the princess goes to see him, and finds out that she has been shielded from the virgin lottery. She then sabotages the next lottery, replacing the names of all the other young women with her name, so that she is effectively forced to be the next sacrifice. Not only does she go to the dragon’s cave to await her fate, but she even bravely descends into the cave itself.

As the audience, we find out that there have been plans to get rid of the dastardly dragon for some time. The young lad(y)’s father is a blacksmith, who years ago built and hid an incredibly well-made lance weapon he named “Dragonslayer”. He retrieves the weapon for Galen, who magically sharpens the blade so that it can pierce the dragon, where other weapons have failed. I wish the weapon had more screentime. It was even damaged in the final fight with the dragon. So there goes any hope for a sequel….

The young lad(y) and Galen work together surprisingly well, and eventually fall in love. She is saved from almost certain death, and the last dragon, which looks amazing when it finally appears, is vanquished. The king, who has done nothing good for anyone really, takes his sword and drives it through the already-dead dragon’s heart, taking credit for vanquishing the beast. I would say it is probably not a sufficient victory to comfort him after the loss of his daughter. At least it is a tiny bit of vengeance, though the final blow was more ceremonial pomp than a victorious attack. After that, the movie closes with Galen and his lady riding a horse off into the sunset.

This movie might be worth remaking, if only to re-introduce that magnificent dragon to a new generation. Maybe Peter MacNicol can play the wizened wizard or the cowardly king this time around. It would be a fun way to connect the old movie with a remake.

Two magically-sharp lances up!