When Ulrich the master sorcerer prepares for his visitors, he squeezes his cosmic malcontent into a dazzling red robe and a tall hat. “Looks foreboding enough?” he asks his apprentice. He knows that magic, to those who cannot do it, is a performance. It has a look that separates it from the everyday. Even kings feel like peasants in the dark in their own world when they see something magical. Michael Robbins knew when he directed Dragonslayer that he couldn’t do it like the old monster movies. He had to give the dragon a homeland fitting of it, to dress it as we expect to see it, to simmer with anticipation over what it might look like, and make us feel like peasants in its presence. In the end, it's chimeric, a creature that seems to reform from one shot to the next into a different nightmare, at once seeming dexterous, frail as a bat, or contemptuously slimy, then angry as a mother bird. It is the engine beneath the film’s illusions, and because it's dressed for the occasion it seems to be a work of true magic, to this peasant.
The film constructs its reality wisely, as a magician knows what is expected of him. This is a world in which magic exists, of which people know but can’t comprehend from their mud huts and overcast eyes. They believe in it without thinking about it, not because it is so amazing but because the world is full of so many horrible things that one more incomprehensible force isn’t so hard to believe.
Dragonslayer understands why the Dark Ages was called that and builds a world of mud and diseases, the worst of which is ignorance. People keep their heads down in Robbins’ film, for fear of the sky. The tyrant king of Urland (Peter Eyre), whose village is besieged by the dragon, pawns off his subjects’ virgin daughters to appease the dragon’s appetite. They must be virgins, not because the dragon prefers them like King Kong prefers blondes, but because it makes it even more illiterately cruel when they are chosen (one wonders that Urland hasn’t come up with some life-saving “pastimes”). The plot doesn’t take kindly to being thought through that way: accept it instead, as by decree. When told that a beast is weak to beauty, you must be prepared to believe in it.
Production designer Elliott Scott has a way of reminding us that pleasure is as out of place in this time as an old man. Its heroes are high school age but by default: this is the age when being thirty-five either kills you or makes you too tired to go on any more adventures. These people are so tired of their own lives that they don’t entertain the magic they default into believing in, and in return expect its help pro bono when their universe collapses. The biblical kings did this when they fetched their wise men after a disturbing dream, as though magicians were high-brow exterminators. Ulrich communes with the elements in his off time. He calls the wind by its first name. And the young band of travelers come to him because they have a dragon problem.
There’s a tiny road movie in Dragonslayer and then a hero’s quest in a dingy kingdom. The road could have done with some extension: Hodge (Sydney Bromley), Ulrich’s snarky attendant, dies after living just long enough to ingratiate himself to the audience. Notice the power in that: he lightens the story's humble beginnings, and all the writers have to do to darken the mood is remove him before he overstays his welcome (I'm certain he would, in any movie made today). This is not a long film, but the journey is so brisk one wonders how Ulrich couldn’t hear the dragon from his backyard: you'll never be bored in Dragonslayer. Perhaps the brevity keeps our adventurer's spirits up, if not totally full of awe – it carries the burden of a strange contradiction in that it continuously acts terrible and disheartening, yet the audience wishes it could last longer. When the young heroine Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) reveals a secret, we have known her too briefly for it to be a surprise. Galen Bradwarden (Peter MacNicol) valiantly acts the part of someone out of his depth, but MacNicol is almost too out there, smiling with too much bouncy courage for a world of incurious fearmongering and disease, Bradwarden with emphasis on the "Brad." He must have been raised by Ulrich into this naivete, but MacNicol could be a time traveler from the film’s production year. I’d expect his necklace to be shark tooth, not dragon. He’s a Californian in King Arthur’s court.
Ralph Richardson is a towering figure and he goes on hiatus from the film too early. But he’s the mesh that holds the film’s dirt and rotting flesh and cloudy sky together. He is the seed of our movie wizards. You’ve seen how Gandalf and Dumbledore are postured for great wisdom, which they communicate not only with shows of power but with a twinkly spirit of universal playing around. They are all part college professor and part Santa Claus. You’ve seen how they could conjure the finest feast and would prefer a jellybean, or could conquer a kingdom and make fireworks instead. That is Richardson’s Ulrich defining the role for them, of someone so powerful that they have no desire for power. The universe is their playset. Everyone else is a squatter.
The age is so dark in Dragonslayer that even magic has a price. “If it wasn’t for sorcerers,” Ulrich says, “there would be no dragons.” The film holds nothing back when Galen confronts the dragon in its lair, the reverse image of the beautiful power his master wielded to turn out fire from his fingers. The lair is sulfuric. The dragon lives there festering in a lake of fire, and you get the impression that it must stink of ageless death; you can almost smell it yourself. It’s lived so long that the walls are caked with bones. It has babies that look inbred among itself. Consider this time when Disney movies like Dragonslayer would show such a thing gnawing the severed leg of a dead maiden. They used to tailor the art to suit its scenery and not just the company logo. Consider it lost.
Elliot Scott and Phil Tippett are the sorcerers here, whose magic made way for dragons in the movies. They not only conceive the dragon with fluid motion (they’re using computer-operated cameras and rods to enhance stop-motion) but also with personality, avoiding the vicious apathy of the monsters of Alien and Jaws in favor of naturalistic sympathy, of the kind that defined Harryhausen’s work and would later influence the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The dragon is too old for the world that it has defined, too representative of the pestilence of its people, and the responsibility makes it decayed where other movie monsters are refined by cruelty. This dragon is how we can get to Game of Thrones without making them seem only like murderers or monsters: Dragonslayer didn't invent dragons, but it made movies see the wonder in them. There are times when its texture is so earthy that it becomes dreamlike, recalling the artistic wonders of very old films, such as Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen, whose dragon held the secret to great power but had to be killed in its home to obtain it. Galen may be a fool – he's a boy, after all – but the scenes with the dragon, the intense stench of them, aren’t affected by his chummy eyes. It’s from a world he had no hand in creating. In the end, he does little more than witness its inevitable decay.
But there’s so much valiant energy in watching it happen that you’re addicted from the first minute. Dragonslayer never stops being beautiful: not in the forests that use sunlight to imply mythology, not in the oily-skinned Rembrandts huddling by fires in the stone towers that house their magic, not in the simplest love story between a well-meaning arrogant boy and a guarded, resolute girl, not in the final battle against the dragon, which has the courage to be beautiful, and often silent, as though something wonderful is passing from the world even as it does so out of necessity. The smallest character has a depth of purpose in Dragonslayer, a sense of wit that fits their image. The evil king is not so evil, not more so than any father worried to his bones for a daughter he can no longer protect. Even the warrior villain, the man Galen might be in a different kind of movie, even that man acts on the belief that what he does is best for his people. Everyone bows to the universe in Dragonslayer, but no one bows to a trope.
Fantasy is like wonderful meat that no one has ever discovered; the best we can do is make things that sort of have the right smell. Dragonslayer comes close to a lot of the perfect ingredients: the apathy of its people, the lush landscapes, the darkened skies, the Waterhouse forests and shimmering lakes, the lusty power of the old dragon. It needs only some refinement: the 1980s creeps in ever so often (I don't prefer my mythic heroes with a perm). The music is sweeping and full of awe, saving us from the Lady Hawke problem of timing fairytales to synth keyboards; you'll come out of Dragonslayer with the same calm you have after hearing a symphony.
Yet despite every effort put into the style, Dragonslayer’s real quality is in its performance of the values of myth and magic. You won't come away loving these people: the young hero only wins because he’s dumb enough to walk the earth to conquer a challenge, and the sorcerer wins because he’s smart enough to let his apprentice do the walking. The magic is not in these figures but in the performance of darkness and unknowability, the way the clouds part at the right words, or how a dragon could spend a millennium wallowing in a lake of fire, eating virgins. A priest (Ian McDiarmid, just before he was Star Wars’ emperor) believes he sees Satan himself, believing as we all do that matters of the spirit are as much magic as a sorcerer’s tricks. Both were in short supply then, until they were so desperately needed that people didn’t have a choice but to believe in them. Have we gotten this way with movies? I love Dragonslayer, but sometimes I wonder if it’s because of how good it is, or if I’m so starved for wonders that I'm willing to believe in anything that has the right smell (and a hint of magic). Like Galen, I sometimes think I'm just going on the adventure to prove something to myself. Can I help it if I fall in love along the way?
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, March 13, 2019
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Pictures