Monday, December 2, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Dragonslayer" (1981)

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a brief golden period for fantasy filmmaking. It arrived just I was coming of age, playing Dungeons & Dragons and delving into movies, novels and comic books.

It was a great time to be a kid with an imagination bent toward orcs and magic chainmail armor.

(I mean, wasn't every 8-year-old checking out books on Norse mythology from the adult section of the library?)

The content of these movies straddled the line between fluffy fantasies geared toward kids and hard-R adult adventures -- with "Conan the Barbarian," "Excalibur" and "Highlander" representing the apotheosis of the mature fare in terms of budget and ambition.

A lot of the kiddie stuff was just dreadful, which I think ended up dooming the genre as popular entertainment for a good long while. Parents were uncomfortable with small children watching movies replete with death and magic, and teens and young adults were turned off by the rigorously family-friendly nature of stuff like "The NeverEnding Story."

Straddling the line between these polar ends with the perfect mix of whimsy and terror was "Dragonslayer."

A terrible commercial flop when it came out, it was a Disney film at a time when they were branded entirely as a production house for children's movies. So despite its tame PG rating -- prior to the advent of PG-13 three years later -- the healthy servings of violence, blood, vaguely anti-religious themes, fearsome special effects creatures and even a little gore and nudity came as a shock to parents who brought their families expecting another "Herbie Goes Bananas."

It's largely remembered now for its pre-CGI dragon special effects, which still look amazing despite the occasional herky-jerkiness of stop-motion animation. Fully one-quarter of the film's $14 million budget went toward the dragon, designed by David Bunnett and a notable early achievement by George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic work on a non-Star Wars film.

The dragon was even given its own name: Vermithrax Pejorative, which roughly translates from Latin as "the worm of Thrace who makes things worse." Director Matthew Robbins, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hal Barwood, expertly teases out our early glimpses of the black beast, much as Steven Spielberg did with "Jaws," only revealing bits at a time till near the end.

It's hard to look at more recent depictions of dragons such as in "Game of Thrones" or "The Hobbit" without seeing the snaky, horned influence of Vermithrax. Cinematically speaking, he is the godfather of flying wyrms.

The story has a theme common to old-school fantasy fiction: the idea that the innate magic of the world is fading, and we are passing from colorful mythology into staid history. There are no hobbits or elves in this story, and all the great sorcerers have died save Ralph Richardson's Ulrich of Cragganmore. The robed priests of the "new" religion, aka Christianity, are becoming commonplace.

One thing I had never noticed before this most recent viewing is that actor Ian McDiarmid, aka Emperor Palpatine himself, plays the arrogant priest who defies the dragon in an early scene and is burnt to a crisp for his efforts. His growl when he curses Vermithrax as a "foul beast" gave him away.

The star of the show is Peter MacNicol playing Galen Bradwarden, the young apprentice to Ulrich. MacNicol had that look very popular for sensitive male movie characters of the time: high-voiced, effeminate features, meek stature and a nimbus of light-brown-to-dark-blond curls -- a sort of golden halo/afro. See Christopher Makepeace, Chris Atkins or Dennis Christopher from "Breaking Away."

MacNicol actually auditioned for the latter role, but ended up making his film debut in "Dragonslayer." He's been a busy actor in film and television ever since.

I like his mix of brash confidence and crippling sense of self-doubt, using one to hide the other. Galen is utterly subservient to Ulrich, but when the master is killed the apprentice becomes a case study in unearned courage.

The story is pretty straightforward: a delegation of peasants from the kingdom of Urland travel to Cragganmore to enlist the aid of Ulrich to kill the dragon, which has plagued their land for generations.

After multiple failures at killing the beast failed, the calculating current king, Casiodorus (Peter Eyre), has implemented a lottery system in which virgin girls are sacrificed to the dragon twice a year. The common people have grown fed up with this arrangement -- especially as none of the royal or rich folks' daughters have ever been picked over the ensuing decades.

Vermithrax is never depicted speaking, but appears to have at least a base level of intelligence above that of a simple beast. It apparently abides by the lottery, refraining from raiding the countryside as long as regular meals show up.

I say "it" because the dragon's gender is never clearly defined. It's eventually revealed to have a trio of young offspring, so Vermithrax could be female -- raising the question of when it mated with a male -- or dragons reproduce asexually. It seems the dragon is cagey enough to accept the lottery arrangement to mitigate any threats while raising its brood to maturity.

Examining scales and a tooth collected from the mouth of the lair by the leader of the peasants, the willful boy Valerian, Ulrich deduces that the dragon is quite ancient:

"When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit, crippled, pitiful... spiteful!"

This would seem to set up an epic clash: the last of the great wizards versus the last of the mighty dragons.

Of course, things change when the king's malevolent general, Tyrian -- played by John Hallam, with a creased, dark visage made for cinematic villainy -- shows up to nip this little insurgency in the bud. He challenges Ulrich's bonafides, prompting the old magic user to cast a spell on a dagger and invite Tyrian to plunge it into his breast.

Ulrich falls dead, his body is cremated in a sorcerous green fire, and Galen decides to take up the crusade for himself. The villagers are contemptuous of the young upstart, but are impressed when he manages to cause a rockslide to bury the solitary opening to the dragon's lair, trapping it. (Though not for long, as we shall see.)

I'm always intrigued how the logistics of magic use are depicted in various works of fantasy fiction. In some, such as Middle-Earth, there seem to be no specific limits on a wizard's abilities, other than what the storytelling situation demands. Others, like the Harry Potter series, establish a lot of rules and then ignore or break them as needed.

The spellcasters of "Dragonslayer" lie somewhere in the middle. They effect their magic through Latin incantations and hand-waving prestidigitations. Through this they can do simple things like telekinesis, lighting or snuffing out fires, etc. For more complex divinations, they employ chemical reagents, staves and the like.

The single "magic item" in this universe is Ulrich's amulet, which appears as an unassuming whitish hexahedron jewel with a dragon's claw setting and a leather loop to be worn as a necklace. Before allowing himself to be slain, Ulrich hands the amulet over to Galen. When the youngster assumes the quest, he uses the artifact to focus and/or magnify his own nascent powers.

There are no spoiler warnings after nearly 40 years, so I'll cut to the chase to talk about how Ulrich is resurrected through the power of the amulet, and its destruction results in the magnificent explosion of his body, dealing the killing blow to Vermithrax. It turns out Ulrich's entire enlistment of Galen was a ruse, as he knew his aging body could not make the long journey to Urland.

When you think about it, he used Galen quite badly, leveraging the boy's ambitions to be the inheritor of Ulrich's power in service to his own methods. Galen ends the movie dispossessed, his dreams snuffed... though he garners other rewards.

I wonder if this is what Ulrich planned all along, or if the appearance of Tyrian unexpectedly presented an elegant mode to transport his form from here to there.

Ulrich is shown having a certain amount of foresight -- he knows who the villagers are and what their mission is before they can say more than a handful of words -- so my guess is he had been planning for these events for some time. I would bet he created the amulet not too long before in order to temporarily house his essence.

The other big reveal of the movie is that Valerian, played by stage actress Caitlin Clarke, is actually a young woman. Her widower father, the blacksmith Simon (Emrys James), disguised her at birth as a boy in order to avoid the virgin lottery. It's an arguably passable depiction with Clarke's lovely, slightly androgynous features, paigeboy haircut and deep, resonant voice.

Once the ruse is abandoned, during the brief time the dragon is believed dead, many other Urlanders comment upon the cleverness of Simon's trick. But my guess is there would've been dozens or even hundreds of such cross-gender imposters.

It's left fuzzy why only females are chosen for sacrifice -- I doubt Vermithrax would be so choosy about its twice-annual meals. Certainly it would not care if they're virgins -- speaking of which, how in the world is that standard held to account?

This ingenious lottery system would seem to have the effect of prompting girls to cross-dress, marry quickly, have sex at an early age or lie about it.

It's a fairly small cast of characters for a movie with a relatively epic scale. The only other three notable ones are Sydney Bromley as Hodge, Ulrich's equally ancient, cantankerous serving man; Albert Salmi as Greil, a testy, doubting Thomas villager who ends up taking on the mantle of the local priest with greater success than his predecessor; and Chloe Salaman as Princess Elspeth, Casiodorus' surprisingly idealistic daughter.

The depiction of women in the movie is a mix of progressive and reactionary values indicative of the early 1980s. In their own ways Valerian and Elspeth are quite headstrong and contemptuous of the traditional power structures of men.

Elspeth acts with her own agency, freeing Galen from her father's dungeon upon learning the lottery is rigged. She also sacrifices herself to the dragon in the name of equanimity, conspiring to put her name on all the tiles of the lottery to make up for having been held off it for so long.

Valerian retains a certain glum charm, although the character loses a lot of steam after "converting" to womanhood. She grows resentful of Galen's admiration of Elspeth's virtue, exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior toward the boy she likes until he finally gives in.

The penultimate battle between Galen and Vermithrax, and the final one with Ulrich tagging in, retain every ounce of the power and glory they had in 1981. Stripped of the amulet, Galen uses a heavy metal spear forged long ago by Simon -- which he dubs Sicarius Dracorum, thus providing the film's title -- and a shield of dragon scales made by Valerian.

There's quite a healthy disgorgement of the dragon's blood after Galen stabs it in the back of the head and neck, which along with the earlier revelation of Elspeth's dismembered body, heartily test the limits of that PG rating.

Ulrich, revived from his ashes in the lake of burning water where Vermithrax resides, does battle from atop a high mountain, calling forth lightning to wound the creature and even resisting its fiery breath. Of course, he's just trying to goad the beast into carrying him away in its talons, presumably for a savored meal.

A lot of movies age poorly -- like Ulrich and Vermithrax, their power fades with time and the advent of the latest usurpers. But for my money "Dragonslayer" is every bit the thrilling piece of imagination it was almost four decades past.

It may be too gruesome to deserve the label of "family entertainment." But like the best fantasy it plucks at our dreams of what could be.

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