so often, you have to indulge that inner Medievalist in you.
If you grew up in Western culture, you had to have learned about
King Arthur and the ancient traditions of chivalry and such. All
those old Errol Flynn movies, the Indiana Jones movies, etc., etc., the
images keep rising up in our media.
Many folks get greatly enamored of this kind of fantasy, and
thatís why we have Renaissance Festivals.
Others of us just play Dungeons & Dragons,
or some other high-fantasy role-playing
game. But occasionally,
someone will get a big sword-and-sorcery bug in their ear, and weíll
end up getting a movie like Hawk
the Slayer. Or Conan the
Destroyer. Or Dragonslayer.
dragons are my favorite fictional beastie; I do believe a lot of folks
go through a phase where they are fascinated with some classical
creature, and dragons have the advantage of being multi-cultural.
Not in the same form, mind you, but variety makes it all
interesting. Point being,
dragon movies are all special to me, because they resonate with my
youthful interests. Iím
willing to at least rent any movie with a dragon, even if itís crap.
And believe me, not all high fantasy movies are created equal. Recently, you have the technically astute but simplistically
manipulative, like Dragonheart
(I hear they made a sequel; havenít bothered to see it yet), and the
simply bad, like Dungeons &
Dragons (which is what happens when the creators of a movie have no
knowledge of and no respect for the ostensible subject matter).
Historically speaking, we have the cloth-covered cranes posing as
dragons featured in movies like The
Magic Sword or Viking Women
and the Sea Serpent. In
between, however, we have a very interesting experiment in effects and
story, the subject of this review.
was part of my recent Bad Movie Weekend, the festival of pain that I put
myself through, courtesy of my local independent video store, Dark Star
Video. Support small video
businesses in your area, because we donít want to be at the total
mercy of Blockbuster (a.k.a. The Great Satan).
I chose it for my marathon because I hadnít seen it in years,
and I wanted to compare it to a modern movie.
It surprised me, being one of the most palaptable selections of
that whole weekend.
in 1981, when effects were good enough to handle things like the Stay-Puft
Marshmallow Man, but digital was not yet even a realistic dream (not
that most digital effects are all that realistic now), Dragonslayer
presented an interesting challenge in how to realize on film a monster
on the scale (snicker) of a classic Western dragon.
The final solution, a mix of gigantic mechanisms and stop-motion
animation, produced a monster that showed realistically on film
close-ups, yet could be given motion in a wider shot with little
difficulty. And though
there are moments when the inevitable choppiness of stop-motion work
shows through, on the whole it still looks better than the majority of
the digital beasties they have going these days.
Probably the best marriage of old and new might be to use digital
techniques to erase the telltale signs of a stop-motion or other type of
puppet (like the Rancor in Return of the Jedi), allowing the tiny model to move as fluidly as a
ďrealĒ creature. That
would probably be the most realistic creature in a feature weíve had
in a long time. Too bad
theyíre probably never going to do it.
anyway, the other basic elements of the classic high fantasy adventure
are magical powers and a medieval-style setting.
Itís a common conceit to allow an idealized medieval period;
people bathe, and often hold ideas and opinions that would be highly
unusual in the real time period, but that modern audiences take for
granted, like feelings of democracy or social equality or basic
fairness. I could talk
about how such feelings in the general public are illusory, but thatís
a story for another day. Point
being, itís a sanitized historical environment with unusual mystical
qualities. Magic and
dragons seem to go together; the existence of one is generally
considered dependent on the other, and, in fact, this is one of the
themes Dragonslayer plays
with. Magic is generally
displayed as telekinesis (mentally moving things) or pyrokinesis
(mentally setting things on fire), though there are a few other tricks
of greater complexity that are at least alluded to (seeing the future,
lead to gold, that sort of thing).
Thereís not much talk about the source or nature of magic, but
then again, that would kind of drag the movie out even longer.
some would say the movie is quite slow enough, as it is. Itís true, itís not an action movie in the modern vein,
but it does do a decent job building the suspense, and it does provide a
kind of moody atmosphere, on occasion, particularly when the dragon is
out and about and rampaging. In
a way, the measured pace helps build the story, as it gives the actions
and activities of the leads a certain gravity, an importance that a more
frenetic pace might not encourage.
If the ďslayerĒ in the name brings to mind kung-fu masters
and dazzling weapon work, then this is the wrong movie for you.
There is combat, there is action, and said action is not as slow
to modern eyes as many of the action movies of that era.
Which is not to say itís particularly slam-bang, either, but
itís decent. Jet Li has spoiled me, Iím sorry to say.
youíve got Peter MacNicol in a heroic action role.
I mean, this guy did Janosz Poha in Ghostbusters
2, which was a very well-done but very twitchy kind of character, he
was Gary Granger in Addams Family
Values, which was nothing if not exaggerated oddness, and most
recently, heís been John "The Biscuit" Cage on Ally
McBeal, which is a fascinating study in idiosyncrasies.
He does well in those kind of roles, where he can be quirky.
Maybe itís his relative size that leads him to that kind of
role; he appears to be a fairly short man, and somehow, being small
makes you appear more unthreatening.
As far as Iíve seen, Dragonslayer is MacNicolís only stab at an action role, and I
think he does fairly well. He
is young and full of energy, which lends itself well to his role as
Galen Brad Warden; he has a few quirks, by virtue of being a sorcerer,
but by and large, he plays it pretty straight.
My, though, but heís got a cheery smile!
two other most memorable human characters are the brave and intelligent
Valerian, played by Caitlyn Clarke, who was in such movies as Crocodile
Dundee, Penn & Teller Get
Killed, and Blown Away,
and the ancient and crafty elder sorcerer, Galenís teacher, Ulrich,
played by Ralph Richardson. Of
course, besides looking like Olivier and Gielgud as a wizened old man,
Richardson also played such favorites as God in Time
Bandits, and he was in Rollerball, and Greystoke: The Legend of
Tarzan (poshumously). He
also inspired Patrick Macnee for his Avengers
character, John Steed, from his role in Clouds
Over Europe (aka Q Planes).
All in all a fascinating man, but one whom I spent most of the
movie thinking he was Gielgud. Ah, such is life.
it stands, the story is actually quite basic.
However, the charm is in the details.
This is the kind of movie where they have enough effects to carry
the story, but donít get too enamored of them.
In a way, The Matrix
was like that, where the effects were intended to show the otherworldly
nature of being in the Matrix, or in the higher-tech ďreal world.Ē
Sure, but at least they werenít sacrificing innocent fake bats
just to get cheap-thrills explosions.
In part because of the comparatively primitive nature of the
effects, Dragonslayer keeps
them relatively minimal, and because of the comparatively simple nature
of action movies at this time, there arenít as many stunts required. Actually, that allows more time to focus on the characters,
which in themselves might be simplistic, but still maintain a certain
innocent appeal. And itís
not like weíre expecting a whole lot, either.
put, young hero loses wise master, travels to accomplish heroic deed,
i.e. slayage of aforesaid dragon, young hero falls in love, then runs
afoul of the entrenched power structure, and finally makes the heroic
attempt. There is a
surprising revelation, a clever plan, and a climactic act of heroism,
after all. Then a final joke. See?
Not much involved, now, is there?
So how does it pull off the interest factor?
enough, it starts off slow, by making you care about the characters.
Revolutionary, right? Not
for 1981, apparently, but these days, sure.
Like many good Canadian films, little personality touches speak
volumes about the characters. Ulrichís
elderly puttering, his casual use of his mystic power, and his
self-depreciating humor set him up to be the instantly-likeable wise old
man, which is all he needs to be. The
real focus of the story, Galen, is initially shown to the be respectful
and caring student, which earns him points for obeying the
instantly-likeable wise old man. Then, when he comes into some power, he lets it go to his
head in the spirit of youthful exuberance, which proves heís human.
He also makes mistakes, which, again, makes him more identifiable
to the audience. And he
does stay true to his commitments; even when it becomes apparent he has
a much lesser chance at success than he originally thought, he still has
to try. Plus, heís got
that Peter MacNicol smile! How
can you go wrong with that? So,
he shoe-horns into your good graces through his relationship with
Ulrich, but then cements his hold over the course of the rest of the
movie. Valerian comes
across as brash and not altogether likeable, but the more you understand
about his situation, the better reason he has for his behavior.
In the end, although you know the character is always going to be
something of a pain in the buttocks, you can still see why the
relationship has developed.
you care about the characters, and when they are in danger, you become
concerned. It becomes more
of a quaint character study, than an action movie.
Plus, you know, dragon. And
itís still faster than what I can remember of Christopher Reeves
vehicle Somewhere in Time, before I fell asleep.
any other sword and sorcery movie that I can recall, Dragonslayer
brings up the fading of magic in the world as a direct contrast to the
spread of Christianity. The
ďdark pagan ritualsĒ aspect of magic is alluded to fairly often
(particularly in a funny bit where the King finds himself having to suck
up to the magic man just a little bit), and there is a good little
sub-plot going on with the conversion and eventual dedication of one of
the supporting characters to the Church.
Not that the lone priest we see in the film manages to affect the
dragon directly at all, mind you, but he tries, and in the end, the
flock gives credit to God for the final success.
Which, actually, kind of sucks, as they completely ignore the
true sacrifices and difficulties that were involved by just handing it
on up to God. Whereas the
involved audience member gets the idea that it takes magic to fight
magic, and heroism, in the name of whatever philosophy or view of the
world, is what is necessary to effect change.
Like anything, itís not the inherent quality of the belief (or
tool, or skill, or invention) that determines whether itís good or
bad, itís how it is used. Whether
its sorcery, organized religion, or something like genetic manipulation,
the key is in what you do with it, and this movie makes that point quite
nicely, I think.
movie also makes a strong anti-authoritarian statement, even besides its
take on organized religion. The
only really positive authority figure is Ulrich, and heís more like an
affectionate but strict professor, rather than a real authority figure. I suppose the local priest, Brother Jacobus (Ian McDiarmid)
would be an authority figure, too, and though he comes across as a bit
of an overblown fanatic, he does mean well, and his manner with
individuals is positive and unassuming, as far as weíre shown. Besides, heís only on for a very short time, and he doesn't
have the opportunity for evil that he does as Palpatine in the Star Wars
series or Dr. Thomas Lancaster in Sleepy Hollow. Now,
those were authority figures.
real authority figures in this movie, however are King Casiodorus Rex
(Peter Eyre, from Remains of the
Day and Princess Caraboo),
and Tyrian (John Hallam, who was in The
Wicker Man, one of my favorite Equalizer
films, as well as Flash Gordon,
Lifeforce, and1985's Santa
Claus, for all the good it did to redeem his image), the head of the
Kingís armed forces. The
King is ultimately confident in his own superiority, like any noble-born
(i.e. rich person). He keeps his daughterís name out of the dragon-food
lottery, he gets his son into a cushy National Guard position to evade a
foreign warÖ all the usual abuses of power and influence.
Yet he broadcasts himself as a paragon of public-mindedness, of
caring for the common man. Just
like a politician. Look how
his mind changes when events shift out of his control.
on the other hand, while heís a thorough bastard, is indeed the much
more reliable and honorable of the two.
He never makes any pretensions of being anything but what he is,
and he is committed to acting for the best interests of the kingdom,
beyond even the interests of his own King.
Thing is, heís committed to keeping things the same, regardless
of how awful the current system may be.
This puts him in direct opposition to Galen, and being the kind
of guy he is, that means Tyrian has to use all available means to stop
him, including murder. No
matter that, if successful, Galenís efforts would lead to a better
life for all. If he fails,
things will be worse, and Tyrian doesnít even want to risk that. Better to suffer things as they are; theyíve been working
well this long, theyíll work the same way for all time. Itís not good to dream too much.
thing that keeps these conservatives in the wrong (and, theoretically,
should keep all arch-conservatives limited in power), is that conditions
never stay the same. There
are developments that nobody knows of, down in the dragonís cave,
which would eventually alter the situation anyway, no matter what the
King and Tyrian did. In
life, things only stay static when they are dead.
Even if you somehow manage to control your society to maintain
the status quo, the rest of the world is going to change.
Whether itís a greenhouse effect or a new ice age, the
environment will inevitably alter, and the current way of doing things
will no longer be effective. Technology will change things, and society will have to
adapt. Ideas will spread
like diseases, memes criss-crossing the world, and leave new thoughts in
their wake. Keeping things
ďthe sameĒ never works; you have to pick the things that you want to
preserve, and let the rest flow as it naturally will.
Besides, the ďgood old daysĒ were rarely as good as you
imagine them to be, anyway. Iím
not a liberal, nor a cynic; Iím just trying to be realistic.
the establishment must fail, whether itís the Church or the State.
Which, of course, does not stop either of them from stealing the
glory once individualism and heroism has won the day.
In art as in life, I suppose.
There is a whole Libertarian line of argument to make about the
virtues of individualism versus the institutionalized sins of organized
governmental or social (i.e. religious, among others) extortive
structures, but that deserves its own forum, and Iím sure it has at
least one already. Point
is, all that effort, and someone else takes the credit.
Reminds me of my corporate jobs, or at least of the Robocop
movies. Still, it could be
worse; at least thereís a minor reward to be had.
most fun parts of the movie, for me, are the dragon scenes.
Decently animated, it does look scary, though the close-up combat
shots suffer a bit because of the necessity to animate a little human
fighter, as well. That
never really works out so well; we might get fooled a bit by the motions
of a monster, but we spend all day looking at the movements of other
humans, and those limitations just call out to us.
Hence, we notice the flaws in the fighting skeletons a lot more
than in, say the tauntaun. The
coolest dragon scenes, however, are those where thereís actually not
much motion of the body involved: when heís in flight.
Once fully active, the dragon does some strafing moves, and shows
himself to be more of a soaring creature.
At some points, he resembles more of a bomber, sailing between
clouds, even to the extent his landing gear extends, unfolding into
position. Dragon as
metaphor for air power? Sorcery
as the power of the atom? Perhaps,
but thatís more like drawing parallels and imposing them on the film,
rather than something the film suggests by itself.
And even if it were accurate, itís not saying anything in and
of itself. Regardless, the
flight and airborne fighting is fairly nifty imagery, as is the
almost cool enough for me to ignore the aeronautics questions, or the
problem of secondary heat damage in that proximity to rushing flame. Almost.
and co-writer Matthew Robbins also did Corvette
Summer and *batteries not
included. He also wrote
Mimic. Make of that
what you will; to me, it's at least middling praise. He also appeared as one of the returnees in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I suppose is quality by
co-writer Hal Barwood was an uncredited writer on Close
Encounters, apparently, and also worked with Robbins on Corvette
Summer and a couple of others.
In latter years, he's been director of film on two of the Indiana
Jones video games. I'm
not sure if that's a step up or down, but I suppose that depends on the
quality of the video games.
itís just about impossible to completely remove oneís self from
oneís time and situation. For
all that it was excellent for its time, it is still a product of its
time. It has charm and a
decent attention to character and plot, but it does drag on between
dragon appearances, and the action scenes are more realistic than fun,
not as stylized or flashy as something that might be found today.
Plus, itís got at least one scene of Peter MacNicol just about
butt nekkid. Whether
thatís a positive or negative, thatís up to you.