Dragonslayer

Director: Matthew Robbins

USA - 1981

  Hoff! Hoff! 

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Every 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, o"It would be the highlight of my existence to draw your bath, sir!"r 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.

Yes, 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.

Dragonslayer 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.

Done 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 onBefore tiny bottled ships were worth building. 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.

So, 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.

Actually, 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 "I can scramble an egg inside its shell!  I'm going to change my name to Ron Popeil!" 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.

And 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!

The 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.

As 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  Special-effects extravaganzas?  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.

Efficiently put, young hero loses wise master, travels to accomplish heroic deed, i.e. sla"You're looking at my bum, aren't you?  Cheeky monkeys!"yage 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?

Strangely 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.

So 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.

Unlike 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, organ"Truly, we are not amused."ized 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Tyrian, 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.

The 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 situatiIt's the Anti-Crying Game.on 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.

So 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.

The 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?  P"It's the DragonSignal, old chum!  Castle Gotham must be in danger!"erhaps, 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 fire-blasting.  Itís almost cool enough for me to ignore the aeronautics questions, or the problem of secondary heat damage in that proximity to rushing flame.  Almost.

Director 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 association.  Remaining 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.

Still, 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.

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These are the times of which to cherish...

 

- Ulrich, with his perpetual air of being slightly fussy, slightly amused.  Very good work by a major actor in a role that could easily have been a toss-off to a lesser-known nobody.  Still, thereís that whole British Actor Effectô to consider, and Richardson does seem to invest more attention to the character than he needed to.  Perhaps this is his version of phoning it in, which happens to be worlds better than Steven Segalís all-out effort.

- Crane shots.  Itís a fact: truly scary things have to be very large, and you can get a lot of mileage out of a slowly rising crane shot of an actor pretending to be terrified.  For best results, put a big scary mask on the cameraman, and have him wave his free arm around menacingly.

- Puppets.  While itís possible to use puppets and raise the grossness factor (both here, and in Meet the Feebles), it is generally not as feasible to use puppets to increase terror.  This varies, of course, as the Rancor and the Graboids were both puppets, but cheap-looking hand-operated puppets just donít look scary, no matter how many times you bash them with a torch.  Unless, you know, theyíre clowns.  Clowns are scary, right?

- Life Lesson #1: Be very careful when leaping on a dragonís neck; those spines can sting.  Made me wince, and Iím just an observer.

- Life Lesson #2: Itís not just that the survivors write the history books, the highest ranking survivors get last editorial say in the matter.

- Peter MacNicolís huge shiny grin.  Hey, Pete, come smile over here, Iím having trouble reading this small printÖ

 

 

-- Copyright © 2000 by E. Mark Mitchell

 

 


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