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Dragonslayer (1981)

When Galen (Peter MacNicol in his film debut), ward of the earth’s last master wizard, Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), tries to use his master’s magic against the earth’s last dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative (“The Worm of Thrace Who Makes Thin Worde”), the movie echoes the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence of Fantasia more than it does St George and the Dragon.

And the notion of magic here – that sorcerers and dragons, white magic and black, are forever entwined – is reminiscent of George Lucas’ “Force”, as Ulrich plays Ben Kenobe to Galen’s Luke Skywalker.

To their credit, writer-producer Hal Barwood and writer-director Matthew Robbins didn’t merely want to make a mediaeval monster movie; they wanted to create an entire universe in which dragons make sense.

They set their film in a watershed of human history – the years dividing the pagan and Christian eras.

Ulrich’s Latin spells are as archaic as the dragon’s dinosaur appearance. Like Merlin in Excalibur (1981), Ulrich is the final survivor of a Golden Age, with all the powers of the elements at his fingertips.

The problem with the film is that, for all its thickness, it lacks depth. When townspeople perform the inevitable rituals of movie-mediaeval machismo (those heartfelt handclasps and shoulder hugs) or are forced to exclaim – in unison! – such sonorous dialogue as “read the tiles!” and “let it stand!” you feel only that you’re in the Dark Ages of Hollywood.

And without much conviction behind the atmosphere, there seem to be too many loose threads for the film to come together as a mediaeval tapestry.

For example, the long middle section depicts the lottery that determines which Urland virgins will be sacrificed to appease Vermithrax Pejorative. For audiences that don’t feel transported to antediluvian times, one embarrassing, modern question leaps to mind: if the victim has to be a virgin, why isn’t everyone rushing out to get laid?

This question severely undercuts the love story, which is of the boy-meets-boy-who-turns-out-to-be-girl variety. The boy-girl is called Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), which must have been as popular a name in the Dark Ages as ‘Jennifer’ is today; the heroine of Conan The Barbarian is also called Valeria.

Anyhow, she dresses as a man to escape the lottery and avoid being sacrificed to the dragon. But whether in drag or out, Caitlin Clarke’s Valerian is too much woman for Peter MacNicol’s Galen.

She has a dark, bruised sensuality, as though she’s already gone from innocence to experience. MacNicol, however, looks like he should be playing mellow songs on a guitar at a beach party.

Much of the movie misses only by millimetres. There are great ideas behind the images, which don’t quite pan out.

When evil ‘dragonlets’ (baby dragons) munch away on a beautiful princess, there’s no macabre poetry, only gore. Visually, the mother dragon (who seems to have sired her babies all by her lonesome) is just right. Half evolutionary mutant, like King Kong‘s pterodactyls,) and half basilisk, she’s both primordial and near-human, especially when nuzzling a dead dragonlet.

But she has little personality, and most of the people have even less. The one achieved character is Ralph Richardson’s Ulrich, a true magician who carries on like a humbug partly to put off the curious townspeople.

Both his ironic delivery and bent-up brow put a curve on his straight lines. He gives the film its only gasp of conscious humour.  And what there is of the other kind comes mostly in the Galen-Valerian smooch scene. You get the idea that Galen would rather fight than kiss.

All the creative energy in this film has gone into fens and bogs and glades and grottoes, and into those few terrifying moments when the camera swoops up as the dragon rears its ugly head and the soundtrack quiets down to catch the rushing sound of her fiery breath.

Sixteen dragon puppets were used for the role of Vermithrax – including a hydraulic 40-foot model.

The film was largely shot on location in Wales (with many locals employed in the film as village extras) but the final scene was shot in Skye, Scotland.

Peter MacNicol
Caitlin Clarke
Ralph Richardson
John Hallam
Casiodorus Rex
Peter Eyre
Albert Salmi
Sydney Bromley
Princess Elspeth
Chloe Salaman
Valerian’s Father
Emrys James
Roger Kemp
Brother Jacopus
Ian McDiarmid
Douglas Cooper

Matthew Robbins