In anticipation for the release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One this Thursday (March 29), we’ll be taking a look back at various inspirations for the film’s author, writer Ernest Cline, and also seeking out other ’80s-related delights for your entertainment.
It’s important to place 1981’s Dragonslayer, directed by longtime screenwriter and script polisher Matthew Robbins, in its proper context at the time of its release: This is at the absolute start of the rebirth of fantasy — and especially Medieval fantasy — in cinematic popular culture.
Though there always was a place for it at the theater — just look at any one of the numerous rollicking adventure films released in the ’50s and ’60s, usually accompanied by effects by Ray Harryhausen. Plenty of those releases were adaptations of Greek myth or adaptations of fairy-tales by this film’s co-producer, Walt Disney Pictures, however, and it wasn’t until ’81, when it seemed that Warner Bros. was finally willing to stake a decent amount of cash in an Arthurian spectacle for adults and that other studios like United Artists (Clash of the Titans) and ingenious filmmakers like Terry Gilliam (Jabberwocky, that year’s Time Bandits) began to re-realize that there was something to it all. That fantasy, John Boorman’s bizarre and engrossing Excalibur, was released a scant two months prior to Dragonslayer and proved to be a decent bet for the company, as it made back three times its budget and went on to be the 18th-highest grossing film of that particular year.
So it seemed like a decent bet prior to all of that, and plus it would have been an extra expansion of Disney’s popular live-action repertoire, as their period of being totally lost in the wilderness following the passing of their founder continued on, and suggested a future partnership with someone like Paramount Pictures for more risqué fare for older audiences — like Splash, which would be their next collaborative release.
So, it was the one Medieval fantasy film that hit theaters in Summer ’81 that Ready Player One writer Ernest Cline probably would have been able to go see at the cinema, if his parents were willing or if he had the guts to buy a ticket to another film and sneak into that one. Certainly there are some things in there that parents might have balked at — there’s some incredibly brief nudity near the beginning to accompany the revelation that lead heroine Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) might not be a boy as we’ve been led to believe, and a lion’s share more blood than the Mouse was typically willing to show in any of its films, animated or not — but compared to what was in Excalibur and what would be in Oscar-winning fantasies barely 22 years later, it’s bizarre to think that this would have been controversial for either studio.
But perhaps it was less a content issue than it was a tonal one, as Dragonslayer feels like an attempt to modernize the genre while still pulling from its roots. It didn’t go the path of Boorman’s film, with artful realism and beauty replacing the stodgy stoicism of myth, but rather the path of George Lucas, and Robbins nakedly grafts Lucas’ story-structure on top of his own influences (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice being the biggest of all), with a little bit of Jaws (in both form, which we’ll get to in a second, and story structure) thrown in for good measure. It should be noted that he was a frequent collaborator with both of those directors, so those influences are used in good faith regardless of how it may seem.
As such, Dragonslayer tells the story of Galen (Peter MacNicol), the apprentice of a wizard named Ulrich (Ralph Richardson, having just missed out on an Excalibur payday) who is recruited by a “boy” named Valerian (Clarke) to kill a dragon. You see, the King of Urland (Peter Eyre), her homeland, has made a deal with the dragon, where as long as the King presents a virgin sacrifice to the creature, he’ll spare their country his wrath. This is hideously unfair, as well, given that the sacrifices are chosen by lottery of the country’s poorest citizens, and Valerian, actually a girl, has had enough of fearing for her life. Ulrich is seemingly killed before the start of their journey in a magical accident, but Galen grabs his amulet — seemingly the source of the wizard’s powers — and attempts to fill his place so that he can kill the dragon and save Valerian, whom he is falling in love with, and her country. Along the way, he’ll have to dodge assassination attempts by the evil Tyrian (John Hallam), an agent of the king who hates magic, and perhaps rescue the princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman) from being feasted upon by the dragon after the lottery is rigged against her. And Ulrich might not be as dead as he seems, as well (cue dramatic music).
So, much like Star Wars, we get a bland whiny kid as our protagonist, a headstrong princess determined to make her own fate, a wizened old man seemingly killed early on by a primary antagonist, and an impossible task which said kid will have to complete all capped off by a suicidal mission and a giant explosion at the end, and this blend of structures doesn’t totally work tonally. It’s also got a dark heart in some respects, beginning with the seeming suicide-by-cop of Galen’s master, or the ends that some of the characters meet undeservingly, and the structure doesn’t do too well with dark, especially when the characters are this generic.
Cline certainly learned a bit about his gender politics from films like this, which sets up an interesting storyline for Valerian but ultimately gives her nothing to do outside of helping Galen at a few key moments. This reliance on cliche means it’s a bit uneven, and even if there’s a some definitely admirable things about it, they’re a bit buried beneath the surface. For instance, it’s admirable the amount of social commentary Robbins was able to sneak into the final film: One need only look at the scene in which Galen reveals to Princess Elspeth that her success in avoiding selection in the “lottery” wasn’t luck, that it was that her father was the King and, like the daughters of other rich men, she had strings pulled to keep her as far away from the dragon as possible, or glimpse at how the members of the clergy are treated (especially Ian McDiarmid, Emperor Palpatine himself, in an inspired bit of ironic casting) at the hands of the Dragon.
That creature, which was given perhaps the most metal fucking name for a beast in all of fantasy cinema — Vermithrax Perjortive — remains an excellent achievement for its time and the best part of the film. It still feels breathtakingly alive and real, even when it’s just a model floating in front of rear-screen projection. It’s spectacularly detailed in ways that even a modern movie monster, like Peter Jackson’s take on Smaug, couldn’t ever approach, and filmed in more frightening ways. The scene in which we’re introduced to him (and I will never understand why this isn’t the first scene of the film), where he cooks up a virgin sacrifice for dinner after playing a bit with his food, is shot a lot like Jaws: We never get a full glimpse of the monster, aside from shots of a foot or a tail, and often see things from his perspective.
The sacrifice on screen, and her fear, tells us all we need to know about what the creature looks like, and to the credit of all of those at Industrial Light and Magic, the full monster lives up to what exists in our imaginations. Likewise, Galen’s battle with the creature is expertly realized, and the locale, inside of Vermithrax’s lair surrounded by a lake of fire, is magical in ways the rest of the film wishes it was. This is what I meant when I was talking about The Last Starfighter and how poorly certain effects can age: Sure, there’s odd moments where the dragon doesn’t look quite right, but it’s way easier to suspend one’s disbelief or admire the practical work on display here.
Sadly, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that Dragonslayer flopped, only making back some $14 million of its $18 million budget, and it’s sort of been lost to the sands of time, covered up by other more spectacular releases from that year (such as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and better fantasy that would come out over the course of the decade (Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster would all hit screens the following year).
But I’d wager that this remains an influential film on those that watched it as children or as budding teenage nerds, who might have debated their favorite movie dragons over a game of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or inspired them to create their own movie creatures. It’s the right kind of film to wedge itself in one’s memory at an impressionable time, immune to the shifting sands of cultures, even though to foreign eyes (like mine, as I didn’t grow up with the film), it might not be that great at its first glance. Dragonslayer might not be the greatest fantasy film of even the year in which it was released, but it is an interesting one, and well worth seeking out if you’re going to do an ’80s deep dive of your own.