Dir. by Matthew Robbins
Starring Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson and one impressive puppet
Tired of a twice-yearly lottery to select a virgin to sacrifice to the rampaging dragon Vermithrax, the citizens of Urland seek the aid of the wizard Ulrich. Before he can help, however, the king’s head knight insists on testing the wizard’s powers….by stabbing him in the chest. After the funeral, Ulrich’s apprentice, an inexperienced wizard-in-training named Galen, decides to attempt the mission himself, despite his lack of both magical and martial skills.
I caught bits and pieces of this movie on television at several points while I was a kid, but never managed to see the whole thing. That didn’t prevent me from constructing an entire head-canon narrative out of the disparate pieces, however, or from sharing this wholly imagined (and much more elaborate) version with my friends like it was something that actually existed. I was slightly embarrassed when I finally saw the entire movie from start to finish while in high school, and realized that it was pretty much nothing like the version I’d imagined (which, incidentally, bears more than a passing resemblance to the much later How to Train Your Dragon movies).
Prior to the late 1990s, Vermithrax Perjorative was the cinematic dragon. And while Draco from Dragonheart, and Smaug after him, may have replaced Vermithrax in the fantasy-filmgoing public’s minds, for many people (including Guillermo Del Toro and George R.R. Martin) Vermithrax remains definitive. She is the reason that this film lodged itself so firmly in my imagination as a kid, despite only having seen about 15 minutes of the movie. A quarter of the film’s budget went to her creation, and all of that money is up there on the screen.
I think Vermithrax is so effective in part because we don’t actually see her for a very long time. This movie is closely patterned after the Jaws style of monster movie, in that you only get brief glimpses and partial views of the creature until over halfway through the movie’s running time. They save the first full-body shot of the dragon for the climax, when Galen enters her lair to do battle solo, and comes face-to-face with the legendary creature. The audience sees the dragon for the first time at the same time that Galen does, maximizing the impact of the amazing special effects and allowing them to create two extended sequences of dragon action – one on the ground and one in mid-air – that might not have possible if they attempted to stretch their budget by showing more of the creature throughout the film.
I lead off with the dragon because Vermithrax is by far the best part of the movie, though Ralph Richardson is also a delight as the eccentric wizard Ulrich – a role which received top billing but which amounts to an extended cameo. The rest of the movie is, unfortunately, not as good. I wouldn’t say that I was ever outright bored by the plot leading up to the dragon fights, but the movie does seem to take forever to really get going. After the death of Ulrich in the first five minutes, the movie takes almost half an hour for Galen and the villagers to journey back home, a journey that – despite a murder and a gender reveal – is pretty uninteresting. Things pick up a bit when they introduce the asshole king, who throws Galen in a dungeon for trying to kill the dragon, confiscates his magic amulet to use in a lead-to-gold scheme, and lies to his daughter about removing her name from the biannual lottery to select a sacrifice.
I want to talk about that lottery for a bit, because that’s probably the most interesting part of the movie apart from the dragon. In many ways, Dragonslayer was intended as a subversion of the dominant tropes of fantasy films up to that point: the Arthurian idyll of knights in shining armor, veiled princesses in pointy hats, and honorable chivalry. In this, the king is a slimy asshole, and the knight openly takes pleasure in murdering innocents. When Galen attempts to use magic to bury the dragon in a landslide, the king imprisons him instead of rewarding him, giving a speech about how previous attempts to slay Vermithrax have only lead to more death and destruction in retribution. According to him, sacrificing two people to the dragon each year to keep it otherwise appeased is better than risking the lives of hundreds if it attacks the villages. And while the king is a jerkass, the jerkass has a point: when Vermithrax gets out from under the rubble, she does attack the villages, leading to an impromptu extra lottery in an attempt to placate her wrath.
In most fantasy that came before this (and, to be fair, in a lot of print and film fantasy that came after) the love interest would of course be the one selected in this lottery, leading Galen to attempt to rescue her. Valerian herself seems to expect it, and is quite surprised when another name is called instead. Her selection had actually been foreshadowed earlier, as Valerian spends the first part of the movie passing as male (the movie implies that this was done solely to avoid the lottery, and was not connected to her gender identity – not that anyone making the movie in 1981 was thinking about that at the time) before getting outed publicly once the dragon is assumed dead. But instead of Valerian, the princess’s name is called instead, her having rigged the lottery against herself to make up for all of the times that her name was secretly removed from the running.
So instead of having to rescue Valerian despite the king attempting to kill her, Galen instead is sent by the king himself to stop his own ritual before his daughter can willingly go to her death. The vicious knight turns against the king, thinking that the sacrifice is the only way to save the citizens, and actually fights Galen not out of bloodlust, but out of a sense of duty to protect those who he’d previously expressed a desire to murder. And the princess, despite being cut loose by Galen and told to flee, walks into the dragon’s lair intentionally, determined to make the heroic sacrifice despite all of Galen’s efforts.
It’s quite a bit darker than anything I can recall from fantasy movies prior to this, and in fact presages a bit the grimdark trend in fantasy literature, which would kick off in earnest with the publication of Glen Cook’s The Black Company a couple of years later. The sight of the princess’s body being gnawed on by hungry dragon babies is not something that I would expect from a PG Disney co-production (and in fact would help lead to the creation of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures banner for more mature live-action movies). This movie came out well before the PG-13 rating was created, but I can’t possibly see it being rated as anything less these days.
Dragonslayer is also interesting for a having a noticeable streak of anti-Christianity, something that I definitely wasn’t expecting and hadn’t remembered. Ian McDiarmid (of Emperor Palpatine fame) has a small role as a Christian missionary attempting to convert the villagers. When the dragon attacks the town, he tells them to have no fear, that the dragon is actually Satan, and that he will banish it back to Hell. His attempt to exorcise a fire-breathing dragon goes about as well as you’d expect.
It’s implied several times throughout the film that the rise of Christianity is what is killing off magic, as both dragons and wizards are almost extinct, and the villager converts view the dragon’s death at the end as a wholly divine miracle, denying Galen and Ulrich any credit for their feat. The king is the one who takes public credit for the slaying, gently inserting his sword into the (rather disgusting) blown-up corpse. Galen and Valerian are left alive and together, but get no reward, no glory – again, in line with modern fantasy but very much a subversion of Arthurian tropes.
I was expecting to not enjoy this rewatch, given the forty-year-old effects and other dated elements. However, I actually quite enjoyed it, and think more people need to watch it. Dragonslayer wasn’t a success at the box office, though it did get an Oscar nomination for its effects. Coming out only two weeks after Raiders of the Lost Ark (the movie it lost the Effects Oscar to) certainly didn’t help. Though it became a cult classic on home video, it seems to have been mostly forgotten with the rise of CG effects, which is a damn shame. Vermithrax could take Drogon in a fight any day of the week.
-I bought a quartz pendant that looked very much like the amulet that Galen uses the first time I went to the Renaissance Festival, and wore it every time I went from then on. I probably still have it somewhere, though I don’t think I’ve seen it since high school.
-Vermithrax Perjorative is actually a really good name for a dragon. It loosely translates to “the Thracian worm that makes things worse.” The Game of Thrones producers actually included Vermithrax in Viserys’s list of Targaryen dragons in the first season as a tip of the cap to Dragonslayer.
-Microsoft Word apparently recognizes the word “Targaryen” without triggering spellcheck.