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Dragonslayer (1981)

September 9th, 2008 · 4 Comments

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Synopsis
A band of travelers arrives to see the sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson). Having received a vision of fire and terror and a great task needing to be done, the old magician summons his apprentice Galen (Peter Macnicol) to hear the pleas of the delegation led by a punchy boy named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke). Presenting the scales and tooth of a ferocious beast, Valerian reveals that at the spring and summer equinox, their king employs a lottery to sacrifice to sacrifice a virgin girl to a dragon. Before Ulrich can begin his journey, the king’s emissary Tyrian (John Hallam) intercepts the party. He challenges the magician to a test, but when Ulrich instructs Tyrian to plunge a knife into his chest, the old man’s powers fail him and he dies.

With the powerful amulet Ulrich left behind, as well as a cranky old assistant Hodge (Sydney Bromley), Galen rejoins the party, offering to slay the dragon. Swimming with Valerian, he’s shocked to discover that the boy is really a girl, disguised at birth by her father so she wouldn’t have to participate in the lottery. Galen receives a vision of Tyrian firing his bow, but is too late to rescue Hodge from being shot with an arrow. Arriving at the dragon’s lair, Galen conjures a massive rockslide, which the villagers are satisfied has buried the dragon. Taken before King Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre) to prove his mettle, Galen’s amulet loses its power, and the king throws the boy in his dungeon.

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The king’s daughter Elspeth (Chloe Salaman) – proud to have participated in each lottery – visits Galen. He tells her that the king has likely rigged the lottery to exclude her. When the dragon resurfaces and attacks the village, Galen escapes. The king calls for a new lottery, which Elspeth tampers with to have her own name selected. Arming himself with a legendary spear divined by Valerian’s blacksmith father, as well as a shield Valerian builds out of scales, Galen goes to confront the beast. He only angers the dragon by killing its offspring and barely escapes with his life. As the village evacuates, it occurs to Galen that maybe Ulrich foresaw all of this, and had devised his own way to slay the dragon.

Production history

Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins were a top screenwriting tandem in the 1970s, penning The Sugarland Express and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Robbins made his directorial debut in 1978 with Corvette Summer, which Barwood produced. The team also polished Close Encounters of the Third Kind for their pal Steven Spielberg. In 1979, they were struggling with a romantic comedy. Unable to land a bankable female lead and male lead at the same time, they turned to a new idea. Barwood recalled, “What we particularly got interested in was taking maturing special effects technology, as seen in Close Encounters and Star Wars, and adapting that to a different kind of storytelling-dramatic venue which we liked better, and that was a fantasy idea.”

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Anticipating that George Lucas’ visual effects shop Industrial Light & Magic would have an open window between The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Jedi, Barwood & Robbins wrote Dragonslayer in the spring of 1979. Robbins recalls, “The first requirement was that if we did do a movie about a dragon that we deliver a dragon. We were very, very committed to the idea that it would not all be people staring past the lens reacting to something over your shoulder, that eventually we would run up against it. And I think that had it not been for our association with ILM, we never would have undertaken it. It’s too terrifying to think of spending all this time on a movie and then coming up with a rubber duckie that’s going to flap and squawk.”

Barwood & Robbins sought out graphic artist David Bunnett, feeling that illustrations would help sell the project. By the summer of 1979, Paramount agreed to finance the film. With Barwood producing and Robbins directing, a production team was assembled. Mechanical effects supervisor Brian Johnson would win back-to-back Academy Awards for Alien and The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson had some advice. Barwood recalls, “He made us run right out and start storyboarding because it is impossible – you learn right away in making a movie like this – to get any idea of what the costs might be without having a detailed knowledge of exactly how pieces of film are going to cut together. And the only way you can do that is by drawing the storyboard first.”

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Bunnett sketched storyboards for the team at ILM, which was to be supervised by Dennis Muren and include visual effects artists Phil Tippett and Ken Ralston. Muren recalls, “At this early stage, we were uncertain as to what our individual functions would be. We were to create the dragon, but it hadn’t been designed yet. Who would do that? And just what techniques might be used to execute these shots? It turned out they had already decided how some shots were to be done, and that was with a full-size dragon head and neck, fully mobile, fire breathing, everything. Well, we’d seen the past results of this kind of thing in Dino’s King Kong, and even in Empire where they made three full-size tauntauns to use in Norway, one of which was supposed to run.”

Refining a sculpture of the dragon by Bunnell, ILM built a small puppet, which Muren felt was too intricate to be adjusted one frame at a time with human hands. ILM wanted their beast to move on its own. Muren recalled, “What had kept the idea from being done before was that everyone had thought that it had to be done internally, like the figures at Disneyland. But I saw The Land That Time Forgot – which was all rod puppets – and thought there were moments in that stuff that worked. Not many, but in an eight second cut that was terrible, there might be two seconds in there that worked. You see little clues like that and you say, ‘Maybe that’s the way to do it.’ Not to wait until some sort of incredible technology is available in 2050, but try it now, just do it and see how it works.”

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While Tippett and effects production coordinator Laurie Vermont studied film of lizards to get the dragon’s movements, Stuart Ziff devised a motion control mechanism that would move the puppet. In what ILM called “go motion,” a rig composed of computer controlled motors and rods moved the puppet slightly as it was being photographed one frame at a time, producing a blurring effect that was far more lifelike than traditional stop motion animation. Barwood recalls, “We had to spend months constructing the dragon mover, and we had to spend more months learning how to use it. We were all chewing our nails by the time we started our first walker shots. Eventually, though, we added some, because it became obvious that they were great.”

With Paramount sharing costs of the $18 million production with Disney, Dragonslayer was released in June 1981 between Raiders of the Lost Ark and For Your Eyes Only and was not the blockbuster the studios hoped. Janet Maslin in the New York Times echoed many by praising the film’s mood and execution while writing, “Dragonslayer has a great deal of charm, but it doesn’t have the relentlessness that would have made it a full-scale adventure.” Nominated for two Academy Awards, Muren, Tippett & Ralston saw the Oscar for Best Visual Effects go to their colleagues at ILM for Raiders. Robbins went on to direct a handful of colorful B-movies – including *batteries not included – none of which went over well at the box office.

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Opinion

This film was roundly dismissed at the time for not being high caliber as Star Wars or Raiders. It isn’t. No movie is. Dragonslayer not only stands as a pioneering achievement in visual effects, but as the years go by, seems richer and more imaginative than the fantasy films that have followed it. The reason is that instead of a slick entertainment for the kids, Robbins & Barwood and ILM made a pseudo period film set in the Dark Ages, complete with political tyranny, virgin sacrifices, a damsel who is not rescued from distress, a girl posing as a boy as the true heroine, sorcery and finally, one of the most terrifying and breathtaking creatures ever rendered to film.

The strength of Dragonslayer is also its only weakness: Barwood & Robbins invest so much in the dragon that it overwhelms Galen and Valerian. Though Peter MacNicol and Caitlin Clarke are talented performers, they’re hard to notice. That said, Ralph Richardson is spot-on tremendous as the dying wizard, while John Hallam makes a fantastic classical villain. More intense than any Disney movie up to that time – it would get a PG-13 rating if released today – Robbins brings a fantastic texture to the film, appealing to our fear and fascination of the unknown. Not enough praise can be heaped on ILM for the dragon, which appears to breathe the same air as the characters. Alex North composed the rousing and engaging orchestral score.

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Chris Gould at DVD Active writes, “Dragonslayer is a relatively entertaining sword and sorcery adventure that lacks the big name talent required to take advantage of the material. In particular, I feel that the central roles of Galen and Valerian definitely required stronger actors. It not that the performances are particularly bad, just, well, ordinary. Still, there are strong performances elsewhere (Sir Ralph Richardson for example) and the go-motion effects used to render Vermithrax still hold up well when compared to today’s computerised efforts. In fact, aside from a few obvious blue screen moments, the dragon looks more realistic than most recent CGI attempts at bringing mythical creatures to life.”

Dan Heaton at digitally Obsessed writes, “Dragonslayer has been given cult status over the years and is considered by a surprising number of fantasy fans as one of the great films in the genre. However, if you look past the impressive dragon, the story contains few moments of value. The lead characters fail to generate excitement, and the twists are mostly obvious long before they occur. This film is worth seeing for the attractive special effects, but it falls short when compared to many fantasy classics.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Beasts and monsters · Dreams and visions

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Piper // Sep 15, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    I wanted this movie to be more, but I’m not disappointed with the end result. It’s rich with mood and it gets points for aspiring to be something more.

    They don’t make movies like this anymore. Like it or hate it, it was a risk. Reign of Fire was interesting, but they had to throw the cowboy in there to make it interesting.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 15, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    Piper: Great point. Today you’d get a dragon movie with terrific casting and non-stop action that would still completely miss the mark. Dragonslayer could have used a Christian Bale or Izabella Scorupco, but hey, it was 1980 we’re talking about here. What this flick lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in vision. Thanks for commenting.

  • 3 Robert Kim // Aug 8, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    I saw Dragonslayer in 1981 when it first came out in theaters, and it is the best movie ever that has anything to do with Dragons. Plus, Caitlin Clarke was my first crush and what a crush that has never gotten weeker or died! I knew that she was a Girl even before Galen ever saw her under the water in the pond. How? Easy, her voice was a perfect give away, and so was the shape of her face. Anyway Dragonslayer paved the way for the rest of the Dragon movies and t.v. shows to come after it, so to anyone who thinks that Dragonslayer lacked anything in anyway shape or form has got no imagination and needs to visit the world of Dragons and folklore a lot more often. Plus if it were not for Dragonslayer the game called Dungeons and Dragons would never had existed either. Vermithrax, Galen and Valerian and Princess Elsbeth we all miss you.

  • 4 Robert Kim // Aug 8, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    Actually I miss spelled the Princess’s name in Dragonslayer, it was Elspeth. I would love it if they were to do either a sequel to or a remake of Dragonslayer just to see how it would turn out and to see if anyone could prove what most people say, that the original movie lacked good actors and a better story line. Personally I know that will never happen because nothing is better than the original. Which is why Dragonslayer came out back in 1981 not today.

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