The cult film that is often forgotten by fans, Dragonslayer was a unique experiment from Disney to tap into an older, more sophisticated audience. Featuring special effects from ILM (the first time they worked on a non-Lucas movie), the dragon Vermithrax is still regarded by many as definitive and unsurpassed. Sir Ralph Richardson stars as the aged wizard Ulrich whose assistance is sought by the people who tire of chaffing under the rule of King Casiodorus who sacrifices young virgins chosen by lottery to appease the dragon. After years of denying his responsibility as a wizrd, Ulrich finally decides to prove himself and is killed by a brutish centurion. This leaves Ulrich’s young charge Galen (played by Peter MacNicol) to defend Urland from the creature. With hardly any teachings and only a basic understanding of magic, Galen insists on challenging Vermithrax, but the real threat could come from not from the fire-breathing creature, but rather the impact of the dragon’s death has on the society.
Dragonslayer explores the social workings of a medieval culture controlled by fear. The young Galen is so eager to prove himself that he fails to realize that all of Urland is steered by the dragon and the terror that it instills. When the dragon is apparently killed, far more complicated problems arise and Galen is not regaled as the hero that he hoped to be. After it becomes apparent that the dragon survived Galen’s attack after all, things get dangerous and the young apprentice must come out from his master’s shadow and become his own man.
Dragonslayer is a great film and re-watching it, I was partly surprised by how much I remembered from my many viewings on cable from the music to the script and visuals. I was also happy to see a young Ian McDiarmid before he made his mark as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. It’s the kind of movie that sticks with you. Sadly, it failed to make a profit on its 18 million dollar budget. Nominated for several awards, it lost out to many others such as Raiders of the Lost Ark which eclipsed Dragonslayer that year.
If you have never seen this rare gem, give it a try.