Cult film review: Dragonslayer (1981)

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.

2 thoughts on “Cult film review: Dragonslayer (1981)

  1. I saw Dragonslayer again a few months ago, while I couldn’t call it a great movie it is at least an interesting and surprisingly grim one in places – especially for Disney. The fate of the poor Princess is so *shocking* and unfair it really does show that it’s a film with concealed (dragon’s) fangs. You’re right that it deals with a possible medieval society in much more rigorous terms than usual, and once again it’s unusual for a Disney film in the cynical or, rather, realistic way it shows how (any) society might choose lies over truth. The behaviour of those in charge, the “nobles”, is strikingly sickening and many of the ordinary people aren’t much better. That the Princess someone who has a real sense of honour and purity of spirit about her ends up the way she does is wrenching. It’s a film about things not necessarily being what they seem and the difficulty of change, not to mention the corruption, venality, self-protecting ignorance and moral vacuity of some of those in power.
    McDiarmid makes for a good, unduly smug “holy” man – who gets his in the nastiest way.
    Peter McNichol is fine as the compromised, vulnerable, naive “hero”, as is Caitlin Clark (I think that’s her name). Of course, Ralph Richardson gives good value eccentricity! Strange to think that McNicol would go on to Sophie’s Choice then to play an amusing weirdo in Ghostbusters II before portraying likeably peculiar lawyers “The Eel” in Chicago Hope and “The Biscuit” in Ally McBeal, among other roles.
    Yes, Vermithrax is still the greatest and *scariest* cinematic dragon. Fabulous effects.
    Hey, I must admit I also really like Krull!


  2. Oops, I meant *MacNicol*. Oh, and look there’s John Hallam alias Light from Doctor Who’s Ghost Light playing a murderous amoral scumbag!


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