Dragonslayer (1981)


Dragonslayer is the child of Jaws and Star Wars, the long-lost uncle of The Hunger Games, and in some ways better than all three. While it has gotten some publicity recently – Guillermo del Toro has praised the special effects and called for a blue ray release– it is still far too obscure. If only because of its transgender heroine, Dragonslayer deserves to be watched by the Millennial Generation.

The film opens in the very early Middle Ages at the castle of an elderly sorcerer. Ulrich, played by Ralph Richardson in one of his final film roles, has two companions, a very old man named Hodge, played by the veteran English actor Sydney Bromley, and Galen, a young apprentice barely in his twenties played by Peter MacNichol. A knock on the door reveals a Valerian, a young man played by Caitlin Clarke, and a group of rough, working-class men, all of whom have com to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing a Vermithrax Pejorative, the dragon who has been terrorizing their homeland, the Kingdom of Urland. A flashback to Urland reveals why. Casiodorus, their king, has pursued what for lack of a better term might be called a “policy of appeasement.” Every year, a virgin is chosen by lot to be sacrificed to the dragon. The horrifying scene that follows reveals why Valerian is so determined to have Vermithrax Pejorative killed. A young woman is wheeled out to the dragon’s lair and chained to a post. As she struggles to free herself from her handcuffs, we become aware that the dragon is not only stalking her. He’s toying with her, letting her believe that she might get away before he closes in for the kill. Guillermo del Toro has praised the design of Vermithrax Pejorative, but what really makes it work is the aura of malevolence that hangs about the monster, the sense of being in the presence, not only of a cinematic dragon, but of something genuinely evil.

When Tyrian, the King’s thuggish enforcer played by the bearded, swaggering 6’4” John Hallam, who has been stalking Valerian exactly the same way the dragon had been stalking the virgin sacrifice, we begin to understand what Vermithrax Pejorative represents. Much like the Vietnam War draft lottery, which had ended only a few years before Dragonslayer was made, the lottery in Uland to choose the yearly virgin sacrifice is corrupt. The rich pay bribes to keep their daughters from being chosen. The burden of keeping the dragon satisfied falls disproportionately on the working-class. Tyrian, who represents that corrupt social order, has come to Ulrich’s castle to make sure young Valerian can’t find anybody to help him lead a revolution. After Tyrian asks Ulrich for proof of his authenticity as a sorcerer, the old man offers him a knife and tells him to stick it in his chest. “You can’t kill me,” Ulrich says, just before Tyrian does just that, plunges the knife into his heart, and sends him to the floor in a heap of blood and old bones. Suddenly, the movie seems to end right there. We won’t get to see the great magician battle the dragon, or so we think. We will hear from Ulrich again. Anybody who’s seen Stars Wars or Lord of the Rings realizes how difficult it is to kill a wizard played by an elderly British actor.

After Galen cremates Ulrich, and Hodge fills a cloth sack with his ashes and hangs it around his neck, the young man offers to take his elderly master’s place. Valerian and her company, having little choice, accepts. On the way back to Urland, we see another dimension to the oppressive social order the dragon represents, patriarchy and the gender binary. When Galen unexpectedly comes upon Valerian taking a swim, he realizes that she’s not Valerian at all. She’s Valeria. Her father had disguised her as a boy before she entered puberty to keep her out of the lottery. Her quick transformation back into a woman after Galen apparently kills Vermithrax Pejorative by bringing a rock slide down on the dragon’s lair indicates that perhaps Dragonslayer has a more complex insight into the gender binary than director/screenwriter Mathew Robbins realized he had created. Galen’s arrival in Urland, and his willingness to take on the corrupt social order of King Casiodorus, has liberated Valeria from Valerian, has made her feel safe enough to become a woman after years of having been forced into a gender identity she hated by her well-intentioned father. Indeed, when she puts on a dress for the first time and dances at the Kingdom’s celebration of Vermithrax Pejorative’s apparent death, it feels like a coming out party. Even after the dragon claws his way out from under the earth, proving himself more of a menace than ever, she doesn’t go back to disguising herself as a boy. Instead she submits her name to the lottery – a new sacrifice will have to be chosen to appease the now especially wrathful dragon – and demonstrates how determined she is to live as a woman, even if being means her possible death.

Enter the Princess Elspeth, King Casiodorus’ daughter played by Chloe Salaman. How the cowardly and stupid Casiodorus managed to become the father of so beautiful and genuinely noble young woman left me confused when I first saw the movie at age 16. But it’s clear that, like Galen and Valerian, she’s part of the upsurge of Urland’s youth against the corrupt patriarchy that condemns the working-class girls of the town to become food for the monster. After Galen shames her out of her initial denial – she believes she had always been in as much risk as any peasant girl – Elspeth “checks her privilege” and stuffs the lottery with so many ballots with her own name that her getting picked as dragon food is a foregone conclusion. Casiodorus then attempts to shut the lottery down altogether and throw in his lot with Galen and Valeria, but Tyrian, the real power behind the thrown, mounts a coup, and condemns the princess to her death. Casiodorus is merely a corrupt appeaser. Tyrian is the human reflection of the dragon himself. Before he can fight the dragon — armed with a spear specially forged by Valeria’s father and a shield made up of dragon skins by Valeria – Galen has to kill Tyrian, an unlikely feat he manages with great difficulty, but not before Elspeth is killed and eaten by Vermithrax Pejorative’s babies.

I can’t express just how disturbing this scene was to me as a 16-year-old. It certainly should have been rated R, not PG-13. If anything, I find it more horrifying as 50-year-old then I did when I was in high school, not because it’s necessarily frightening, but because it so eloquently expresses how such a noble soul as Elspeth can so easily be reduced to a hunk of meat. The relatively primitive technology of the day actually contributes to more than it distracts from the horror, the coarse movements and facial expressions of the baby dragons eloquently speaking to the obscenity of the senseless destruction of a young life. How many young men so their friends in Vietnam butchered just as needlessly for the corrupt social order? Galen, now confident in his own powers as a warrior after killing Tyrian, and enraged over the princess’s death, easily slaughters the dragon’s litter and bravely takes on Vermithrax Pejorative himself, but it’s useless. The dragon is too powerful, too malevolent, to be killed by a twenty year old with a spear and a shield made out of dragon scales. Only a genuine wizard, which Galen realizes he is not, can overthrow the reign of terror in Urland.

Re-enter the elderly Ulrich. Ulrich had been right when he told Tyrian that “you can’t kill me,” but he had not told Galen or Valeria, only Hodge, who Tyrian had murdered shortly after he and Galen left Ulrich’s castle. Having battled Vermithrax Pejorative to within an inch of his life, however, and having realized his own inadequacies, Galen has a revelation. Ulrich isn’t dead. Instead, he’s been temporarily transformed into the pile of ashes in the cloth sack, which Galen and Valeria spread over the water in the dragon’s lair, bringing the old man to his mortal form. Ulrich, the good father, had been with Galen all along. Now that Galen has been transformed from a boy to a man, and Valeria from a boy to a woman, the old wizard is ready to give his life to free the world from the monster’s wrath. Galen has only one final task. He must destroy a green amulet, an object similar to Tolkien’s ring of power, which embodies all of Ulrich’s magical powers and which he has been carrying since the old man’s apparent death. “You’ll know when,” Ulrich tells his apprentice. After Ulrich offers up himself as a sacrifice, mirroring Elspeth’s own decision to die for the good of the common people, Galen and Valeria suddenly understand what he means. The black arts, like Vermithrax Pejorative, and like the corrupt social order of Urland, must be destroyed so the next generation can live and prosper, so that Galen and Valeria can get married and live happily ever after. After the dragon snatches up Ulrich, carrying him off, or so he thinks, to be his next meal, Galen and Valeria smash the amulet. This sets off a massive explosion inside Ulrich himself, blowing Vermithrax Pejorative to bits, finally freeing the Kingdom of Urland from its long reign of patriarchal and class terror.

Note: Am I reading too much into a Disney movie? Maybe. But I also think that like the best B movies of classic Hollywood, Dragonslayer wound up being a much better movie than anybody had planned.

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