Dragonslayer (1981)

Dragonslayer (1981)

“I think you’re nothing but a boy — an apprentice!”

When an aging sorcerer (Ralph Richardson) is killed, his apprentice (Peter MacNicol) — accompanied by a young woman (Caitlin Clarke) who has been living as a boy — sets out to slay a vicious dragon known as Vermithrax Pejorative.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Fantasy
  • Medieval Times
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Witches and Wizards

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that given “this exceptional fantasy by Disney Studios was dismissed by critics and did poorly at the box office,” it “will be a pleasant surprise, especially for adults.” He notes that it’s “set in an age when magic and superstition are on the downswing, and Christianity is making inroads among the scared, ignorant people” who live in a “small hamlet, where virgins are sacrificed to the hungry [dragon] to keep it peaceful.”

He points out that the “film presents a magical world — the countryside, the medieval hamlet, the castle and its dungeon, the dragon’s lair — in credible fashion,” and notes that “the enormous fire-breathing dragon is one of the great monsters of the cinema,” “like a Ray Harryhausen masterpiece” but “with remarkably precise movements.”

He adds that “the confrontations with the dragon are absolutely spectacular” (the “special effects were provided by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic”):

… and notes that while “there are a couple of time when the brutality is too strong for young viewers”:

… it’s “otherwise… everything a fantasy film should be,” including “imaginative, intelligent direction by Matthew Robbins” and “fine performances by MacNicol (after you get used to him), Clarke, [and] Richardson.”

This film certainly divides viewers, with some (like Peary and other online viewers) extolling its virtues, and others, like DVD Savant, referring to it as “not at all bad, but lack[ing] the spark to fully capture the imagination.” Savant does highlight the truly “marvelous” special effects, describing the Go-Motion animated dragon thus:

Basically a variation on the classic dragon, it flies like a dive-bomber, breathes fire and crawls on its folded wings like a bat. Seen only in small doses until his confrontation with the outclassed Galen [MacNicol], the monster looks lean, mean and fueled by hellfire. [Animator Phil] Tippett manages some great shots with moving cameras; the creature crawling out of the cave-haze, rearing up and vomiting yellow flame at the cavern ceiling. It looks reptilian and is given just enough personality to be loathsome.

Also of note are the highly effective sets and cinematography, with much of the movie shot on location in Scotland and Wales. Fantasy film buffs will surely want to check this one out, though it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography
  • Impressive special effects
  • Excellent use of location shooting

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for the visuals.


2 thoughts on “Dragonslayer (1981)

  1. Superb film. Significant in the development of SPFX in that it was the first extensive use of Go-Motion. A stop motion technique pioneered by Phil Tipett on The Empire Strikes Back for a couple of very brief moments.

    Here it’s used for all the scenes of the dragon. It utilised computers to deliberately blur frames in the stop motion process to remove the staccato effect called persistence of vision.

    Great script, excellent performances and direction … a real sleeper.

  2. First viewing (5/6/21). Not must-see but it apparently has cult status among fantasy fans.

    The influences are apparent: ‘King Kong’ (the sacrificing of young women), ‘Godzilla’ (the fire-breathing), Harryhausen, etc. And its storyline is not wholly original in general (i.e., sorcerer and apprentice).

    Still, its approach is effective-enough to hold interest and the film becomes particularly engaging in its last 30 minutes – with its overall energy level getting a boost at that point. Alex North’s score is strong without being oppressive.

    The atmosphere of the period is nicely represented and the dragon effects are striking. Though it’s not my kind of flick personally, it works well for what it is.

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