When talking about swords and sorcery movies, what we’re really doing is slapping a fairly vague label on an extremely broad genre. Swords and sorcery distinguishes itself among other fantasy genres through what should be obvious means: there are swords, and probably several magical people in robes finding themselves opposite said swords. From that simple starting point, the genre sub-divides into several other categories. Perhaps most recognizable is the barbarian movie, characterized by hyper-masculine heroes like Conan or Prince Talon from The Sword and the Sorcerer. Films like these are fairly naked in their goal of being male power fantasies, a hormonal dream of strength, sex and violence, all of which can be a lot of fun, but swords and sorcery has more to offer than just rippling biceps and chain-mail bikinis. Take Dragonslayer, for example: rather than a sword-wielding beefcake, our hero is a baby-faced apprentice sorcerer trying to find himself and slay a dragon at the same time. Far from the titillation of The Sword and the Sorcerer, Dragonslayer‘s approach is a tad more thoughtful, and one perhaps more relevant to its core audience of adolescents. When you combine this with the film’s now legendary special effects, it’s no wonder that Dragonslayer has the devoted following that it does.
Peter MacNicol, in his first screen role, plays Galen, the eager pupil of a powerful mage. His aging master is approached by the people of a nearby village with a plea for aid. Their village, it seems, isn’t too far from the lair of a dragon, one the local ruler keeps placated with virgin sacrifices. Naturally the townsfolk want this to stop, so they enlist Galen’s master as a dragonslayer. However, before the quest can get under way, the old wizard kicks the bucket, leaving Galen as the only one who can save the day.
By moving away from the peerless heroes of the barbarian genre, Dragonslayer opens itself up to much greater possibilities in terms of characterization. Galen, in stark contrast to the self-assured heroes of barbarian movies, is equal parts over-confident and under-confident, going through several phases of bold and humble before coming out with just the right amount of confidence that he isn’t constantly losing father figures as a form of penance. This care towards characterization goes a long way in helping Dragonslayer carve out a niche within its genre. Like Galen himself though, the film’s narrative has a fair number of stumbles along the way. The pacing is extremely odd, enough so that the film frequently feels jumbled in its storytelling, and new elements and characters are introduced rather carelessly, like the princess who shows up around forty minutes in, a whole new main character suddenly dropping into our laps with very little warning. Galen’s story arc happens in fits and starts, and numerous members of the supporting cast seem to constantly be waiting offscreen to briefly snatch away the narrative reins so that they can get in an arc for themselves. Obviously there are ways to balance multiple character arcs within one broader narrative, but Dragonslayer feels awkward in its attempts to do so.
This doesn’t, however, keep the film’s writing from working just fine on a scene-by-scene basis. The characters are all well-defined and play off each other well, and there’s a very distinct vein of tongue-in-cheek humor running through the whole thing. It only pops up here and there, but when it does, Dragonslayer takes on a very subtle Discworld vibe that will doubtlessly put a smile on your face.
When Dragonslayer comes up in discussion, it isn’t the occasionally wonky storytelling that tends to dominate the conversations. The centerpiece of the film – and the reason it’s so beloved among lesser-known swords and sorcery films – is the dragon of the title, and good golly is it a sight to behold. A gorgeous, elegant creature brought to life entirely with practical effects, the dragon is the main reason why you watch Dragonslayer. It’s an effect that gets hyped a lot, but one that lives up to that hype. The design of the creature is gorgeous, realized via a wide range of miniatures, optical compositing, stop-motion and even some full-size props. Looking at the finished product, it’s not at all surprising that it took a quarter of the film’s budget, eight months of work for artists like Phil Tippett and Brian Johnson to pull off.
Dragonslayer is far from a perfect movie, despite what its more ardent fans may tell you, but its flaws aren’t numerous enough to justify its obscurity, and they’re more than balanced by the many things the film does right: solid characterization, legendary special effects, and an overall fun and breezy atmosphere. It may be a tad scattorshot at times, a bit unfocused and maybe even too long by twenty minutes or so, but when it’s functioning as intended, it lives up to its reputation as an unsung high spot in the genre.