So, let’s just come out and admit it: there were a lot of bad movies in the eighties. And especially, there were a lot of bad F/SF movies. There were a lot of people who, having seen the success of Star Wars, were convinced that they could do the same thing, either by blowing their money on special effects and not bothering to write a decent story (Lifeforce), or worse, by NOT blowing their money on special effects, and STILL not bothering to write a decent story (Yeah, that’s you Buckaroo Banzai). There were movies that tried to blatantly rip off other, better movies (Explorers and Starman).
But every now and then you got a real gem of a film that managed to do it mostly right. And it hovered on the background of your consciousness until you finally watched it. And for me, that film was Dragonslayer.
I think the thing that stood out for me was this: I can think of few films that used their limited special effects better. Oh, sure, you can tell that the director was stretching 1981’s technology to the breaking point, and by our standards today, it’s pretty laughable. But considering how difficult it was to film something as complex as a dragon (spaceships are easy by comparison) the results were stunning.
But mostly what blew me away was the dedication to telling an actual story that I, who live in a time of gritty anti-heroes, found refreshing. I really don’t want to spoiler this film (which can be watched for free on Amazon Prime: go watch it!), but roughly, it’s the tale of Galen, a sorcerer’s apprentice, whose master, Ulrich, is approached by a delegation of commoners whose kingdom is beset by a dragon. Their king is appeasing the dragon by feeding it virgins by “lot,” a lottery that his own daughter and those of his nobles are curiously immune to. Ulrich is killed by the king’s captain of the guard, Tyrian, whose lord doesn’t want to take the risk of upsetting the dragon, and Galen is left to attempt the deed himself, with only his master’s amulet to give him any power at all.
While the writing is sometimes clumsy and rough, the movie as a whole was like a breath of fresh air. Galen, our hero, is neither a whiner nor an overpowered Gary Stu. He just decides he’s going to get the job done, and faces it with courage. Valerian, his love interest, who has grown up disguised as her blacksmith father’s “son” to save her from the lottery, is actually believable in that role, and not a knockout beauty that leaves you wondering whether literally all the men in the village are blind. Casiodorus, the appeasing king, has a backstory that makes his cowardice understandable, if not pardonable, and probably believes, on some level, that he really is doing what’s best for his kingdom. Taken together, the heroes use brains and courage to defeat the dragon Vermithrax, and it’s a great ride.
In these days when men of physical courage and authority are often derided or suspect by definition, and the ninja supergirl is often called upon to improbably save the day, it’s a tale that recalls a more innocent time.