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Dragonslayer (1981)

Directed by Matthew Robbins. US. 1981. PG. 108 minutes. Paramount. 35mm.
Fri., January 22, 2016
Friday
January 22, 2016
10:00 pm

“The story, for anyone who has never been a small child or seen ”Star Wars,” is about a bold young man who sets out to save a kingdom, aided by the invincible powers of his wise and somehow immortal mentor. Steadfast young Galen (Peter MacNicol) is a sorcerer’s apprentice to the wry old Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), who functions here much as Alec Guinness did in ”Star Wars.” When Ulrich appears to die at the film’s beginning, he sends Galen on a mission to Urland, a place that is being terrorized by a dragon. The dragon’s name – I get this from the credits, not from having heard it roll off anyone’s tongue during the movie – is Vermithrax Pejorative.

The only way the people of Urland can keep the dragon at bay is by sacrificing virgins at regular intervals. Accordingly, one of the Urlanders who comes to fetch Galen is Valerian, a young woman disguised as a young man. This is the only way Valerian can think of to keep herself out of the lottery that selects virgins for dragonfeed. Galen falls in love with Valerian, but he, too, fails to think of other means of saving her (this is a Walt Disney co-production, after all). So Galen does things the hard way and proceeds to battle Vermithrax to the bitter end. Anyone who isn’t sure who the victor will be must have momentarily forgotten the movie’s title.

…However, Mr. Robbins’s overall accomplishment is one of creating a mood, and he does this well enough to make up for the film’s occasional cumbersomeness. The outdoor episodes, filmed in Scotland and Wales, are spectacularly scenic. And the two young leading actors are fresh and disarming, particularly Caitlin Clarke, who plays the tomboyish Valerian with a sweetly transparent gruffness like Debra Winger’s in ”Urban Cowboy.” The whole cast is sturdy and convincing, with particularly memorable appearances by Mr. Richardson, Peter Eyre as a coolly corrupt king and Sydney Bromley as the sorcerer’s ancient sidekick.

As for the dragon, he is clever and frightening, but if this were simply a monster film, he might not be monster enough to carry it. The dragon is most often seen in pieces – a claw here, a scale there – or from a great distance as he flies through the sky looking smaller than a pterodactyl. Though he emerges for certain long scenes to breathe fire at Galen, he remains impassive and – even for a dragon – unknowable. And whenever the movie begins concentrating on the dragon, working up a head of steam to match his own, it seems to cut away from the battle and worry about something new. ”Dragonslayer” has a great deal of charm, but it doesn’t have the relentlessness that would have made it a full-scale adventure.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)