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There are many movies that fall under the label of classic, and that label carries weight. It normally implies in the sense of film that they have something or many things that sets them apart from other films. Classic doesn’t always mean good, as there are movies that have a cult following because they are so bad, or unique. On the opposite side it can mean that a movie is good. Dragonslayer is such a movie, but what makes a movie good? In the case of Dragonslayer the movie is made up of many layers that give it depth and meaning that is more than just a bunch of moving pictures. Each scene has a purpose and that purpose is well throughout. Also, in each scene there a multiple meaning to everything that is shown.
The story follows Galen Bradwarden, played by Peter MacNicol as the apprentice to the Sorcerer, his mentor and friend Ulrich of Cragganmore, played by Ralph Richardson. The story has a simple premise of a man that must kill a dragon. One night an envoy of villages led by a young boy called Valerian, played by Caitlin Clarke asks for help from Ulrich to eliminate the dragon called Vermithrax Pejorative. Before greeting the villages, Ulrich tells Galen that when Ulrich is dead Galen will be tested shortly after he is gone. Galen dismisses his masters warning of his future as he is only concerned of his master’s health and well being. Galen didn’t want to believe that his master was going to die.
Ulrich meets the villages and agrees after learning what the dragon’s name is. We are informed that Ulrich knows this dragon by name by the scales and claw that was shown to him by Valerian. Ulrich goes into more detail as he talks of times long ago when dragons and sorcerers ruled the skies and that without sorcerers there would be no dragons. Its information like this that is spread throughout the film that makes it more than just a film with a simple plot and characters. The discussion goes on to explain that for the king to make peace Vermithrax he agrees to setup a lottery where virgins are sacrificed which Ulrich declares is “barbaric.” Knowing of the sacrifices Ulrich agrees to go.
The next day he gathers his belongings including a magic amulet. Galen and Hodges, played by Sydney Bromely, his loyal old servant prepare to leave when they are stopped at the gate by Tyrian, played John Hallam, a Royal Guard to King Casiodorus Rex. Tyrian not believing that Ulrich is Sorcerer challenges him to a test where he kills Ulrich with a dagger that is retrieved by Galen. Ulrich is cremated and Hodges gathers his ashes that he takes with to Urland. Galen finding his master’s amulet calling him. Galen now believes that he is the new Master and Dragon Slayer and he accompanies Hodges on his journey to Urland.
On the way, Hodges goes into depth of Galen’s brashness and overconfidence while also implying that he had no love his late master. This good as it goes into detail as to what challenges Galen will face later on. Later they come across the villages and join up with them. The next day Galen discovers that Valerian is actually a woman and that she has been playing a boy for so she would avoid being put into the lottery. After this Galen receives a vision of Tyrian aiming his bow at Hodges. Galen rushes to save him but Hodge was shot. Before Hodge dies he gives Galen the sack and tells him “fire water” which he does not understand. Believing himself to be all-powerful he attempts to heal Hodges but he learns with a sharp pain as the amulet burns him that he can’t save him, telling us and him that he cannot heal the dead or dying and that even with power it cannot solve all your problems. This is great message and in only a few shots.
On the way to villages home Swanscombe, Galen asks to see the lair. Afraid but determined he enters, he doesn’t see Vermithrax as he is scared away by a cloud of smoke from Vermithrax. Exiting, he proceeds to use the amulet to seal the lair with a boulder overlooking the entrance. He is successful however; the amulet takes further control away from him and it creates an avalanche that buries the entrance. Greil, one of the villages witnesses this and doesn’t understand how it was done. Greil isn’t someone who believes in magic, or let alone understand it.
Later at the Swanscombe Greil is talking to the priest, brother Jacopus played by Ian McDiarmid asking how it was possible that the avalanche happened. Brother Jacopus informs him that miracles are possible with faith. Meanwhile, Valerian believing that the Vermithrax is dead decides to reveal herself to the village that she has always been a girl. The village goes quiet when she reveals herself. Feeling awkward and about leave Galen starts dancing with her, breaking the ice. We are shown that from the lair that Galen is overconfident but we also are shown that Galen has a kind heart and is caring for those around him. The festivities are stopped when the king’s Royal Guard led by Tyrian invade the party and take Galen to see the King.
King Casiodorus Rex watched on his throne as Galen performed basic magic acts like making a chicken appear from under a sheet. The king bored asks Galen to show him how he sealed the lair. Overconfident Galen proceeds to use the power of the amulet to move a table in the middle of the room. The table shakes but that is all as the amulet fails to respond to his command. King Casiodorus Rex calls Galen a fraud and tells him that long ago his predecessor King Gazerick, his brother was a brave man and he thought that he could kill the dragon but he didn’t return. The King explains to Galen that after that he made a deal with the dragon that has brought peace to the land. Galen hypes up and asks “At what price?” The king displeased with this stranger claiming to be a Dragon Slayer and Wizard coming to his land and challenging his rule and removes Galen’s amulet and sends Galen to prison after receiving a beating first.
While Galen is in prison at Vermithrax lair the earth begins to shake as Vermithrax begins breaking out. Princess Elspeth played by Chloe Salaman goes to speak with Galen in the prison and tries to explain to him that her father is a good man. Galen turns his head showing her that he was beaten, stopping her on that point. Changing the subject Galen brings up the lottery. Princess Elspeth tells him that she has always put her name in since she became of age. Galen not believing her tells her that she doesn’t have to lie to him. The whole village knows that her father keeps her name out and to those that pay him a boon. Shocked from the news she goes to confront her father who is trying to turn lead into gold with the amulet but is burned. She is further shocked when her father admits it, she knows her father loves her, but couldn’t believe till that moment that he would let others suffer so she could live. Vermithrax escapes and begins burning Swanscombe and the castle. Princess Elspeth ashamed of her father lets Galen out. Galen now free goes to retrieve his amulet from the king but is stopped by Tyrian and the Royal Guard. He manages to steal a horse and narrowly escapes the castle but without his amulet.
Later that night a group of villages including Greil and Priest Jacopus go to the lair to pray to God that he smites Vermithrax. Priest Jacopus preaches to his flock that Vermithrax will be destroyed if they have faith. While this is happening Vermithrax makes the ground shake beneath them and a tree fall down scaring most of the villages away. Priest Jacopus continues to preach in anger as Vermithrax rises behind him. Jacopus continues his tirade calling Vermithrax the “Devil” when Vermithrax burns him alive in a graphic display. Greil off to the distance watches on mesmerized at the seal of Jacopus.
The next morning Tyrian and a few Royal Guard go to Swanscombe and go to Emrys’ workshop looking for Galen. Emrys and Valerian who is also there deny that they have seen Galen. Tyrian with no trace of his prey informs Emrys that all must attend the next lottery that is to take place later that day and that all virgins must attend, meaning that Valerian must attend. Emrys not taking it threatens Tyrian that he hasn’t put his daughter forward before and that he won’t do it now. Valerian jumps in and tells him that she will attend and that she’s not afraid and that she is no better than any other that has gone before her. Tyrian satisfied leaves. After Tyrian leaves Galen appears as they had hidden him beneath the floor. Galen asks Emrys if he as ever crafted a weapon before. It then cuts to them hauling up a chain by a waterfall and opening up a long metal cage that holds a heavy spear. Emrys test the blade as it is able to cut some metal like a hot knife through butter. Emrys tells Galen that he calls the spear Sicarius Dracorium “Dragonslayer.” Galen believes that the blade is good but not good enough to pierce Vermithrax’s hide and that he needs the amulet.
That night at the castle all the virgins a brought into a robe barrier. At first glance you see a lot of young women in the barrier however, there is also young men there. During the lottery the Chamberlain played by Roger Kemp draws a lottery token. During this time Galen sneaks into the castle to find his amulet. The Chamberlain pauses when he looks at the token. Valerian catches her breathe in the silence of the Chamberlain. She demands that the name be called which makes the king order the Chamberlain to read the name. The Chamberlain reads out Princess Elspeth. The king orders a redraw which rallies Valerian to yell “let it stand!” which makes everyone follow en suite. The king orders a new name to be drawn. The chamberlain draws a new token and is shocked that it is Princess Elspeth again. The king decides that the draw is invalid and draws another name and is shocked at the name. It is Princess Elspeth again which shocks him to check the rest of the lottery tokens. Valerian demands for the name to stand riles up the crowd. During the rally of anger from the people Princess Elspeth steps up and charms the crowd saying that all the tokens have her name on it and that she didn’t know of her father’s betrayal to the people and that her act of rigging the lottery re-a-firms the lottery as her name is now in it and that she will go to her fate. After the ceremony the king asks Tyrian if he can stop the sacrifice but Tyrian is loyal to the kingdom, it shows that he has loyalty and that it is more than just who wears the crown. Which also explains why he was at Cragganmore at the start as he believes that a Sorcerer which he doesn’t believe in will disrupt the order of the kingdom and that there is peace while the people are being sacrificed. It explains his motives as being more than just he is a typical bad guy. He has a reason for what he is doing, it might not be right but under the conditions of being a guard to the kingdom would you think the same as if in his position.
Galen managing to sneak inside the castle searches through the king’s belongings, opening up drawers, cupboards and chest. He is suddenly stopped when he is ordered to halt by the king. Tyrian and the Chamberlain as well as a few guards are behind the king. Tyrian charges forward ready to kill Galen and as he approaches, Galen demands “That if you’re going to fight me, than at least give me weapon, or don’t you have any honour?” Tyrian doesn’t care and is about to kill Galen when the king orders him to stop. The king begs for Galen to save his daughter and tries to say that he has always respected sorcerers trying to appease to Galen’s pride which at this point he as moved beyond. He only wishes to save the people and kill the dragon. King Casiodorus places the amulet on the table which he had around his neck which considering since the beginning of the movie all we have been shown and told of the king is of his greed. And shown earlier he was trying to turn lead into gold confirming that point, but with the idea that he would lose his daughter he would do anything to save her. There are many layers within this short clip that those with power still have something that they are afraid to lose, and that they although seem heartless still care for those that are close to them. It shows us that he is human and not some heartless being that doesn’t care for others at all. Galen takes the amulet and leaves.
Back at the Emrys’ workshop Galen holds the amulet out in front while holding the spear in the other hand begins casting a spell on the tip of the spear. The tip glows white hot with a magical chime. Emrys begins working on the blade, making it sharper. Valerian watching own as they work. Not to distract them she goes on a walk and having an idea she takes a basket by the lair collecting scales. While near the lair she decides to take a peek inside the entrance where she comes across some baby dragons that scare off.
Complete, Galen with Dragonslayer, a helmet and some chainmail heads to the lair ready to save the princess. On the way up the mountain side he pauses briefly so he could put his gear up on a ledge before he climbs up. After putting the gear on the ledge, he is staggered by a strange item that is dropped on top of his gear. A shield made of scales Valerian explains to him. She tells him that Vermithrax has younglings. He thanks her as he goes to leave when she stops him by making the point to say that it would make sense that he would want the princess as she is beautiful and that they would be happy together. Galen stops and lets her know that yes, the princess is beautiful but he doesn’t love her. There was no reason why he would, he leans in going to kiss Valerian letting her that he loves her for strength. She thought that all men cared about was how beautiful women were and that was all that mattered, which is understandable considering that she had been pretending to be a boy all her life, but she never at any point degrades men for being brave. Although her temperament is pervasive at times, she cares for both the men that have gone to face the dragon and to the women and men that have been scarified to the dragon. After they kiss Galen tells her that he’ll be back but she doesn’t believe him and leaves in huff, Galen walking off moments later. She stops and look back has Galen continues towards the lair.
That night at the lair the princess is carted in and chained to a newly put up stake with three dragon head at the top. The Chamberlain begins the right while a large group of villages looks on. Galen appears shortly after in a cloud of smoke and threatens them to leave which they do after he yells at them like ordering a horse with “ah” sound. Galen hops down and is about to cut the princess down when Tyrian shows up. Galen admits that he has plenty of reasons to kill him but he doesn’t have the time. A fight between the two breaks out while the princess command in the background for them to stop. Although Tyrian is clearly the better fighter Galen has the spear with gives him an advantage of length. Tyrian has shown that he will do anything to maintain the peace of the land and if the princess is to die than it is a means to an end and he would happily play his part. During the fight Galen is able to get close enough to the princess and cut her chains with Dragonslayer. At this point Princess Elspeth has the choice to leave, but she chooses to head into the lair. On one hand you would think its brave, but on the other it is stupid. We understand that she wants to go through with it to make up for all the virgins that have died before her. However, it also shows that being brave can lead you to your death as we hear her scream in the distance as Galen is still stuck fighting Tyrian. At the end Tyrian ends up behind the stake and Galen on the other side; Tyrian believing that the spear can’t pierce through the wood but Galen just stabs him right through the stake as if it wasn’t even there. Tyrian death at one point would have meant a lot to Galen but now it only serves a nuisance and he rushes off to confront Vermithrax.
A short distance inside he is disgusted to see two younglings feeding on the princess and as one bites off her foot. He stabs it in the neck killing it, then he cuts the other one’s head off. About to move on he his attacked by a third that was hiding in the rock and during its surprise attack he drops Dragonslayer and his shield. He manages to grab his torch and crush its skull. Now it was Vermithrax and himself. Heading deeper inside he finds a lake of fire and jumps across some stones heading to the centre of the large lake. Behind him bubble emerge from the water as the Vermithrax begins rise above him. Looking at the water he sees a lizard head behind him and turns to see Vermithrax in its entirety. The practical affects that went into the creation of Vermithrax still hold up. The detail is on its head are beautifully crafted, in a monstrous way of course. Vermithrax inhales preparing to burn Galen and as it does Galen raises the shield protected him. Vermithrax tries again and like before it does not burn its prey, angering it. It raises its head up blowing flames into the ceiling like flamethrower. Galen takes the chance and rans out for the exit coming to a dead-end. Vermithrax is chasing after its prey when it comes across its children and it then that we see its anger as it lets out a all mighty roar. The subtle motion in its body language makes this point very clear from the slight movements in its head as it looks down own its children. Heading further in it comes across Galen’s shield and about to stomp on it when Galen jumps down from above and thrust Dragonslayer in its neck before being thrown. Galen manages to strike its neck again. The tip of the spear stuck in its hide as he is only left with a handle.
Outside the lair Valerian is walking around when she finds Galen lying on the ground. She takes him home and we are shown her more caring side as she is comforting him as he sits in the bath trying to figure what to do next. Emrys talks in the background advising Valerian that maybe she should leave and that there is nothing in her home now and that maybe she would be happy with Galen somewhere else more peaceful. Emrys also says that magic is leaving the world and that maybe it wasn’t as important as it once was in the old days.
With Emrys blessing Valerian leaves with Galen heading to river where they had arrived from earlier. As they are on their way to the river Greil has taken up the mantle as priest as he begins baptising the villages and telling that god is on their side and that through the power of faith and being pure of heart god will smite the “Devil.” At the river Galen is resting when the amulet gives him a vision as he looks in the river of “fire water,” he realises running back to the lair what Hodges meant. Valerian following behind as they reach the lair. Galen saying that she shouldn’t go in, but she says that she is brave, she used to be a man as they enter and go to the lake of fire. Galen takes out the sack Hodge’s gave him chanting a spell and spreads the ashes of his master in the lake. The fire dies down, then a green fire emerges with his master appearing out of the fire. Ulrich thanks him, Galen telling his master that he wasn’t strong, that he failed. Ulrich informing that he was strong that he will be stronger yet as he commands Galen to destroy the amulet and his master with it and that he will know when the moment is right. Ulrich also lets Galen know that with the destruction of the amulet it will end magic in the world.
Ulrich baits Vermithrax sending in clouds of lightning to strike it down from the skies. The lightning although a little dated they are epic in scope and in the power presented by Ulrich, showing the true to of the amulet. While this is happening Greil is baptising Emrys and telling him to have faith in god. Vermithrax comes back and tries to burn Ulrich but it does nothing except pissing it off. It comes back again and claws Ulrich across the shoulders stunning him. Finally, Vermithrax goes in again and grabs Ulrich in its talons and flies off. Valerian believing that now is as good a time as any and grabs a rock to smash the amulet. Galen stops her and tells her that he will know when to do it. The amulet glows like star and with regret his smashes the amulet, his master exploding; killing Vermithrax. Dead, its body smashing into a nearby lake setting the water on fire.
The next day at the lake, now a crater. Vermithrax broken and mangled corpse now laid. King Casiodorus Rex arrived in a carriage, walks over to the corpse and places the tip of his sword on the corpse and with that his Chamberlain declared he was the one that slayed the dragon. Also, coming over a ridge is Greil with his flock chanting and praising god that he saved them. Galen and Valerian looked on and without saying a word left leave. They were done. The villages didn’t know what really happened and the king didn’t care since all he had left was his crown.
Heading towards the next village which was quite some distance away both Galen and Valerian were arguing about how far they had to go. Valerian chimed in saying that they have each other, Galen joked that he wished they had a horse. If on queue a white horse comes over hill to the distance. They look at each other in amazement at the sight and they ride off into the setting son as a happy couple.
To understand the layers is to look at the whole movie from start to finish and from scene to scene. To say that it has layers tells you nothing and the only way is to go through it. Films of the 80’s are rare in what they bring to table compared to modern cinema. You would be lucky to get a few layers in a film these days while in each scene in Dragonslayer it was made of multiple layers of meaning, character development, dialogue, action, plot and story. It is a sign of a great film that on a first time watch you would miss so many subtle clues throughout. I have highlighted many, but I’m sure I missed some in my review. Film is art as are words on a page. The detail that goes in a correct sentence can tell you so many things. Furthermore, this shows by explaining it scene by scene that it has a lot of depth and to make this review short wouldn’t do the film justice. When in writing if there is no depth to what you’re creating than you are in part creating nothing of substance and value and that layers bring a work to life and give it meaning beyond the superficial.