Throwback Thursday: Dragonslayer is Not Your Typical Hero Quest

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Last week, I looked at 1981’s Clash of the Titans. Another fantasy film from the same year that tends to get lost in the shuffle is the Paramount and Walt Disneys coproduction Dragonslayer. It follows the tale of Ulrich, who could be the last sorcerer in the world, and his apprentice, Galen, as they decide to undertake a quest to kill a dragon that is terrorizing a neighboring kingdom. (Side note: I think our lives would be much more fulfilling if we had more quests in our daily lives. Such as, I went on a quest to pick up a package from the post office. Epic!)

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Dragonslayer theatrical poster

The early ’80s had a string of fantasy sword-and-sandal epics, usually produced cheaply and quickly. Dragonslayer deserves to stand out for a number of reasons. Before I get into those though, since the rest of this column is pretty spoiler heavy, I recommend watching the film first. There’s some tweaking of some basic fantasy tropes and the special effects are well designed. So take some time, watch it, and then come back. I’ll wait.

Okay, you’re back. Good. Hope you enjoyed it. Let’s talk about it. Spoilers ahead for a 34-year-old film.

First and foremost, the hero’s quest is more focused. Most films tend to focus on the main evil, then have a number of other sub-evils that the hero must destroy, usually to help get the hero closer to beating the main evil. Clash of the Titans is a prime example of this. Even Conan has subquests to complete his main quest in his films The Barbarian and The Destroyer. In Dragonslayer, Galen and Ulrich suffer a big blow at the beginning of the story and then Galen spends the rest of the film getting ready for the final fight. Sure, there’s a crafting of a mighty weapon, but really no minor evils. An argument could be made that Tyrian, the captain of the guard, fills this role, but the showdown between him and Galen happens immediately before Galen’s attempt to kill the dragon and he stumbles through the fight. By the end of it, Galen really hasn’t gained any knowledge.

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Valerian (Caitlin Clark) and Galen (Peter MacNicol) ready to fight a dragon

There’s a subsection to Galen’s fight with the dragon where he kills the dragon babies (does that make Vermithrax the dragon a single mom, or single dad?), but it’s still a part of his main battle. I stand by my idea that Galen doesn’t go on a traditional hero’s quest.

Another unique idea to this ’80s film is the role of female agency. Valerian, the youth who attempts to gain the help of Ulrich, turns out to be a woman disguised to keep herself from a lottery in which all females of the kingdom are required to participate twice a year to determine who will be sacrificed to the dragon. Think Hunger Games, but just for women, and no fighting—just sacrifice. When the dragon is thought dead, Valerian comes out to her village, revealing she is a woman. One father who lost a daughter is upset, but this line of thinking is quickly stopped by a fellow villager who says, “You would have done the same thing if you thought of it. Don’t hate your loss, but be happy for her life.” The villager adds, “The damnedest thing is she was twice the man of anyone else in the village, and now she’s twice the woman.” Very rare dialogue in this genre. The hero quest is additionally diverted by the role of Princess Elspeth. Most stories follow the pattern hero kills bad guy, hero gets princess. Even the princess expects this a bit. But, when confronted on the subject, Galen chooses Valerian because with her is where his love is, not with the princess.

Speaking of Princess Elspeth, she also fights against the standard narrative. When she finds out the lottery is fixed, she does everything she can to rig it in her favor so that she is chosen to be the sacrifice. Even more unique, when Galen gives her a chance to escape, she chooses death. The hero has not saved the princess. Shocking!

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Bob, from The Walking Dead, and Elspeth both suffer from foot in the mouth disease.

There is another interesting thing about the ending. Galen has his battle with Vermithrax and fails. He doesn’t even kill the dragon. For a hero quest, he doesn’t do too hot—fails to save the princess and fails to kill the big bad. After his battle, he’s ready to pack it all in and go hide with Valerian. However, he gets an idea and is able to bring Ulrich into the battle. Really, the final-final battle is Ulrich versus the dragon with Galen helping as his apprentice.

Has Galen learned anything by the final frames of the film? Yes, he has. He’s much more mature and has found love. The film is set up as a hero quest, but it’s much more of a coming-of-age story.

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Galen fighting Vermithrax.

So, with the plot and characters stepping outside of the standard tropes, how do the special effects hold up? Vermithrax looks amazing and, up until the final battle, the filmmakers wisely rely on hearsay and glimpses of the dragon to build up the danger. But, for Galen’s battle, the artists at Industrial Light and Magic (the first time an outside production used ILM) really outdid themselves. I would stack up Vermithrax against some of the full CGI modern-day dragons of The Hobbit or Game of Thrones for detail and heft.

All in all, Dragonslayer is a darker fantasy that has a little more going for it than audiences initially expected. I would recommend it for its subversion of standard tropes and the special effects.

This film can be found on DVD (sorry, no Blu-ray). It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but is on Amazon streaming. Streaming films change frequently, though, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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