Before Peter Jackson adapted and made them the successful, Academy Award franchise they became, The Lord of The Rings series had been coveted since its initial publication (1937-1955). Creative artists from all across the board had desperately tried to adapt it; the most interesting instance was when The Beatles got ahold of it. They tried to get Stanley Kubrick to direct it in the 1960s (John as Gollum, Paul as Frodo, George as Gandalf and Ringo as Sam). Kubrick felt the books were unfilmable (and I guess 2001 wasn’t?), and you know, The Beatles were starring in it. John Boorman (Deliverance) also tried to pursue it, but that fell through as well. He didn’t let that get him down; he made the Arthurian epic Excalibur in 1981. That same year, Matthew Robbins, a close friend and collaborator of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, made his directorial debut with the blatant Tolkien clone, Dragonslayer.
Dragonslayer is both an homage to and a ripoff of The Hobbit. While The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has the ring, Dragonslayer has the amulet. However, what Dragonslayer lacks (as well as what most other fantasy films of that period lacked) is a sense of adventure. There’s an epic scope and a mystical quest, but the mystical quest gets buried in the existential journey of Galen Bradwarden (Peter MacNicol). Bradwarden is a young sorcerer determined to prove his worth to his dead mentor Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), by helping a kingdom get rid of a dragon. That sounds like a fun premise, right?
Well, it would be if that’s what they focused on. Sure, there’s dragon stuff in there; Galen does fight the dragon and there is a great scene of a dragon terrorizing a virgin girl. Unfortunately, its appearance is largely limited to intermittent appearances of flying over the kingdom. The large majority of the film is Galen proving himself to King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre) as a viable sorcerer. However, when his attempts fail, the King dismisses his successes due to his possession of the amulet. Galen then becomes a wanted figure who is eventually jailed before he finds his freedom. Not to mention the existential journey isn’t even fulfilled; Ulrich comes back from the dead and helps Galen slay the dragon. A better title for this movie would be The Sorcerer’s Apprentice if it wasn’t already taken. Maybe I feel cheated by this movie because of the title.
If you weren’t already able to tell, the story suffers from not being streamlined. There’s a brief romantic subplot that’s glossed over in one scene between Galen and Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), a girl initially disguised as a boy so she wouldn’t be sacrificed to the dragon. There’s also this rivalry between Galen and this random soldier Tyrian (John Hallam), but granted it is based in something; Tyrian killed Ulrich (but it’s still stupid because Ulrich asked Tyrian to stab him to prove his magical powers. It’s kind of like Obi Wan and Darth Vader in Star Wars IV but stupid). Still, it’s too sporadic to be taken seriously.
The problem is, the movie doesn’t want to be streamlined; it wants to be an epic fantasy in the way that The Lord of the Rings is. The strongest cinematic influences I detected in this movie were the films of David Lean and 2001: A Space Odyssey. To give credit where credit is due, the movie does have an epic feel; the music by Alex North (who did some of the music for 2001) and the photography of the landscape by Derek Vanlint is accomplished. However, it can’t just be the mise en scene that’s epic; the story needs to be as well, and the plodding pacing gets old very quickly. Robbins loves to focus on the landscape, but we’re not watching the film to stare in awe at landscapes.
I don’t want to just single out Dragonslayer; the part of Excalibur I’ve seen and the original Conan the Barbarian suffer from these same issues. There’s a certain amount of pulp that we desire from fantasy films (Alien, which was photographed by Vanlint, might be the only fantasy film that gets away with epic, slow pacing); after all, they are childish and naive in nature. We don’t want lyricism; we want romanticism. In my humble opinion, the only pure fantasy film to come out of the 1980s to succeed where these movies failed was The Princess Bride.