First of all: groovy dragon, like it puts the Kraken in Clash of the Titans to shame. You have to wait through most of Dragonslayer to see the whole thing, and then you think it’s going to be a letdown, but no, it’s this big ole dragon, very nimble, and quite fleet of wing when it wants to be. Well, it seems the dragon terrorizes the countryside unless it’s given a virgin to roast and eat every six months or so, and the locals are—uh—fed up with this practice (yes, there is a course open to the virgins that would reclassify them and take them out of the biannual lottery, but this doesn’t seem to occur to anyone until about two-thirds of the way through) so they hire a sorcerer, Ralph Richardson, but the job quickly falls to his apprentice, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Elton John. Kid’s got his problems, in fact that’s what the movie is about, and you probably think I’m going to rip this movie or something, given the sarcastic tone so far, but I’m not. I liked Dragonslayer; it has lapses in logic, most of which didn’t bother me (although the most irritating one is pretty dumb, like why doesn’t the hero get fried to death by the dragon’s breath? His dragonscale shield should help him, but when he’s up against rock inside a cave…that’s a lot of heat behind you), and I was disappointed not to find out a bit more about the dragon, like why it should cease its rampaging for a sure-thing virgin. Just a little suggestion of some human-like perversities might have been nice. Still, watching the thing is pretty enjoyable—I’m not about to make any proclamations about director Matthew Robbins’ mise-en-scene being anything extraordinary, but certain moments have stayed with me, like a horse crashing through a wall into an open field; or the dragon in flight pausing for a moment before it goes into a dive, the wind blowing around it seeming to hold its breath for a beat. I also enjoyed watching someone named Caitlin Clarke, and there is some pretty photography of locations that are quite gorgeous. If the filmmakers made a real mistake it’s in callously letting one of the subleads and possibly-intriguing plot complications get killed off. Chickening out of complexities is what robs the movie of any really gratifying resonance, and is why the last gag doesn’t work as well as it should. So why is it good summer entertainment? Well, it’s that dragon—that dragon rules.

First published in The Informer, July 1981.

The kid with the resemblance to Elton John was, of course, Peter MacNicol, his first movie in what would prove to be a hugely enjoyable career as a comic actor. (Mel Brooks’s Dracula—Dead and Loving It has problems, but MacNicol’s Renfield is completely in tune with the spirit of a spoof; in fact he’s what the rest of the movie should be.) I remember having a little more fun at Dragonslayer than at Raiders of the Lost Ark, as heretical as that sounds, but then, I’m a Temple of Doom man myself. Matthew Robbins had previously made Corvette Summer and was a Spielberg accomplice on a number of things; his directing life seemed to peter out after the poor *batteries not included. Caitlin Clarke didn’t land in movies much after this appealing debut (she had a good part in a couple of “Moonlighting” episodes), and died in 2004.

4 Responses to Dragonslayer

  1. Jon Allegre says:

    Please explain Temple of Doom to me. I’m serious. I’ve tried over & over to enjoy it, but I just don’t get it. Is there some source film that I need to watch first?

    I saw Dragonslayer as part of a double-feature at the Everett Drive Inn at a young age. Mind blowing. Although, to be fair, my mind was pretty easily blown at age 4…

    • roberthorton says:

      Short answer: the artificiality of the Indy idea is really well done in Temple of Doom, where everything is exaggerated. Spielberg lets loose every kiddie-matinee stylistic flourish he can think of, which he said he deliberately held back on in Raiders because he was wounded by the flop of 1941–and because of his technical mastery, each one lands with a sort of crazed-but-precise delirium. Although the female character is annoying to some, she actually undergoes a “journey” (if such a word can be used in this popcorn-movie milieu) here, whereas the Karen Allen character in Raiders starts out as one thing and stays there for the entire film. Plus, from the opening sequence on, it’s got a real love of the set-piece. But hey, why don’t I just print the original review? All I have to do is find it.

  2. Jon Allegre says:

    Dammit – Now I’ll have to watch it again.

    I totally agree that the opening sequence is terrific. I guess I’m one of the “some” that are too distracted by the female lead… and the precocious sidekick.

    If we’re lucky, maybe Spielberg will go back and digitally enhance (de-hance?) her annoyance & replace all of the weapons with walkie-talkies.

  3. […] at the time (they wrote The Sugarland Express), not without reason – my affection for Dragonslayer is well known on this site. Their big shot after Warning Sign was *batteries not included, which […]

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