There’s a fairly clever bit of dialogue in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona where Chris Eigeman’s character wonders aloud about sub-text. It’s a wonderful, seemingly random bit of conversation that remarkably solidifies Eigeman’s character. The upshot is that Eigeman’s character is lost as to all this ‘sub-text’ nonsense people keep bandying about, and he eventually asks what is the part of the story that isn’t the sub-text. The text, comes the quick answer, naturally. It’s a strange bit of conversation that probably sounds useless, but in the context of the movie it speaks volumes for the way the character thinks, and his reaction to the answer he’s given says even more.
If that character from Barcelona had only ever seen one movie, and that movie was Dragonslayer, his confusion might not be at all surprising. Dragonslayer is a film so completely riddled with sub-text, and a sub-text that is so straight-forward, that making serious statements as to where the text ends and the sub-text begins is quite a tricky affair.
Dragonslayer has been all but forgotten now, but this 1981 gem managed to get nominated for Academy Awards for both effects and score (though Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Chariots of Fire cleaned up that year, taking these two awards and several others between them). On the video store shelves this one now blends in with thousands of other sci-fi/fantasy, budgetless choices, so it’s easy to forget that this is a ‘real’ movie.
Dragonslayer is (sort of) the story of Galen, wizard’s apprentice. A certain King and Kingdom have long been under the thumb of a dragon, and a certain adventurous group, led by the upstartish young man Valerian, from that Kingdom, have sought the aid of the wizard Ulrich. Though mention is made of other wizards, this is a tale that is in every way about passing the torch, and the actual existence of such other wizards is doubtful. And, though Ulrich reminisces about a time when the sky was black with dragons, the one we’ll see in the movie is very old, and other dragons are most likely off in the realm of the often talked about, but never seen. This is a world where magic exists, but people are as surprised as you or I would be to see it actually performed, and they’ve seen a dragon.
Getting back to the story, Ulrich agrees to dispose of the dragon, but in the course of events that are marvelous in their simplicity, Ulrich dies. In a bizarrely literal metaphor, he passes the torch to Galen, who undertakes to fill his master’s shoes. We are soon made aware of the ‘agreement’ the King of this land has with the dragon, whereby a virgin is sacrificed twice a year. The lucky sacrifice is chosen by a lottery. This puts a dramatic spin on things several times throughout the film. Not the least of which being when it is discovered that Valerian is actually a woman who has been raised as a boy since birth. Not to mention when the King’s daughter learns that her name (along with the name’s of many a rich person’s daughter) has been left out of the lottery, and in retaliation she fixes the contest in the other direction.
We move along with our bumbling hero, played to near perfection by the then completely unknown Peter MacNicol, who is pulled in too many directions by the death of his master, the thrill of adventure, a budding romance, and newfound powers he doesn’t understand.
But, none of this, or little enough of it anyway, has much to do with what the story is about. In this fantasy realm of dragons and magic, Kings and wizards, the dragon is not really evil, and the hero is not really good, at least not in such a way as you would call ‘good’ or Good. The dragon is just a beast doing what beasts do, though he has a nose for powerful wizards, and everything we see that’s really causing a problem (or being mercilessly mocked) is either the government, or the church. The dragon may be eating virgins, and toasting people alive into the bargain, but the government is handing the virgins over, and the church is bound and determined to have every last man stand still in front of the flames. The more or less right-minded do-gooder may take his lumps along the road, and the actual killing of the dragon may ultimately be far more the result of another sort of sacrifice, but at the end of the day it’s the King who is farcically named the Dragonslayer. “Dragonslayer” itself is something of a confusing, and thus wonderful, title for the film, because our hero obviously goes about it, but there is also a semi-magical weapon named Dragonslayer. Our reincarnated original wizard actually slays the dragon, and as I just mentioned, the King is also named Dragonslayer before it’s over. So who, or what, is really the Dragonslayer? The easy answer, of course, is simply Time, marching on as it will, pulling the world from one age to the next.
Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that no one really got anything in the end. The world is rid of dragon, but it’s rid of it’s last wizard as well, and the King goes on his merry way, and he was the problem in any case. The church, such as it is, lays its own sort of claim to the slaying of the dragon as well, and it rallies around the victory. No one, simply put, seems to really be any better off, except of course for Galen and Valerian who ride off into the sunset. When it’s over, nothing really ‘happened’, and that’s either crazy, or it’s the whole point, or both.
There are a lot of ways to look at Dragonslayer, and there are a lot of things it’s saying. From the almost laughably non-sub sub-text of the role of government, religion, the wealthy, and the ability to struggle alone, to the more legitimately referred to as ‘sub’ sub-text of government, religion, the wealthy, and the ability to struggle alone. Seriously.
Given the climate of 1981, co-writer/director Matthew Robbins probably had a few other angles in mind. Angles which are brought home rather nicely by the fact that it was indeed Raiders of the Lost Ark (a fine enough movie) and Chariot’s of Fire (mostly insipid Oscar bait) that elbowed Dragonslayer aside, though in all fairness, Dragonslayer’s score is often overbearing. It’s the same old game in movies as it is in anything else, and in 1981 ‘indie’ didn’t really mean anything. The upstart ‘wizard’ who tried to do anything was battered, abused, and ridiculed if what he tried went wrong, leave aside the fact that he was probably the only one willing to try. But, should he actually succeed against all odds, well the King comes along with as much pomp as possible and claims the credit.
These far-reaching thematic points may be great, of course, but it’s the details that really make Dragonslayer a masterpiece. There is a scene which might almost be comic in another movie, in which we see what happens when the virgins are sacrificed. A girl is chained to a post, and struggles to free herself before the dragon comes. We watch her far longer than we would expect, and though this is not necessarily a plus, here it is wonderful. She delivers a ferocity of abject fear and desperation (as it obviously should be when you think about it) that has us nervous she’ll start gnawing her arm’s off at the wrist. This is a scene you can see in countless movies (many only metaphorically of course), but this is the only one that approaches a serious level of believability, and actually transfers the desperation. There is usually no ‘real’ tension in these scenes, though the audience may be a bit nervous in the ‘boo’ sort of way, because in all those other movies either the girl or the audience (or god forbid both) knows that help is coming. Here we all know it isn’t. When this girl’s wrists start to bleed, the audience becomes involved in a scene almost like no other scene ever filmed.
Even a movie long on delivering its thematic content will not normally have the conviction to stay so true to such a level of outright despair and hopelessness. Any remotely happy moment is immediately met with someone getting killed, thrown in a dungeon, or blasted with dragonfire. That might sound bad actually, because a movie has to have happy moments, or at least less-intensely miserable moments, and Dragonslayer does have them. What’s unusual is that it has them to exactly the degree that it needs them. It doesn’t spin off from the world it’s created just because it figures the audience wants something to be happy about. It stays true to the world and situation it’s created.
Finally, the movie is just as strong based only on the actual text. That is, simply as a genre piece, a thrilling, adventure fantasy, it is still a winner. We have a hero, who despite being something of a goof, we are able to back. The story is laid before us, allowing the situation and characters to take hold, before we are thrown into the real action. The dragon doesn’t make a real appearance until well into the film, allowing us to unnerve ourselves better than the movie could anyway. This particular aspect is heightened even more by the fact that the dragon is there in several scenes before he is finally revealed. The script is in every way (text or sub-text) a cut above anything that can remotely be compared to it, and that includes anything before or since. And, considering the genre we have, the acting is superb. Sir Ralph Richardson, easily one of the best actors of all-time, plays Ulrich, and though it’s a very small part, he manages to put his own shine on it, just as he did in 1984’s Greystoke, which was just about his last work. Caitlin Clarke (then completely unknown, still almost completely unknown) does just as good a job as Valerian.
Dragonslayer is a film removed from convention, with a script that has an unparalleled ability to say at least four things whenever it says anything. It creates a chilling, stark, hopeless atmosphere, yet is somehow overall rather light-hearted. Even from a strictly directorial front, it could provide a great lesson to many of today’s high-profile players. More movement, less camerabatics.
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