by Dan Sallitt

This article appeared in the Chicago Reader on June 26, 1981.

Has anyone else out there been waiting for an adult fairy tale? Dragonslayer arrived just in the nick of time to save me from institutionalizing my cynicism about the wave of kiddie-oriented films that dominate the modern American cinema. Star Wars and the films that have followed in its tradition have used the structure of the fable primarily as a means of signaling the audience that the mind's higher critical functions should be put on hold; we are expected to enjoy a children's movie, not despite, but because of the very incongruities that would vitiate a piece of grown-up filmmaking. In this context, it is pleasant enough merely to find that Dragonslayer takes itself seriously. The characters are capable of being affected by the circumstances in which they find themselves; the love story is integrated into the adventure, and not treated as a diversion; humor is used to complement, not to undercut, the film's gravity. But director-writer Matthew Robbins and producer-writer Hal Barwood have done more than simply avoid a number of fashionable pitfalls; they bring a very subtle stylistic ambiguity to play on the elemental story, structuring the film on the tension between layers of rich imagery. It remains to be seen how the adult and youth audiences will react to their ambition.

Dragonslayer is a coproduction of Paramount and Disney Productions, and certainly contains the most daring footage ever seen in a Disney film. One brief but unequivocal shot of nudity is surprising enough; even more startling is a truly unnerving scene, worthy of the Brothers Grimm, in which the dead body of a sympathetic character is partially devoured by the dragon's offspring. My reference to the Brothers Grimm is intended to imply that Dragonslayer, though perhaps a little too intense to meet current standards of children's entertainment, is nonetheless not without worthy precedents. In fact, to call the film an adult fairy tale is a little misleading: its seriousness is that of a serious child, not that of a serious adult. For instance, the sorcery in the film is not simply taken as a given (which is usual), but treated with a surprising matter-of-factness; an adult filmgoer who is regressing generally gives himself away by wanting a fuss made over his regression. In general, all the elements of fairy-tale myth are incarnated with such naive realism that they can be easily used for artistic purposes other than the traditional ones. Thus, a dragon need not always threaten us with fire; it can glide eerily through a chilly, turbulent nighttime sky, or play a sadistic game of wits with a victim. The artistic benefits of this flexibility shouldn't be underestimated.

The basic story is a familiar mythic structure with few frills attached. In medieval England, a dragon terrorizes the kingdom of Urland, whose people have taken to sacrificing a virgin each year to appease the monster. A group of peasants, unsatisfied with this form of detente, journey to the castle of Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), an old sorcerer and dragonslayer with a young, callow apprentice named Galen (Peter MacNicol). Ulrich, who sees that the time has come for his apprentice to find his way in the world, precipitates his own death and sends Galen, armed with Ulrich's magic amulet and a very insecure grasp of the mystic arts, off to fight the dragon. Richardson is marvelous as the aging, philosophical wizard, beginning his lines with theatrical resonance and imperceptibly shifting midway into weary discourse with himself. MacNicol seems at first as if he is going to be a problem; his character begins as a wimp, and his acting plays too strongly into the wimpiness. But Robbins and Barwood do not pursue the easy comic option of sending a wimp out to fight a dragon; Galen seizes his destiny with assurance and bravery, if not with perfect judgment, and the film takes as its subject the subtle, rather than gross, differences between boyhood and manhood. MacNicol never develops a very individualized personality, but this is probably for the best; Galen is intended as an archetypal youth, and MacNicol probably serves the characterization best by balancing between diffidence and hubris, between heroism and foolishness.

Galen's love interest is Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), who heads the expedition of Urlanders to Ulrich's castle. Because of the precarious status of female virgins in Urland, Valerian's father disguised her as a boy from infancy; the filmmakers want us to be surprised when we discover Valerian's sex 30 minutes into the film, but, unfortunately, Clarke is recognizably female from frame one. There is, however, something undeniably rough-hewn and tomboyish about Clarke, and Robbins makes these qualities work for him in the scene in which Valerian comes out of the closet during the festivities that follow Galen's early (and illusory) triumph over the dragon. Rather than opt for a conventional transformation of Valerian into a raving beauty, Robbins has her retain some of her nervous mannishness when she appears in female garb, and the moment when Galen leads her out to dance has a perverse erotic charge, as she wavers in and out of her new status as a sex object.

Robbins's direction, though it keeps a lower profile than the literate scriptwriting, is certainly the source of Dragonslayer's artistic sophistication. His first film, Corvette Summer (1978), didn't impress me or stick in my memory; perhaps the overt giddiness of its plot was at odds with what now seems to be a solemn directorial temperament. The most obvious way to describe Robbins's direction is in terms of his evocative recreation of period atmosphere. However, such a description makes him out to be a placid illustrator, whereas he is actually inclined to create mood that works in counterpoint to the events in the narrative. For instance, during the scene in which Galen leads Valerian out to dance, Robbins eliminates all sound but the flickering of the torches in the wind; the scene is a happy one, but the style conveys the sense of an ominous universe in which happiness is hard-won. (Robbins's use of sound is striking and original throughout the film.) Another of Robbins' tendencies that can be described as contrapuntal is the frequent use of panoramic long shots at moments of peak narrative tension. This sort of contemplative effect paves the way toward a better unifying description of Robbins's approach. Over and over again, vivid surprises and dramatic effects are created, then disposed of without much ado; the story is filled with mysterious and uncanny occurrences that pass serenely into the steady flow of the narrative. The world of Dragonslayer is cruel and inscrutable, but the filmmakers ask us to regard it as a coherent entity with its own patterns and rhythms, not as the sum of its choicest parts.

Many of the flaws in Dragonslayer stem from Robbins' virtues; he is so intent on harmonizing the emotional overtones of the film that he is capable of ignoring the simpler demands of story clarity and balance. Nonetheless, the best moments in the film stand out as vividly as anything done this year. Robbins's finest visual coup occurs during a scene in which the imprisoned Galen manages an escape from a castle that is being destroyed by the dragon's attack. Procuring a horse, Galen rides through the castle instead of away from it; when a wall shatters, Robbins's camera tracks suddenly with Galen into an endless green expanse of countryside, startling because of the claustrophobic feeling of the preceding shots. In another beautiful scene; King Casidorus (Peter Eyre), an unsympathetic character who is now desperate to save his daughter from the dragon, returns the magic amulet that he had confiscated from Galen. As the king puts the amulet down on a table, it moves, as if of its own accord, slowly but steadily across to Galen, with the camera tracking alongside it in extreme closeup. Earlier, we had seen Ulrich draw objects to himself, much more quickly; the amulet's movement simultaneously signifies the distance Galen has come and the distance he has to go, and the long, steady track of the camera asks for both our awe and our patience.

I won't dwell on Dragonslayer's shortcomings; I have a feeling that the film will draw enough fire from other sources. It is just the sort of movie likely to antagonize the public and critics, since adult fans of the children's movie probably require the condescending cues within a film that enable them to feel superior to their own adolescent response. Dragonslayer does not condescend to a childlike view of the world, and many filmgoers will certainly feel that such fanciful subject matter can't be taken seriously. As for whether the kiddies will like it - I don't know. I don't have any confidence in them either.