Thursday, December 3, 2009

"I've always had the greatest admiration for the Black Arts..."

Just finished re-watching one of the greatest fantasy films of all time: DRAGONSLAYER.

And let me just say, while many people (myself included) might lament that is doesn't have a lot of quality competition, it is still an excellent, excellent movie. Definitely the best fantasy film of the 80's (and I say that as both an admirer of Krull and a grand appreciator of Conan the Barbarian). I've watched Dragonslayer three or four times in my life, and every time I see it, I am amazed at how well done a film it is.

I've said more than once that anyone interested in running an Ars Magica saga would be well advised to watch Dragonslayer as a source of inspiration...the bordering of pagan spirituality and magic upon the Church and "civilized" feudalism. But these days, of course, I am more interested in D&D (specifically B/X D&D) and the movie works well as an inspiration for this, too.

Certainly I am seeing things that I wouldn't mind adding to my B/X Companion set (say, a certain magical amulet? the shield and spear are already present...). But what I find most cool is the damn dragon. That thing is the closest thing I've ever seen to a D&D dragon.

Seriously: let's look at the thing. It's big, ja? But certainly it's claws aren't big enough to warrant damage of more than 1D8 (the same as a standard red dragon). Oh, sure it can pick up a frail, old man but it ain't making off with a horse or a cow. And it's certainly not big enough to swallow anyone whole (aka a 3rd edition red dragon...see the DD3 PHB for images). On the other hand, its breath is an f'ing BLOWTORCH...and I love the sound f/x they threw in the film for this critter. Simply awesome.

Even the handling of religion in the film is great (who doesn't like Emperor Palpatine as a not-too-bright cleric?), and certainly could be put into a D&D context...these poor guys are pretty much 1st level, certainly lacking in divine "power." I know that some folks have written this film makes a mockery of Christianity (and those reviews have been positive regarding this), but as a lifelong Roman Catholic, I don't quite see it that way. God and organized religion certainly has its place in helps teach folks not to be assholes for instance...but just believing Jesus is going to save you is NOT the ticket to a nice afterlife, nor even a pleasurable life on Earth. "God helps those who help themselves" (or put another way, the Universe gives us the tools but we need to wield them)...there are valuable lessons to be learned here.

Oh, and if it seems that the newly baptized Christians are giving too much credit to their Creator and not enough to the young magician...well who exactly invented humans and heroism and, yeah, probably magic, too? Jeez...give credit where credit is due.

It still surprises me that Dragonslayer was co-produced by Disney...entirely too much blood and nudity for your average Disney live-action flick. Ah, well...they don't make 'em like THAT anymore. My one gripe regarding an overly "family friendly" tone is when the guard captain vehemently says, "You meddler!" Instead of the more appropriate "You bastard!" or "You peasant whelp!" Ah, well...had to keep the PG rating I guess!

It IS a good film. The characters are realistic with their own genuine motives. The pragmatic guard captain...the idealist princess...the king that doesn't believe in hocus pocus but is willing enough to try his hand at changing a little base metal into gold. The wizard who, while wise and potent, still wants to make sure he looks good for the gawking proles and isn't above using a little flash powder for good effect. The grog...excuse me, valued henchman...that has to carry all the gear but has nothing but praise for the benevolent old master that deigned to allow him to cook the eggs.

Even the chick, Valerian. One might ask, hey, she's a little fast to put on a dress there, huh? No she ain't. Why the hell do you think she was willing to hike a hundred leagues to look for a savior? She a damn teenage girl, even if she was raised to be a tom boy...she'd sure as hell like the opportunity to wear a dress and dance with a boy...shorty apprentice-sorcerer or not!

Look, I am a huge fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings triology, and I say that as a pretty big Tolkien fan...the damn things always choke me up and bring a tear to my eye (no, not for the plight of Frodo and's the damn Rohirrim charging to certain death...gets me every time!). But prior to those certainly Oscar-worthy films, I can't think of a single fantasy film of better quality than Dragonslayer. Hell, in some ways it may even be a bit better. I can only hope that when Jackson produces his new Hobbit flick, he takes a page from Dragonslayer when designing a mean and realistic Smaug.

Hell, what's Peter MacNicol up to these days? Maybe he can play Bilbo! After all, he's fairly short and he's got the curly hair...and he's got to be about the right age as the esteemed Mr. Baggins was when he set out on his little journey...someone needs to get hold of Mr. MacNicol's agent....
: )


  1. You know, JB, it's gunny you say that about the Rohirrim scene. The first time I saw the scene with Theoden's big speech before they charge off down the hill into battle, I got a little choked up myself. That hit me hard, man.

  2. @ Koren: That's what I'm talking about. Folks facing certain death against impossible odds...but than going to battle anyway not just because they have to, but because it's the right thing to do...and not just marching grimly, but CHARGING, throwing themselves into the fight, preparing to sell their lives as dearly as possible? Damn that's powerful stuff.

    F'ing vikings on horses, man! Love it! Shake those axes at Valhalla!
    ; )

  3. Dragonslayer's definitely a great movie, agreed. But I don't think it was totally without worthy adversaries as far as fantasy flicks go. As uneven as the acting was, the fantasy elements in Legend are still wonderful to watch, and for sheer mythical-essence-meets-medieval-grit, Excalibur cannot be surpassed. Of course, YMMV.

    (As for MacNicol's curly locks, he seems to have more forehead nowadays than I recall him having in the 80's.)

  4. I am constantly amazed at how well the Dragon in Dragonslayer stands up after all these years. Hell, as far as I'm concerned, she is the best. Much better than the CG ones I've seen in other movies thus far (dragonheart springs to mind here). The movie itself is very much a step above the other fantasy flicks of its era—and like JB, I'm a fan of a lot of those (corny though some may be).

    I also have to agree about the religious implications. I was never offended by the way religion was treated. In fact, I thought it was a pretty good object lesson on using your god-given smarts and talents to overcome obstacles, rather and waiting for some other power to solve things for you.

    Great great flick. In fact, I may watch it this weekend.

  5. Oh, and p.s. how cool of a Dragon name is Vermithrax Pejorative?

  6. Very very cool name. Between her, Smaug, and Ancalagon the Black, I'm determined that any and all dragons in my campaign will be a)cool-named and b) well-storied.

    And what a wonderful film! It captures the feel of the Dark Ages better than most any other one can name--I love the palpable Roman remnants in the culture; it's basically postapocalyptic.

    And the end is so epic--the crescent moon, Vermithrax hurtling through the sky, the way Ulrich stills the clouds with a gesture, etc.


  7. If Vermithrax has a serpent jaw, she could eat the virgin sacrifices whole I imagine. I love the fact that characters in the movie have real homey locations - The lake of fire, Ulrich's crumbling keep, Castle Urland, and the Blacksmith's great workshop. LOTR was great because they built those bloody sets too.

  8. When I was young I caught "Dragonslayer" as a surprise sneak preview before a scheduled screening of "Clash of the Titans". It was a total surprise and thrilled the audience that was there for Clash. There was lot's of cheering and even a round of rowdy applause at the end of the film. After a brief intermission Clash of the Titans started and a good sized portion of the audience melted away before it was over as it just didn't stand up to Dragonslayer.

    Dragonslayer was great, it was a dark, gritty, personal tale that covered well established ground in masterful fashion.

    If you can find the novelization get it, I can't imagine it would be disliked by a fan of the film. My worn out copy was read many a time and surely influenced my D&D campaigns for years.

  9. You ispired me to watch this movie.

    It has been in my collection for years, and I have tried to watch it several times, but I keep losing interest at about the time where the apprentice brings the cliff-walls down and seals up the cave-entrance.

    Never been a Peter McNichol fan. I blame it on that horrible Ghostbusters 2 movie.

    I watched Dragonslayer all the way through this time. I agree, the dragon was cool.

  10. I've got a full-sized theatrical release poster for this movie kicking around in my work room. I need to get around to having it custom framed like I did my Conan the Barbarian theatrical release poster (with serial number and everything).

    I won't repeat what you said, just agree that this is a real hidden gem of a movie, and that Vermithrax stands up to any CG dragon I've ever seen, and wins hands down.

  11. I don't think there is blog post I agree with as fully as this one. Esp recognizing Dragonslayer as a great movie and still being able to appreciate CtB and Krull for their sort of awesomness.

    I think gamers particularly are attracted to this movie cause it's so much like a 1st lvl adventure.