Let’s Backtrack: “Dragonslayer” at 40

Yes, more frivolous stuff.

The film “Dragonslayer” was released on June 26, 1981, forty years ago.  A box office failure at the time, it has gone on to be a cult classic. Its titular dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative, is considered one of the greatest dragons in film history, all done with practical effects.  The film scores highly on Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie raised eyebrows in 1981 for its partial nudity because this was a Disney co-production, alongside Paramount. It stars Peter MacNicol (Ally McBeal, Numbers) as Galen, a sorcerer’s apprentice; Caitlin Clarke, a widely regarded stage actress; and Ralph Richardson, one of the three giants of British stage theatre (along with John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier). MacNicol actually hates the movie, and doesn’t list it on his CV. But many in hollywood love the film, especially for its special effects and believable fictional medieval setting.

A review found on wikipedia says:

Dragonslayer is a compelling and often brilliant fantasy film; it is also, however, a movie which is at odds with the normal internal structure of the typical “hero myth”. It first tries hard to evoke a certain time and place and then tries just as hard to reject the necessary, and expected, limitations its particular setting and historical era impose. To put it bluntly, Dragonslayer is not content to conform to the strictures of the genre and to tell a rousing good story; it seeks, as well, to impose modern sensibilities on its medieval characters and plot—twentieth-century political, sociological, and religious sensibilities which only serve to dilute its particular strengths.

– Von Gunden, Kenneth Flights of Fancy: The Great Fantasy Films, McFarland, 1989

I disagree.  As allegory, it makes brilliant political and social commentary of today without breaking the fourth wall.  The willingness to challenge the audience and make them think without relying on tropes is a breath of fresh air.  Why should movies set in fictional lands (especially fantasy tales) follow real-life medieval history?  This was a far more interesting and better made film than most “swords and sorcery” films of the era (e.g. Conan, Krull, Clash Of The Titans).

This was one of the film’s trailers.

The full film in was uploaded (illegally) to youtube, in widescreen format:


  1. says

    I loved Dragonslayer when it first came out. It’s interesting to me to find out that the young apprentice that I enjoyed in Dragonslayer is portrayed by the same actor who played the older, abstruse mentor in Numb3rs: It really is as if he played both sides of the same relationship 30 years apart. And it is just as interesting to me to discover that he hates the movie. I wonder why? Now I saw it when I was pretty young, but I also so it a couple more times in high school (VHS or cable or something, probably cable). I think that, even with my innocent and inchoate tastes at the time and the lens of nostalgia today, I would know if it was junk. I don’t think it was.

    Curiously about 2 or 3 months ago I thought about looking the movie up online & watching it again, but didn’t get around to it. Now I think I will.

  2. drken says

    40 years? That make me feel old. I used to watch this movie on basic cable back in the ’80s. I didn’t know Peter MacNicol disowned it. He was in Battleship, for FSM’s sake and that’s the one he’s embarrassed about? It was different than the usual swords and sorcery tales I was used to, which made it quite enjoyable. I haven’t heard hide or hair of it recently, so it’s nice to hear it’s got a loyal following. A quick look for reviews revealed that Roger Ebert gave it a good review, too bad that didn’t translate into better box office returns. Thanks for reminding me of this movie, I’m going to have to search for a copy of it somewhere.