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Film / Dragonslayer

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Dragonslayer is a 1981 Fantasy film produced by Paramount and Disney. A deconstruction of many Sword And Sorcery tropes, the film was considerably darker than the typical Disney movie, which may have caused its commercial failure despite having very good production values for its time.

The movie features a sorcerer's apprentice named Galen Brandwarden (Peter MacNicol), who studies under an old wizard named Ulrich (Ralph Richardson). One day, they are visited by a group of farmers from a distant kingdom named Urland, led by a young man named Valerian. He explains that their land is threatened by a dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative, and that twice each year they feed it a virgin, chosen by a lottery, to keep it from destroying the kingdom. Ulrich agrees to help, but the farmers have been followed by Tyrian, the king's knight. The king of Urland, Casiodorus Rex, is anxious to avoid stirring up the dragon, and Tyrian demands a test of the sorcerer's magic. Ulrich fearlessly allows Tyrian to stab him to death, using his magic to prevent Galen from interfering.

The peasants leave disappointed. Ulrich's elderly assistant Hodge burns his corpse and gathers the ashes in a pouch. Galen starts cleaning out his master's rooms, but then he finds Ulrich's magic amulet. He follows the Urlanders and offers to kill the dragon for them in Ulrich's place. Galen, Hodge, and Valerian set out for Urland to defeat the dragon.

Not to be confused with Falcom's Dragon Slayer games, or Dragon's Lair which not only is a Homonym, but uses the exact same font as the film.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Galen's spear Sicarius Draconum ("Dragon Slayer"), which is aided by a magic fire to make it sharper than sharp. It slices through the anvil with little effort. Even before being aided by magic fire, the blacksmith uses it to slice some strips off of an iron horseshoe.
  • Action Girl: Valerian is the force behind the delegation sent to Ulrich in the first place, and she collects enough scales from the dragon's doorstep, not a safe place, to make a fireproof shield.
  • Agent Scully: Tyrian refuses to believe Ulrich is a real wizard without a test. His rant when told "we don't do tests" suggests he has encountered many fakes in the past, to the point that he is exhaustively familiar with their excuses. That Ulrich failed his test (fatally) only serves to reinforce this.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: The King begs Galen to rescue his daughter, practically grovelling.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Ulrich on Vermithrax. He sorrowfully says that a dragon that old is in constant pain. Not so different from Ulrich, perhaps?
  • Anti-Villain: Tyrian. He truly cares about the kingdom and he doesn't care when the King changes his mind. He feels he must uphold the law.
  • Back from the Dead: Ulrich is raised by Galen near the end of the film to destroy the dragon. He had prepared for this all along by putting his soul into the amulet.
  • Badass Boast: Ulrich can do it with a single word (and Ralph Richardson's a good enough actor to make you believe it):
    Valerian: Are you afraid of dragons?
    Ulrich: No.
  • Before My Time: Casiodorus asks Galen if he had heard of his brother King Gaiseric, the king before him, but then says, "No, of course not, you weren't even born." The fact that the king had already acquired a low opinion of Galen by this point probably played a part in him deciding Galen wasn't very intelligent.
  • Big "NO!": Galen, when he has a vision of Hodge being killed.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Galen fails to rescue the princess. And while Ulrich returned from death to confront the dragon, the battle killed him (again) along with the destruction of the magic amulet. Worse, Ulrich's death is unmourned by others, as the King falsely declares himself the "Dragonslayer" while newly converted Christians attribute the dragon's fall to God's will — though he paid the highest price for the title. The good news is that Galen and Valerian are together and the dragon is indeed slain, and that Galen may yet have magic of his own...
  • The Blacksmith: Valerian's father. We also get a Forging Scene with him and Galen crafting a spear powerful enough to pierce Vermithrax's thick hide.
  • Broken Pedestal: Elspeth gets angry at her father for not including her in the lottery.
  • Bullying a Dragon: One could see Brother Jacobus' attempt to do an exorcism on Vermithrax as this; she reacts as one might expect.
  • Call-Back: The horse that appears before Galen and Valerian at the end? It's the horse that brought the first sacrifice to Vermithrax.
  • Chained to a Rock: All the sacrifices to the dragon (well, to a pole actually).
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Marvel Comics published a two-issue adaptation.
  • Convection Smonvection: Galen uses a dragon-scale shield to protect himself from the dragon's flames, despite them going past it and around him, never mind the heat this should generate as well. He barely survives anyway, and in the Novelization, Galen is suffering the effects of extreme heat, even though it's lessened.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: Ulrich, Master Wizard, vs. Vermithrax, Badass Dragon.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: The King, Casiodorus Rex. The lottery is rigged not to include the daughters of men who can pay. He's also seen trying to use Ulrich's amulet for his own bit of alchemy, to change lead to gold. And when the dragon dies, he quickly arrives, shoves a sword in the burnt carcass, and claims credit.
  • Darkest Hour: A literal example: when Galen throws Ulrich's ashes into the lake of fire, for a moment the music swells as Galen expects to see Ulrich appear. Then the flames die away and the entire cavern goes dark.
  • Death Is the Only Option: The only way for the wizard Ulrich to slay the dragon is for him to allow himself to be killed, twice. His first death puts his soul into an amulet. He later comes back to life, and when the amulet is smashed, his body explodes (killing him again), destroying the dragon.
  • Death Seeker:
    • Elspeth, who tells the village that she wishes to die to make up for all the times her name wasn't in the lottery. Indeed, when Galen frees her, she simply walks into the dragon's lair.
    • Ulrich, whose plan to kill the dragon is to kill himself with the amulet.
  • Deconstruction: The film takes many standard fantasy tropes of the day... and stands them on their heads. The ironic part is that during the shredding of those tropes, this film introduced new tropes and redefined others. For example: A young hero fights a dragon to save the King's daughter from being sacrificed? All of that is subverted.
  • Dirty Coward: The King. For good reason: his own brother Gaiseric, the previous king, led knights into battle against Vermithrax and never came back.
  • The Dragon: No, not Vermithrax. We're talking Tyrian, the King's knight/enforcer. He's still a serious threat even after the King wants Galen to stop the real dragon from killing his daughter Elspeth.
  • Dragons Are Demonic: The dragon (the Vermithrax Pejorative) is just a beast (although one that is incredibly devastating), however from the point of view of many characters it is a demon in the flesh (being a living representation of one of the film's sub-plots, that The Magic Goes Away and is being replaced with Christianity... and the magic is not "going away" quietly).
  • The Dragonslayer: Played with, as is everything else in this Deconstruction.
  • Dung Ages: The film as a whole is rather dark and gritty.
  • End of an Age: There's one wizard and one dragon left in the world at the film's start. Ulrich even briefly holds the crucifix her father gave Valerian, after said father said his Christian conversion was an acknowledgment that magic and dragons were going away. However...
  • The End... Or Is It?: Galen at the end wishes he had a horse, and one appears. In the Novelization, Valerian shuts him up before he can make another wish.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: When the king begs Tyrian to save his daughter from being sacrificed to the dragon, Tyrian refuses. The kingdom, he says, needs the sacrifice to placate the dragon, and his first duty is to the kingdom.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep":
    • Valerian's father is credited as "Valerian's Father" in the end credits. Valerian calls him "father" and Galen only calls him "Blacksmith" during the film. He is christened Simon, however, when converting to Christianity.
    • The first sacrificial victim is credited as simply "Victim" in the end credits. The novelization names her "Melissa Plowman", though she's quite a different character there.
  • Exploring the Evil Lair: Three times, in fact.
  • Feeling Their Age: The sorcerer Ulrich realizes he is too old even to make the journey to Urland, let alone hope to defeat a dragon. So he gets himself killed so he can make the journey as a bag of ashes, and then be magically reanimated just long enough to slay the dragon.
  • The Final Temptation: Before destroying the amulet, it glows more brilliantly than ever. Galen picks it up and gazes at it briefly in wonder — before putting it down and shattering it.
  • Gambit Roulette: Ulrich planned exactly how it would all turn out so well, one wonders whether he rented his own movie and watched it ahead of time on his BetamaxTM scrying bowl. The dude smiles nonchalantly while letting Tyrian stab him in the heart just to keep his feet from getting tired on the journey to the dragon's lair.
  • Gut Punch: When Tyrian stabs Ulrich in a "test" of the old man's sorcery. For several seconds Ulrich just stands there as if he's enjoying this new and different experience. And then the old man's eyes go blank and he slowly sags forward and collapses.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Ulrich's. When the amulet is smashed, his body explodes (killing him again), destroying the dragon.
    • And it's what Elspeth is trying to do, at least.
  • Hope Spot: Subverted. When Galen throws Ulrich's ashes into the lake of fire, for a moment the music swells and Galen looks around the lake, expecting the revived Ulrich to appear. Then the flames die away and the entire cavern goes dark. Then a column of green fire appears on the water's surface, and Ulrich walks out of the flames.
  • Human Sacrifice: How the kingdom has survived having a dragon living within its borders.
    Casiodorus: You came here and toyed with the monster. Who are YOU to risk our people, our villages?
    Galen: But your children were dying!
    Casiodorus: Only a few. Does that sound cruel? It is better that they should die that others might live. I created the Lottery! Me! And from the moment it began, the dragon was tamed. The kingdom has prospered.
  • I Call It "Vera": The lance, Sicarius Dracorum. Also counts as a Title Drop, since it's Latin for "Dragonslayer".
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The King doesn't want to sacrifice virgins to Vermithrax: it's just that previous battles against it led to fiery reprisals where the sacrifices have kept the beast sated. Figuring the dragon was aging and dying, the King thought he was buying time until old age took the dragon. That is, until Elspeth put her name in the lottery... He was also unaware that the dragon had offspring.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Tyrian. Right through that rather solid-looking sacrificial post too.
  • Impending Doom P.O.V.: We see the first virgin sacrifice from the Dragon's point of view, and only get a good look at the dragon's claw or tail.
  • Implacable Man: Tyrian, who's Lawful Neutral to the extreme. He disobeys his King to follow the law. invoked
  • Indy Ploy: Valerian makes a shield made of dragon scales on the assumption that they could withstand dragon fire. It works, but barely. According to the Novelization, the heated air itself nearly kills Galen.
    Galen: (weakly) Still alive.
  • Inept Mage: Galen does have some magical power, largely but not entirely thanks to the amulet, but it doesn't always work the way he wants it to.
  • It's Personal: During the climactic fight between Galen and Tyrian:
    Galen: I've plenty of reasons to kill you that have nothing to do with this sacrifice.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Tyrian's opposition stems from his belief that if a wizard failed to slay the dragon, they'd only succeed in angering the dragon, who would then incinerate villagers in reprisal. Guess what happens?
    • In his first appearance he goes on a skeptical rant when Ulrich flatly refuses to prove he's a wizard. The problem is that requesting somebody demonstrate they actually have the skills you want to hire them for is perfectly reasonable, and by Ulrich's own account there is exactly one real wizard left in the world but plenty of charlatans.
  • Jump Scare / Tempting Fate: Galen finds two dragonets busy tearing Elspeth's corpse apart and chowing down, so he uses his lance to quickly dispatch them. All being quiet, he sets the lance aside to get his torch...and that's when the third dragonet launches its attack completely out of nowhere.
  • Kick the Dog: Tyrian, just in case you might be tempted to sympathize with him, finds Hodge (apparently) alone and promptly shoots him dead with his bow.
  • Language of Magic: Latin. And it's basically accurate, which is cool.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Tyrian "tests" Ulrich by stabbing him in the gut with a dagger. Later on, Tyrian gets killed by being stabbed in the gut with Galen's spear. He even slowly falls to the ground as he dies just as Ulrich did.
  • Last of His Kind: Both Vermithrax and Ulrich. Possibly. Maybe.
  • Letting the Air out of the Band: Done with live musicians when Tyrian and his men ride up during the villagers' celebration.
  • Lottery of Doom: To appease the dragon, all of the virginal women in the kingdom must take part in a twice-yearly lottery: the "winner" is chained up outside the dragon's lair as a meal. Wealthy families are able to bribe the king to leave our their daughter's names and the king's own daughter unbeknownst to her is kept out of the lottery. The novelization says that not all the past victims have been actual virgins either.
  • Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: Played straight. Valerian crafts for Galen a shield made out of the dragon's discarded skin plates, figuring the dragon's own hide might provide protection from the dragon itself. It does, though Galen barely survives.
  • The Magic Goes Away: Ulrich mentions that the age of wonders has come to an end. It's hinted that the dying out of both wizards and dragons are linked to each other.
    • It's stated in the Novelization that the first wizard created the first dragon AND the amulet.
  • MacGuffin: The amulet. Its destruction brings about that of Ulrich's.
  • Mama Bear: Vermithrax flies into a murderous rage when Galen slays her brood.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Casiodorus Rex. There's nothing he can't spin for good PR. In the end, when he claims the title "Dragon Slayer", it's hard to feel bad because he paid the ultimate price: his daughter.
  • The Middle Ages: Of the Dung Ages variety.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The ending leaves it ambiguous whether Galen has some sort of latent magical ability after all (and has conjured or summoned a horse by accident) or whether a horse was simply around the corner by luck.
  • Meaningful Name: Tyrian.
  • Mirror Character: Examining one of Vermithrax's scales, Ulrich notes that she's very old, and that she's probably in constant pain, obviously empathizing with her. During the final battle, one might notice the snake embroidered on Ulrich's headwear.
  • Missing Mom: We never find out what became of Valerian's mother in the film-she's not even mentioned. In the novelization, she was sacrificed to the dragon in the past (changing the "only virgins" idea).
  • Monster Delay: For much of the movie, Vermithrax is shown in bits and pieces: a clawed foot, a wing, the end of its tail, the outline of its head with something (or someone) blocking the head itself... Even when the whole dragon is first shown, it's just a distant shape in the air as it flies over and attacks the town. The audience doesn't see Vermithrax in all its nightmarish detail until at least two-thirds of the way through the movie.
  • Monster Is a Mommy: The dragon has a clutch of hatchlings, which are just as vile as the monster that spawned them and end up being what kills Elspeth, who never makes it to the actual dragon. They are promptly slaughtered by the hero...and then Vermithrax finds the bodies.
  • Motion Blur: This was one of the first films to use "Go-Motion", a variation on Stop Motion in which the model is mechanized so it could move while being shot, creating realistic blurring to make the effects more believable.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Peter MacNicol is shown fully nude, though only observed from behind.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Caitlin Clarke is entirely nude underwater (from behind, admittedly).
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Vermithrax pejorative: "the Thracian worm who makes things worse".
  • No-Sell: During the climatic battle with Ulrich, Vermithrax blasts the sorcerer with firebreath - which has zero effect.
  • Novelization: The film's adds quite a bit of backstory to Galen, Valerian, Ulrich, Hodge, and even the (unnamed in the film) girl sacrificed to the dragon on-screen, but it's also quite different from the film in many respects. It also mentions that dragons are hermaphroditic, and both Vermithrax and its mate would have produced a clutch of eggs.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Ulrich's reaction to Vermithrax's "claw".
      Ulrich: By the Gods, that's not a claw, that's a tooth!
    • Galen's reaction when laying eyes on Vermithrax for the first time. Then she starts inhaling...
  • Open Secret: Valerian being a girl. Apparently, most in the village already knew.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Vermithrax (the dragon) is a wyvern-type dragon, with bat-like wings instead of forelegs. The visual effects lead stated that they wanted to make the dragon close to an existing non-avian flying species, so they chose bats as the basis.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: On the dragon's behalf, no less. Returning home to find that someone has killed your children? Hoo mama...
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Are we supposed to think Valerian's a boy at first? Really?
    Ulrich: (on meeting Valerian after his resurrection) Ah. The girl who came to us as a boy.
  • Please Wake Up: Vermithrax, upon finding her slain dragonets, tries futilely to nuzzle them back to life. Once she realizes they are indeed dead, she gets really, REALLY angry.
  • Purple Prose: Tons in the novelization, with "reptilian antlers" going into Artistic License – Biology territory.
  • Raised as the Opposite Gender: Valerian was raised as male from birth to protect her from the lottery. It was known to most of the villagers though.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning / It's Personal: Vermithrax, after Galen kills her offspring.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Subverted with Vermithrax's baby dragons. They are just as hostile and aggressive as Vermithrax herself, and their opening act is to maul Elspeth to death and start dismembering her body.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Vermithrax, twice. First, after Galen tries to block the cave with an avalanche, then after Galen kills her offspring.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Princess Elspeth, though in a more melancholic way.
  • Samus Is a Girl: Valerian turns out to be a woman, which Galen is surprised to find out after diving underwater into the river when she's bathing (despite her protest). It turns out most of the villagers knew already though.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • The officials overseeing the virgin sacrifice. Horsrick starts reading the King's proclamation at a pretty good clip to begin with, but just plain runs away once the ground starts trembling, shouting the last few words of the proclamation over his shoulder as he runs.
    • Also the virgin sacrifice herself. The girl being fed to the dragon does her level best to get away, and actually does slip free of the chains before the dragon gets her.
    • Princess Elspeth is an aversion, as after she is freed she runs into the cave rather than trying to get away.
  • Sedgwick Speech: A priest tries to exorcise away the dragon. It doesn't work.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: After Valerian enters a big social event in a dress and feminine trappings for the first time in public. No one reacts much to her having cheated the lottery for most of her life by hiding her gender. In the novelization, her father tells her that they didn't get angry because her mother was a victim of the lottery-apparently not all the sacrifices were virgins. In addition, most of the villagers knew she was a girl to begin with. Galen remarks in the novelization that this must have been why there were few calls of outrage from them.
  • Shown Their Work: They managed to make a biologically plausible dragon, and even gave it realistic internal organs after being killed.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To legendary hero Sigurd, aka Siegfried who tests his brand-new dragonslaying weapon by neatly slicing through the anvil on which it was forged.
    • In the Novelization Ulrich suggests the Urlanders should try asking Prospero to kill their dragon, only to be told that he has given up his power.
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: Vermithrax's response to the priest trying to exorcise her is a blast of fire breath. Vermithrax wins.
  • Soul Jar: Ulrich places his spirit (and, apparently, also his body) in a magic amulet that enables the holder to make use of magic to a degree. He does this so that his young apprentice can do the traveling for him and get revived to slay the dragon later.
  • Stealing the Credit: Galen and Valerian witness the King beginning the claim that he was the one who killed the dragon, despite being a Dirty Coward and doing no such thing.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Valerian dresses as a man to escape the lottery that sacrifices virgin girls. She eventually drops the disguise however, after Galen had already found out about it (the villagers mostly already knew).
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Both in-universe and out-of-universe. Some characters in the film feel bad for the dragon for varying reasons. Some audiences have felt bad for her when she finds her babies dead.
  • Take Up My Sword: Subverted and played with. Galen thinks that Ulrich wants him to kill the dragon in his place. He doesn't. Hodge DOES ask Galen to take up his sword by pouring Ulrich's ashes into the Lake of Fire.
  • Taking You with Me: Ulrich takes Vermithrax down with him.
  • Title Drop: Valerian's blacksmith father named the lance Sicarius Dracorum, which is Latin for "dragon slayer".
    • Also the King, who takes credit for the death of Vermithrax and assumes the title "Dragonslayer".
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: During the climax, natch.
  • Tortured Monster: Vermithrax is a very, very old dragon. Alone, feared and hated, wracked with pain from her increasingly decrepit body. Unfortunately for everyone else, this constant misery has made Vermithrax, for lack of a better term, spiteful.
  • Tragic Monster: Vermithrax. Even Ulrich sympathizes with her plight, saying that she's obviously old, tired, plagued by constant pains, and is the Last of Her Kind. And if that wasn't enough, it's hard not to feel a tug at the heartstrings when she finds the bodies of her dead young.
  • Unexplained Recovery:
    • Ulrich. Only long enough to defeat Vermithrax.
    • Galen mutters sardonically at Valerian, "Still alive," when she finds him after his brief battle with the dragon.
    • Galen's words also apply to Vermithrax, who somehow recovers from a quite nasty spear wound to the throat.
  • Unsettling Gender-Reveal: Galen discovers that Valerian is a woman when swimming underwater and getting a full-frontal view of her. He recovers pretty quick, but has to shoot back to the surface since the shock made him forget to hold his breath.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: The town sacrifices its virgin girls to the dragon (the dragon probably couldn't have cared less what kind of food it ate, but unmarried girls would have been considered more expendable in a medieval world).
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Tyrian. He fights Galen because he believes the lottery is better for the kingdom than trying to kill the dragon and angering it, even when the King decides differently. He is, however, still a dick about it.
  • Wham Line: Valerian informing Galen "It has little ones."
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Valerian turns out to be one. This was begun by her parents to spare her from the lottery of virgin girls being sacrificed.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Valerian clearly thinks she'll be the name called for the lottery after she drops the pretense of being a boy. Except that this is a deconstruction and subversion of the sword and sorcery trope so it doesn't happen. Also, the priest who tried to exorcise Vermithrax, thinking that the dragon is a demon and would be banished back to hell. Except that, while supernatural, Vermithrax is clearly flesh and blood, not a spirit or something possessed, so this fails (lethally, for the priest).
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Magic. The Latin basically serves as a foci for the mage's will. Ulrich even critiques Galen's Latin after being resurrected by saying he could have used a simpler phrase instead of a long, flowery one.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: The villagers celebrate when Galen causes an avalanche to block the dragon's cave entrance, despite never seeing the dragon actually die and that there might be more caves leading out of its lair. All Galen did was piss it off.