[Contains a barrel full of name-tiles and SPOILERS!!!]
Dragonslayer (1981) is a PG-rated Disney flick, typically found on the lowest shelf in the shop… so I was both shocked and delighted to discover how sexy, gory, and subversive it actually is!
Peter MacNicol made his screen-debut here, playing a cocky young sorcerer’s apprentice named ‘Galen’, who steps in to deal with a dragon that’s been bothering a neighbouring kingdom, after his master is unexpectedly killed while demonstrating a rather unreliable getting-stabbed-in-the-chest-and-not-dying trick to the king’s malicious enforcer. Galen is recruited by a group of pro-active villagers, who resent the king’s policy of appeasing the dragon’s wrath by feeding him a sacrificial virgin every other solstice. The group is led by a suspiciously pretty young man named ‘Valerian’, who Galen later discovers is actually a female lady woman dressed down in drag… though he doesn’t figure this out until he’s staring directly at her naked body under the water, while taking an impromptu skinny dip! Her disguise was part of a cunning ruse her father concocted to keep her out of the lottery, rather than a lifestyle choice on her part… but I was still disappointed to see that as soon as the dragon was (erroneously) pronounced dead, she started wearing make-up and dresses, and attributing her subsequent acts of bravery to the fact that she was once a “man”, rather than simply owning that courage as part of her female identity. Boo to that! Nonetheless, I thought Caitlin Clarke (R.I.P.) played the part with great gusto, and looked mighty cute as a boy and a girl, so top marks to her.
The other major female character was the king’s sheltered daughter, ‘Princess Elspeth’, who bonded with Galen over their shared fondness for un-subtitled Latin, and was shocked (shocked, I say!) by his suggestion that she and the other noble daughters had been excluded from the dragon-bait lottery, to spare their wealthy parents the grief. After confronting her father about the omission, she conspired to rig the next draw, so that every tile in the barrel bore her name! Then, even when Galen freed her from the sacrificial holding post with his magick spear, she selflessly/foolishly wandered into the lair, to get chewed up by dragon-babies. Bless her. Clearly she was intended to be a potential love-interest for Galen, so her gruesome demise was probably supposed to be a heart-breaking plot-twist… but there was never enough chemistry between MacNicol and Chloe Salaman to sell me on the idea that he was ever going to choose her over Valerian. With all the pointed references to how dangerous it was to be a virgin in that neck of the woods, I half-expected him to offer his services in relieving them of their maidenheads… but I guess that would be a step too-far, even for an envelope-pushing provocation like this one! Oh, I also have to give a shout-out to Yolande Palfrey, who played the dragon’s first on-screen victim… I was really pulling for her to escape after she spilt so much of her own blood getting free from those cuffs, but sadly ‘twas not to be…
Sex and violence aside, the film’s piece de resistance was the final post-battle scene, in which the political scavengers swoop in to lay claim to a victory they had nothing to do with: First a Christian priest assured his newly-formed flock that it was God that slayed the dragon, and that they should surrender their sacrilegious belief in sorcery… despite the fact that we know it was sorcery and sorcery alone that killed the “demons” (though, to be fair, it’s suggested that sorcery also created them in the first place, so he may have a point…). Then the king bravely poked a spotless sword at the exposed innards of the broken, spell-blasted dragon carcass, while an underling heartily hailed his glorious victory! It’s a fantastically biting bit of satire at the expense of both Church and State… though (perhaps wisely) the film-makers chose to end on a more conventionally upbeat note, with Galen riding off into the (metaphorical) sunset with his gender-conforming girlfriend. Hurrah?
Meanwhile, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin rated this as one of his fave Fantasy films (one spot up from Monty Python and the Holy Grail!). With all the abrupt deaths, goopy guts, and gratuitous nudity, it’s very much a proto-GoT for kids… though I’ll be mighty pissed if Arya and/or Brienne follow Valerian’s example too closely. [SEMI-SPOILER: It’s been really disconcerting seeing Brienne wearing a skirt this season… hope she gets back into armour again now that things are kicking off in King’s Landing!]