Released back in 1981, Dragonslayer is a dark, low fantasy story with surprisingly good (and terrifying) effects and one of the most memorable monsters of cinematic history—the invincible dragon Vermithrax, who menaces a squalid, Dark Ages kingdom that regularly offers its own daughters as sacrifice to appease the beast. It’s the kind of story that will make even the most ardent fan of the House of Mouse wonder: did they really mean to make this?
Our hero is a fledgling wizard’s assistant who can barely cast a cantrip—not so much because he is hopeless at magic, but because in this story’s world, there simply isn’t a whole lot of magic left to control. The wizard himself is perhaps the last full-fledged mage in the country, but still comes off as just a wacky hermit. He is accidentally killed (or so we are led to believe) while attempting to demonstrate this powers to the king’s guardsmen, leaving our hero with the impossible task of ridding the countryside of the dragon, even though he hasn’t got a clue how or the ability to do so.
As the story unfolds, and we see that our heroes have far much more to worry about immediately from the corrupt powers that be. The king has concocted a foul lottery which routinely selects one of his subjects’ daughters at random to be sacrificed to the dragon. Only the king’s daughter is exempt from the lottery, as is any family rich enough to buy their daughter out of the process. It is a system that works well for the king and Vermithrax, and one in which the lowly folk of the kingdom have accepted as something they cannot change. It doesn’t hurt that the king’s soldiers will simply kill anybody who doesn’t get in line. There is no splendor in this fantasy world. The most magnificent thing to behold is Vermithrax, and nobody gazes upon such a thing and lives.
When I first saw this movie, at almost 11 years old, this was as dark a setting as I could take. I had come to expect worlds in which evil might reign, but only for as long as it took for the good guys to somehow restore the rightful way of things. Not so in Dragonslayer, At the end, when the dragon is defeated, the kingdom still stands, just as corrupt and as hypocritical as ever. Even the people in it don’t seem to mind. Evil dragon? Tyrannical king? To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to. As a kid, I expected the dragon to be slain. And it is. But I expected the kingdom to be overthrown as well. That, I didn’t get.
But that wasn’t the half of it. Earlier in the movie, the princess, once she learns that she has been exempted from the lottery, rigs the next one so that only she is sent into the dragon’s den. And amazingly, her father proves corrupt enough to rig a lottery to sacrifice his innocent subjects, and yet not strong enough to find a way out of having the lottery at all. He just watches as his daughter walks calmly to her death. And so did I, for I fully expected our hero to swoop in—with his shield made of dragon scales, his spear sharp enough to cut through an anvil, and his magic amulet that seems to contain the sum of his old master’s magical power—to race in and save her.
And he does race in. But by the time he gets there, we are treated to the grisly sight of the dead princess lying there, her body being devoured by the dragon’s young brood. Our hero is too late to save her.
I cannot tell you how hard this bowled me over as a kid. Even now, this scene is as ballsy a moment of truth as I have ever encountered, because it took all conventions of heroic fantasy, and in that moment, turned them on their head. One of the great things about Disney movies was Disney’s willingness to confront a young audience with the harsh realities of life, especially the loss of family. Well, Dragonslayer does not fail on that count, and lets us know in no uncertain terms that sometimes, the bad guys win. Sometimes, the hero just isn’t fast enough. Sometimes, the princess ends up as dragon food. Sometimes, if you want to be the hero, you have to understand what it means to lose. Better luck next time.
A lot of folks remember this movie for its super-cool go-motion dragon, and the gloomy Dark Ages vibe. I remember it for showing me that victory and defeat, especially in heroic storytelling, can take many forms, and often come at cost. It’s a lesson that has stayed with me as a writer, and one that has guided by own efforts time and again. I didn’t enjoy seeing the princess get eaten by baby dragons. But I appreciated it. Still do.