I was eighteen years old in 1981, and had recently graduated high school when Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins’ Dragonslayer was released into theaters.
In my opinion, it’s still the best D&D movie ever made – even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the game.
It’s smart, mature, funny and dark. And it has a Dragon that rivals Smaug in ferocity, danger and evil. Though to be fair to Vermithrax – she was not evil, simply being true to her nature – she was simply an old and frighteningly powerful dragon.
I loved it when I first saw it, and love it still today. It’s a great heroic tale – and made even more so because the hero isn’t a warrior or a fighter. Decades before another young magic user would dominate the pop culture consciousness, the hero of Dragonslayer is a wizard’s apprentice – a fumbling doof named Galen and played by Peter MacNicol – yeah, that guy 🙂
The world of Dragonslayer is one that’s grounded in reality – it’s not a gauzy-filtered and pseudo-mythical one, like that of Excalibur (released just a few moths earlier in 1981) or as macho and exotic as that of Conan the Barbarian (released the following year).
It had a true Dark Ages quality to it, a world where learning and books had been lost, one where superstition and fear colored every nook and cranny of every structure and costume presented in the story.
Alex North’s score sets the mood and tone right from the opening frame. Sitting in the darkened theater and watching the story unfold was truly magical.
Especially since my friends and I were avid D&D players. Here was the game we were playing brought to life. Here was what a true master wizard should look and act like.
Sir Ralph Richardson as Ulrich is perfect – both laughable and cryptic, wizened and arcane, with a dash of British theater pomposity that lends the right amount of gravitas and makes you believe, without a doubt, that he is the last living sorcerer in the kingdom.
I have to wonder, after the film was released, how many young DM’s and player’s ran home and created adventures about slaying a dragon, or created an Ulrich NPC or a Galen apprentice hero. I know that all of my characters had to wear ringmail for a long time after seeing the movie – because, well Galen wore it. And it looked cool.
I marveled at the design of the film, the armor the soldiers wore, the spear Dragonslayer that is forged to fight the dragon, the dread-filled lottery sequence, the wonderful slow pull back that represented the dragon rearing back and the whooshing roar that followed as it unleashed its terrible fiery breath.
I love how the film creates a logic and mystery to the magic, I love that Ulrich has a plan that isn’t revealed until the last part of the movie, I love that the movie shows that triumph requires sacrifice. It’s a true gem.
If you haven’t seen it, try and find a friend who has it on DVD.
Is it a bit dated compared to the CGI wizardry of The Hobbit or the LOTR films? Perhaps.
But it still is the best D&D movie ever made. Just sayin’.