'Dragonslayer'

One wears a long red cape, speaks with a British accent, and looks hundreds of years ago. The other wears a long leather trench coat, speaks with an American accent (though he was trained by the original Merlin), and looks to be in his 40s (despite actually being hundreds of years old). What Ralph Richardson and Nicolas Cage do have in common, however, is that both played sorcerers with apprentices, Richardson in 1981's Dragonslayer and Cage in this week's The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Whatever the relative merits of the latter film -- I liked it a bit more than Cinematical's Jeffrey M. Anderson -- it obviously takes a modern-day approach to the subject. Dragonslayer, on the other hand, presents a traditional spin. Ulrich, played by the 78-year-old, classically-trained Richardson, is a renowned magician sought out by a small delegation, led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), from a faraway land to kill a dragon. When Ulrich becomes, shall we say, indisposed, his apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol, in his debut role) steps up. Galen thinks he is up to the task, but he learns the hard way that he still has much to learn.

Peter MacNichol in 'Dragonslayer'
In contrast to The Sorcerer's Apprentice, there is no lengthy prologue in Dragonslayer to endure. It's a simple story, with characters who are easily identifiable. Galen is brash yet well-intentioned. Valerian comes from humble stock yet is bold and courageous. Tyrian, the leader of the King's guard, is strong and protective. Brother Jacopus (Ian McDiarmid, taking a break from playing the Emperor in the Star Wars films) is sincere and full of conviction. The movie flows easily from one sequence to the next under the direction of Spielberg associate Matthew Robbins, whose previous effort was the sprightly Corvette Summer.

Seeing a giant flapping, fire-breathing dragon on a big screen was the main reason me and my friends ventured out to see Dragonslayer in the summer of 1981, and we were not disappointed. Robbins, perhaps drawing on lessons learned from Jaws, keep the full-sized dragon off screen for much of the picture. When the full-sized beast did appear, the film employed the go motion technique, developed for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Combined with the decision to shoot on location in Wales, the effect was startling, especially with oft-beautiful photography by Derek Vanlint (Alien).

Nearly 30 years have passed, but Dragonslayer holds up remarkably well. The effects, once state of the art, show their age, as you'd expect, but the story and characters are still just as appealing, as a viewing last night confirmed. It's charm may lie in its modesty; it never pretends that the outcome of the story will affect the future of mankind, it's just a small group of people confronting a monster.

The PG-rated flick, co-produced by Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney, took some heat as a Disney release because of a couple of bits of gruesome imagery, along with very brief nudity by MacNicol and Clarke in a character-revealing scene in a pond. To see how the film fits into its era, check out Jessica Barnes' lovely article on The Golden Age of 80's Fantasy.

Where can you watch it now? The Region 1 DVD, a bare-bones edition released in 2003, is apparently out of print. It's available for online rental at Amazon and can be streamed instantly at Netflix and rented by mail. I'm fortunate enough to live close to Premiere Video in Dallas, which the DVD available for rental. You might check local video shops if you can't -- or prefer not to -- stream movies on your computer.

The theatrical trailer, featuring some of the awesome musical score by Alex North, is available to view on YouTube; however, the best version has embedding disabled, so you're have to head over there to watch it. Alternatively, the Amazon link in the previous paragraph will also play the trailer.

Postscript. Sad to say, the beguiling Caitlin Clarke, who, like MacNicol, made her debut in the film, died in 2004 from ovarian cancer at the age of 52. I had an instant crush on her, for reasons well expressed by a writer named Symian: "It was Caitlin's face that stuck in my mind more than her bare backside. I liked her face very much." She was a stage-trained actress who worked regularly on stage and screen before returning to her hometown of Pittsburgh to teach dramatic arts.

Caitlin Clarke in 'Dragonslayer'