by Gary Weimberg
Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 1, 18
Midway through DRAGONSLAYER, a lottery takes place to determine who among the virgin women shall be sacrificed to appease the dragon. King Casiodorus and his chief counselor Horsrik emerge in front of their impatient kingdom with a locked bag, filled with tiles, each of which holds the name of an eligible virgin.
Horsrik dumps the tiles into a bin. Scattered shouts conic from the assembled: "Stir the tiles, stir the tiles. More and more voices join in, creating a syncopated chorus of demand. Soon some of the shouts begin to change: "Draw the name, draw the name."
Horsrik, arm bared like a magician who wants to show there is nothing up his sleeve, pulls one tile and holds it aloft. He intones,
He looks at the name. He hesitates. He is confused. The crowd demands he read the tile. Reluctantly he does so. It is Princess Elspeth, daughter of the king. The horrified king rushes forward.
"Misspoke" is a word not in existence in the English language until a few years ago. It is a word given birth to in the Nixon era; it is a Watergate bastardization of language. To say "misspoke" is to admit having lied while denying responsibility for lying. It is a classic double-think word. "Misspoke would be more appropriate in 1984 than in a film set in the Middle Ages.
The entire lottery sequence is underscored with a tone of cynicism. Horsrik clearly exploits the occasion to serve as a propaganda piece for "the king and his wise policy." The peasants are reduced to a huddled mass of potential victims, herded into the castle like sheep by the king's soldiers. The virgins are cordoned off and passively await the outcome of a decision, unaware that it has been fixed in advance. Galen voices the film's verdict on the lottery in a conversation with Elspeth before the scene even begins. "You've participated in a lie," he says condemningly.
It is confusing to find this cynicism in a film intended to be an escapist fantasy. There are a number of reasons to assume that DRAGONSLAYER was intended to be an escapist film. First off, one of the studios which co-produced the film was Disney, a studio world famous for its escapist pictures. Then there is the simplistic fairy tale like plot of the film, a plot so unsubstantial that only escapism could justify it. Boy meets girl; boy meets dragon. Boy slays dragon; boy gets girl.
Finally, there is the style of the film itself. The filmmakers directly imitate STAR WARS by emphasizing special effects and action sequences while ignoring plot and character. One can only conclude that the people who made DRAGONSLAYER wanted an escapist fantasy which would yield the same box office success.
Once we accept this assumption, it follows that the violations of the escapist mood occur virtually against the will of the filmmakers. Their goal was to create a heroic fantasy where good could triumph over evil. But the film is unable to do this. DRAGONSLAYER shows that even in their fantasies the filmmakers were unable to avoid a sense of hopelessness. Insofar as the value system in the film embraces the tenets of liberalism, the tone of hopelessness is a reflection of the decay of that ideology.
The story, slender as it is, begins with a group of peasants arriving at the castle of the sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson). The leader of the group is Vallerian (Caitlin Clarke), a young woman who has lived disguised as a man to avoid the king's hated lottery. They have come to the castle to beg Ulrich to slay the dragon. He agrees, but before even leaving the castle he is seemingly slain by Tyrian, the king's fascistic strongman. Vallerian and company turn toward their home, defeated.
The sorcerer's apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), follows them and offers to do combat in his master's place. His first attempt fails and the infuriated dragon begins to terrorize the kingdom. It is at this point that the king imprisons Galen and calls the special lottery in an attempt to pacify the dragon.
When Princess Elspeth fixes the lottery so that she is chosen, Galen is freed by the king to save her. Despite his best efforts, she dies — eaten by the dragon's young in the only excessively gory scene in the film. Even so, the dragon is not appeased. Galen, armed by Vallerian and her father, goes into the lair for single combat with the dragon. Once again he fails. By now he has exhausted his own resources and is on the verge of fleeing the kingdom with Vallerian when he discovers a plot gimmick straight out of STAR WARS. The dragon is then fought to the death amidst an abundance of special effects. The film ends with the king and the newly emerging Christian church claiming credit for the slaying of the dragon as our heroes Galen and Vallerian ride off, unsung, into the wilderness.
This usurping of victory provides DRAGONSLAYER with an ending very different from happy-ever-after. Although superficially happy (boy gets girl), it is underscored with a sense of hopelessness. The cost of slaying the dragon is the end of the age of magic. For Galen, it is the end of all he has known in his life. The king and his government, however, continue on, strengthened by the sacrifice of an opposing paradigm. No longer will Casiodorus have to compete with sorcerers for power. He personally takes the title of "Dragonslayer" and Galen and Vallerian ride off alone. There is no room in Casiodorus' kingdom for them. They will pursue their future separate from the corruption of society.
Galen's success is thus co-opted by the very institutions he has struggled against. In an explicitly political film, this ability of social institutions to co-opt the efforts of those who oppose them would be used to help audiences become critical of those institutions. In DRAGONSLAYER there is no criticism. The end of the film displays the filmmakers' deep cynicism toward the possibility of social change.
Because they have no alternatives to offer, they cannot imagine successful social change. Galen and Vallerian's final exit ends the move, but it renews the corruption of the king. This helplessness in the face of corrupt institutions is the dilemma of liberalism. The liberal ideology is one that responds to social problems by creating institutions to deal with those problems, the goal being to make things fairer. (Equality of opportunity is the cornerstone of liberal logic and first elaborated on by John Stuart Mill). By trying only to make things more fair, liberalism accepts the status quo as a given. It is an ideology unable to challenge the basic structural existence of problems. This is a dilemma shared by DRAGONSLAYER. The value system that the film expresses is that institutional corruption is unchangeable and inevitable.
In the lottery sequence, the filmmakers confront a liberal but morally bankrupt solution to the problem of the dragon. When faced with the choice between the destruction of a kingdom or the sacrifice of a virgin, the liberal solution is to set up a fair system for selecting virgins. The king's policy is thus essentially a liberal one. As an audience, we are carefully instructed to view this institution with horror. Yet Elspeth's attempt to challenge the lottery and make it a just one ends only in her meaningless death.
This non-solution is the best ORAGONSLAYER can do. From it we can infer the cause of the ideological hopelessness which narks the film. The filmmakers see corruption in the contemporary world around then and so posit the same corruption in their fantasy past. They begin the film with the government already corrupt and end it with it continuing to be so. The only solution they can find is death (Elspeth) or total escape (Vallerian and Galen). They can imagine nothing else and thus become hopeless.
If we consider total escape as a viable solution (and I would contend that we cannot; total escape is impossible for human beings, who are essentially social animals), then it is a totally individualistic solution. This too is consistent with the ideology of liberalism. The belief in the supremacy of the individual is firmly embedded in the liberal ideology. The individual is the basis of liberal analysis and in fact individualism is praised as being natural and necessary within the literal paradigm.
The values presented throughout DRAGONSLAYER are individualistic. When change occurs it is never as a result of collective action or social/historical forces. The lottery is challenged by Elspeth alone, as an isolated single individual. The dragon is fought in isolation up on a mountaintop during an eclipse while the society at large passively awaits the outcome in darkness below.
When collective action is attempted, it fails. The peasants delegate a group to appeal to the sorcerer for help. This fails. When the previous king tried to fight the dragon with a group of his best fighters, he failed. The only role allowed to the masses is that of mass victim. The peasants respond to their environment passively, each hoping not to be the one chosen for sacrifice while ignoring that as a group they are all held hostage to the dragon.
The motivation for the king's corruption is also presented in individualistic terms. His actions are justified by the threat to his own daughter. When she is nonetheless selected, it brings out his most human(e) side. He implores Galen to slay the dragon and save his daughter. He responds just like anybody else when his own family is threatened. (This strategy of using the family to make a villain less evil is widespread in Hollywood films. To give only one other example, the mayor in JAWS refuses to close the beaches and damage the tourist trade until it is his own son who is threatened by the shark.) This too is consistent with the liberal conception of social problems. Individuals cause those problems and they are just like us. It is not structural forces that liberalism seeks to blame but the eternal weakness inherent in human nature.
The film is even able to turn an understanding eye on its own arch villain. "When a dragon gets old it knows nothing but pain," sadly recalls Ulrich. "It becomes weak, crippled, spiteful." Here too it is individualistic motivations which help make us sympathetic to the dragon. Implied in the sorcerer's words is that anyone would-be evil and cruel and "spiteful" if they were in as much pain as the dragon. Like the king, the dragon is deeply concerned for its young, allowing them to make a snack of the sacrificial princess. When the dragon's young are slain, it roars with grief and pain and responds like anyone would, by laying waste to the kingdom of Urland.
In only one area does the liberal paradigm work to the film's credit. DRAGONSLAYER struggles against presenting either of the women heroes in a sexist manner. Both Vallerian and Elspeth are dynamic characters, fully capable of making decisions for themselves and acting on them. Vallerian spends most of her life masquerading as a boy to avoid the lottery, and the film praises her ability to pass between traditional sex roles. "She was twice the man of anyone in the village and now she is twice the woman," says one character.
By having the hero fall in love with her rather than the princess, DRAGONSLAYER seems to be making an explicit attempt to get beyond sexist myths where princesses are depicted as the ultimate pieces of property and the hero's struggle is to wrest from the king the role of the dominant male owner.
Only one line of dialogue fails in this pursuit of nonsexist values and that is enough to call into question the anti-sexist attempt altogether. When Galen goes in to fight the dragon, Vallerian tries to muster up the arguments to go in with him. "I was a man once too, remember?" she says.
The implication of this line is to reinforce traditional sex roles. As a man she could be dynamic and bold, but as a woman she is timid and shy, unable to keep her wits about her when she follows Galen into the dragon's lair. When she dons a dress mid-film, she immediately becomes a potential victim (via the lottery) and is reduced to backing Galen in his attempts of heroism. She can provide support functions, such as gathering dragon scales for Galen's shield, but she will be left behind. Physically she is left behind when Galen goes to fight the dragon. Mentally she is left behind when Galen finally discovers the plot gimmick which will slay the dragon; she can only run along behind in the forest asking questions and begging him to explain what he is doing.
This is a typically liberal good-intentioned effort at resolving sexism. Vallerian has the choice to be either a man or a woman (equality of opportunity) but she cannot combine the social roles of both. She cannot challenge the structural division of roles between men and women, but as an individual she can choose one or the other.
Overall, then, because DRAGONSLAYER emerges from a liberal ideology, it fails to come to grips with its underlying criticisms of society. The film is effective only in the suspense of its action sequences. Any other emotion it tries to project either rings false or is dismal and hopeless. DRAGONSLAYER is an uncomfortable mix of the flawed present and the mythic past. It loses the pure not-a-single-redeeming-feature escapism of STAR WARS because it cannot leave behind the social ills of this world. Yet it is unable to deal with those very ills and collapses, not strong enough to achieve any other tone.
Even the special effects (which on the whole are dazzling) suffer from a confusion of tones. The dragon is at its best when lumbering along in an ungainly fashion down in its lair. When it flies, it flies more like a spaceship than a bird. Occasionally the point of view from which we see the dragon is confusing. Shots such as a vertical angle looking down on the dragon seem too contrived because there is no justification for the observer to be seeing that angle. What worked in showing future space ships maneuvering in a vacuum does not directly apply to a monster from the Middle Ages.
The best visual moments of the film are those linked most strongly to the age in which the film is set: the stony grime of the sorcerer's castle, the slimy interior of the dragon's lair, the muddy thatched hut village of the peasants, and the image which I found most magical of all, the distant torches of the peasants as they approach the kings castle for the lottery.
Finally, let me say I do not believe that the ideological issues discussed here were put into the film as a conscious, deliberate act on the part of the filmmakers. DRAGONSLAYER, like virtually all feature films, is a consumer good. In a capitalist society, consumer goods are supposed to be neutral, non-ideological. This denial of ideology leaves the filmmakers unaware of the nature of that which they produce. The dilemma of liberalism that is reflected in DRAGONSLAYER emerges not because of the goals of the filmmakers but in spite of them. It is a testimony to the depth of the liberal dilemma that DRAGONSLAYER can neither escape it nor solve it.