DRAGONSLAYER Directed by Matthew Robbins Screenplay by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins
This movie has two big things going for itthe dragon and the man who masterminds its slaying. The former, when he finally heaves into view, is one of the few feature creatures who actually live up to the descriptions offered by terrified witnesses during the buildup. He has scale as well as scales, snorts realistic fire and generally represents an artful blending of mechanical and special-effects work. He lurks in a grand, spooky lair too.
The chap who finally does him in is Ralph Richardson, wearing his best pair of sly boots. He plays a fussy old sorcerer, frail but doughty, and a trifle wistful because he never mastered the trick of turning lead into gold, which would have provided him with a more comfortable castle for his sunset years. He has a certain fellow feeling for the ogre, who is also an old crock who has outlived his time. Richardson's best speech is an evocation of the days when the skies were aflap with dragons and all the earth seemed touched by magic.
He might as well be commenting on the film. With his own splendid appearances confined to the beginning and the end and with the dragon turning up only intermittently, much of the story revolves around a sorcerer's apprentice who is making his first stab at monster stabbing. As Galen, Peter MacNicol has some funny, puzzled bits when his new-found magical powers either fail him entirely or run out of control. But on the whole, he is this year's leading nominee for the Dean Jones blandness award. Caitlin Clarke as a girl in boy's clothing, who becomes the love interest when she gets her wardrobe sorted out, is a little better at rooting herself believably in the soil of mythical prehistory. But neither actor is much helped by perfunctory writing and direction.
In the obligatory superstitious peasant scenes, as well as in the passages where the swells up at the main castle fall to intriguing, one feels he is witnessing a compilation of best-loved scenes from the history of the sword-and-sorcery genre, though Chloe Salaman is a lovely and spirited prin cess of this mythical realm. It must be said that the uninspired stretches throw the film's magical moments into high relief. The final confrontation between Richardson and the rude beast, a confrontation in which Galen finally rises from apprentice to journeyman in the dragon-slaying game, is grippingly orchestrated. The sequence is as well made and exciting as anything one is likely to encounter in a summer already crowded with good work by those modern Merlins, the special-effects technicians.
Co-produced by the Disney organization, Dragonslayer represents a game attempt to recapture the audience that has been drifting away in recent years. At moments the film evokes the kind of shuddery terrors that the classic animated fairy tales did. Like Galen, the Disney people seem to have a magic amulet that is full of promise. It will be interesting to see if, finally, they can slay the monster of indifference that has been laying waste their once secure hillside.
By Richard Schickel