A magus (Ralph Richardson) is slain by a brute. Dragons imperil the land, the king offers virgin sacrifices. The church is ineffectual against the evil. The assistant of the magus (Peter MacNicol) arms himself and battles a dragon, but in vain, until the magus is restored to life and vanquishes the creature.
This is the outline of the film, and the recounting of the magus who is Christ and shall come again to destroy the serpent, which is Satan. In the meantime, there is the Church Militant.
D.H. Lawrence describes the Apocalypse as the last stages of conversion, not a teleological event. And so, the magus is dissolved in the destruction of the serpent, and the film ends happily with the advent of a white horse for the assistant and his virgin bride.
The large-scale analysis of this work has not been tried and found wanting, it hasn’t been tried at all, hence Maslin’s complaint of its political “world-weariness” after Watergate (this is really her own; she calls it “Dragongate”), and the asseveration in some quarters that the film is anti-Christian. Rather, there is a consideration of temporal power as worldly and compromised, and ecclesiastical ministrations as Pharisaical.
The genius of Dragonslayer is to isolate wisdom as magic, in terms of the Dark Ages, and place in contradistinction to it such matters as authority and rite. The casting of Albert Salmi in the lesser part of a “Christian” is a sure sign of the precise weight given to these considerations.
Everything in Dragonslayer is, in fact, a nice calculation, if it is seen properly in the context of the form. MacNicol must be the perfect fool armed by faith, and this is accomplished by making him noticeably a figure of fun, a fair-haired curly-headed boy just a degree or so beyond the compass of ennui, yet outfitted by and by with a formidable spear (of “pagan” make) and shield, and a glowing talisman linked with the absent magus.
Alex North’s score is far and away the best criticism of the work. A film composer views the rough cut and reads it, in a sense, so that a score will sometimes convey an overall artistic estimation of a film that can be very useful. North is highly and I should say uniquely inspired by this film. This is one of his very finest scores, a great palette of atonality delineated by the National Philharmonic Orchestra in large-scale harmonies and scintillating tone colors with a vast sense of what Dragonslayer is all about, nothing within the critics’ grasp, except that many of its charms and skillful nuances have not been lost upon the profession, if you can call it that.
*batteries not included
*batteries not included depicts with perfect realism one of those demolition operations that gut a city. It adds, furthermore, the interesting detail of a gang hired to motivate the holdouts. It then turns into a science-fiction fairy tale on the order of “The Shoemaker and the Elves”, with little flying saucers filling the latter roles.
This was ahead of its time in a certain sense, and in another came perhaps a little late. The idea is to represent the resources of Spielberg (the executive producer) and Lucas brought to bear on reality, a cinematic reality to be sure. Part of the justification of their insupportable reputations came necessarily by devaluing worthier achievements. That is a fairly routine proceeding which has an interesting parallel in Postmodern architecture, coincidentally.
Jessica Tandy is as brilliant as any actress of any age could be, and Hume Cronyn is the solid planet around which she spins. Maslin thought this sort of fantasy bygone, and was at that time following the career of Ron Howard with something like expectant joy.