As I said earlier, I recently made the dubious decision to spend all of April watching and reviewing terrible fantasy movies from the 1980s. Let’s be honest with each other; this cannot and will not have any effect—negative or positive—on my readership, so while the toll it’s taken on me is, indeed, noteworthy, I’m not undergoing any sort of professional or, dare I say it, artistic risk. Mental and emotional risks out the wazoo, sure, but nothing that could hurt the blog. Let it not be said that I lack journalistic integrity.
The Plot: Eh……. There’s a dragon. It’s been, like, I dunno… eating virgins or something, so, having apparently recently watched Seven Samurai, a group of peasants goes on a quest to find a sorcerer who can help them. In Seven Samurai, the farmers search for one samurai and end up with seven. Sweet. In Dragonslayer they go looking for one wizard and end up with a typically douchy Peter McNicol instead. I guess you take what you can get.
In last week’s article about Sword of the Valiant I devoted an entire paragraph to analyzing the confusing character shift that strikes that film’s protagonist when he’s promoted from squire to knight. In the span of a few seconds he transforms from a pretty likable, humble, loyal servant to the pinnacle of 80s bro-ishness. Well, Dragonslayer adapts a similar concept as its thematic and philosophical basis, tackling the supposition that has plagued leaders for centuries: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Peter McNicol’s character, whose name I cannot be bothered to look up right now, starts out as an unassuming sorcerer’s apprentice, but when his master dies, he inherits all the magic powers via an enchanted amulet because of course he does. So, does absolute power corrupt absolutely? No. It just turns you into a colossal ass. You can take that as literally as you want to. Basically he transforms into Peter McNicol.
Am I being too hard on Peter McNicol? Is it unfair to make these criticisms based only on the two movies I’ve seen him in, his first two cinematic appearances? Okay, so Dragonslayer, a Disney studios sword-and-sorcerer adventure introduced him to the world and vice versa, so you’d maybe expect him to be insufferable. I mean, I know I would be in that situation. His next role was in the subsequent year’s somehow equally irritating Oscar-bait drama Sophie’s Choice. He really bugged me in that movie. I’m probably one of very few people who watched Dragonslayer with a prior bias against its lead actor as a result of an earlier viewing of Sophie’s Choice. Maybe I’m doing it wrong?
Why exactly did this become a trope, though? Why does suddenly becoming the hero turn you into an insufferable douche? Okay. I’m judging the unprecedented boom in fantasy films in the 1980s as a product of both the 1977 publication of The Silmarillion and the 1974 release of Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve read The Silmarillion and indeed Tolkien’s other works, and nothing in Middle-earth encourages this kind of behavior. Maybe it was D&D. If you play the game correctly with a good dungeon master, then it can be a good bit of creative fun, often full of puzzles and problem-solving. Or, if you’re lazy, it can be an excuse to live out your medieval power fantasies. Yeah… I think teenage power fantasies are, as usual, as in so many things, to blame. The world would truly be a better place without them.
Nerds turn to fantasy and sci-fi because most of those stories (take The Hobbit and Star Wars, for example) focus on an unlikely, unspectacular, unassuming nobody taking on the weight of the world, unlocking incredible abilities, discovering magical items, slaying the bad guys, and getting the girl (well, there’s no girl-getting for Luke Skywalker or Bilbo Baggins, but you get the idea). They love the idea of how fun it is, but seem to miss the point. Consider Frodo Baggins, hero of The Lord of the Rings, who follows to the letter the Aristotelean definition of a tragic hero. All the best heroes of fantasy get used up. They don’t have fun. Sigh. Maybe that’s what I find annoying about Peter McNicol in this movie. He’s supposed to be fighting a dragon and ending decades of ritualistic sacrifice and saving the lives of countless innocents, but the weight of the plot never seems to occur to him, and he just has a ball with his newfound powers. The first thing he does when he gets his magic is play a series of cruel pranks on a frightened old man in his service. He later kind of shrugs it off when this same guy gets murdered on his behalf.
I guess I’m holding a terrible 80s fantasy movie called Dragonslayer to too high a standard. I often have fun watching these movies, though. I sort of had fun watching Sword of the Valiant despite its truly, truly awful… uh… everything, but I didn’t have any fun watching Dragonslayer. So, oddly enough, I can’t recommend this movie to that tiny crop of you who might want to spend the month of April watching bad 80s fantasy movies. Hm. I’m beginning to question this decision…