Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mightyheart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?
Defenseless as thou wert, oh were was then
Wisdom the mirrored shield, or scorn the spear?
—Adonais by Shelley
In the Dark Ages realm of King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre), the people live in fear of the monstrous dragon Vermithrax. A delegation of villagers travel to Castle Cragganmore to solicit the assistance of an elderly sorcerer named Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson). In a test of his magic provoked by the king's centurion (John Hallam), he mysteriously dies. The people's only hope now is in his youthful apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol), who inherits Ulrich's powerful amulet.
Shown to the dragon's lair, Galen causes a landslide which seems to put an end to the beast. But the King is convinced the dragon will emerge with renewed violence. He has used a system for years to appease the beast: a young virgin is picked by lottery to be sacrificed to the dragon. The King reprimands Galen for stirring up trouble, orders him imprisoned, and confiscates the magic amulet.
Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), the King's only daughter, discovers to her shame that the lottery has always excluded the rich, and members of the royal family. When during an earthquake it becomes evident that Vermithrax lives, the Princess frees Galen. She then rigs the lottery and voluntarily presents herself for the next sacrificial offering. The King returns the powerful amulet to Galen and pleads with him to slay the dragon.
Screenplay writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins (The Sugarland Express, The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings, MacArthur) have taken ancient legends about dragons and fashioned a sturdy mythological tale of suspense, romance, magic, and morality. Brian Johnson's special effects are spectacular, and Alex North's pounding music gives the story added dramatic richness.
Dragonslayer transports us to a mysterious, exotic, and convincing ancient world. Galen's love affair, however, is contemporary in spirit. And equally recognizable are the attempts of religious and political leaders to step in once the dragon is slain and take the power and the glory for the dead. Heroes, then and now, seldom receive proper credit.