Nostalgic Nineties Special!
Dragonheart (1996) from Universal Pictures
Who: Directed by Rob Cohen, who went on to direct The Fast and the Furious (2001) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008). With portrayals by Dennis Quaid, the most American sounding knight I have ever heard, and a dragon voiced by Sean Connery.
What: Bowen is a knight of the Old Code, which means he believes a knight’s job is to protect the weak and never use his strength for ill gain. He is the teacher for the prince of the realm, a callow youth named Einon. The prince is wounded and his mother, a lady of Celtic ancestry, brings him to a dragon for healing. The dragon gives the boy half of his own heart. The prince grows up to be a selfish and arrogant king and Bowen blames the dragon’s heart for twisting his ward. Meanwhile, the daughter of a murdered rebel, Kara, wants to restart the fight for freedom and struggles to reawaken Bowen’s sense of justice.
Where: I was surprised to learn that Dragonheart was mainly filmed in Slovakia, hence the realism of the quite serviceable castle that King Einon resides. The film itself is set in an unnamed kingdom that is European in its styling (and houses places that are associated with Camelot), but is apparently many years past its era of glory.
When: Released in May of 1996, it was a box office and genre neighbor of Mission: Impossible, Flipper, and Independence Day. The film industry was beginning to make use of advances in CGI and, under the tagline “You Will Believe,” this film made quite the effort to give audiences a dragon that seemed real.
Why You Should Watch It: First off, the SFX team did a pretty good job with that dragon. Despite the fact that it is now almost two decades old, Draco holds up pretty well. His interaction with Bowen and the other characters is relatively smooth and believable. If he were created today, animators would probably add one last bit of skin texturing and be a bit more precise regarding accurate shadows and lighting. But all things considered, he’s great. Also he’s voiced by Sean Connery, so that makes up for any visual deficiencies.
It’s Connery’s performance, alongside that of Dennis Quaid, that form the core of this film. The other actors, who include the likes of David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Peter Postlethwaite, and Julie Christie, do a decent job, but they end up being peripheral to the bromantic relationship between the dragon and the knight. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a 90s fantasy movie about a burgeoning friendship between a grouchy knight and a wise dragon. It also includes a warrior maiden, a narrating monk writer and some sleazy villains, but at its dragon-y heart it’s about two people who should be killing each other becoming friends.
Why You Could Maybe Skip It: While a decently fun flick, it’s not very strong in original content other than a dragon and a knight becoming friends. The villains don’t seem to have much motivation other than liking power and appreciating the freedom to be jerks to everyone. And while the film’s plot and attempts at dramatic irony, well, exist, they don’t succeed all the time. I realized three quarters of the way through the film that apparently everyone else is terrible at recognizing and remembering voices, and that nobody remembers anyone if they have been out of sight for five plus years. A drama of mistaken identities is less fun if the audience finds it too easy to figure out and as a result thinks the characters are idiots. Some connections between characters were also not sufficiently explained, and side characters, like the Queen, didn’t have the influence to match how one might perceive their power. While it’s quite the romp, it’s only truly worth the watch for the few great scenes between Draco and Bowen.
A Taste of What You’re In For: The film opens with Bowen (Dennis Quaid) training the young prince Einon (Lee Oakes) in swordplay. Bowen is a jovial but invested teacher. The prince is eager to win and gets frustrated at his constant defeats at his elder’s hand. Another knight rides up and announces that the king wants Einon to witness the final rout of a village of rebels and the boy is ecstatic. (In this we witness the exchange: “The peasants are revolting!” “They’re always revolting, my prince!”) Bowen is displeased and expresses the opinion that there is no honor in crushing men who are already suffering, but the king’s orders are law.
Mentor and prince ride out to the battlefield and watch the fracas from the top of a hill. The king sets peasant huts on fire (he’s obviously a really good guy), and then gets ambushed by some of the villagers. The prince sees this and rides down the hill, supposedly to do something. Bowen yells at him to stop and follows after him, but gets held up by an inconvenient wagon.
It’s too late when the prince gets to his dying father. Einon greedily grabs the crown from him and then, through a ridiculous chain of events, gets stabbed. Bowen rides up and grabs the wounded prince and takes him back to the castle. Everyone thinks that the prince is a goner as well, but the Queen knows some secrets of the Old Kingdom and whisks them all away to a cave.
She brings a select few, including Bowen, deep into the cave. She then calls upon a dragon who lives there and asks if he will save her son. She promises the dragon that she will raise her son to be a man of the old ways and that, unlike his father, he will not kill dragons. Bowen is wary of the dragon but listens, as he only put up with the tyrannical father for the sake of the boy. The dragon agrees to help under the condition that the boy himself swear that he will strive to become a noble and caring king. The creature gives Einon half of his heart and heals him. Bowen, astounded, swears to return the dragon’s aid at sometime in the future.
Years pass and Einon shows his true colors. He enslaves his people to rebuild a magnificent castle, and he is merciless when it comes to the survivors of the rebellion his father crushed. Bowen saves three men from being blinded only to find the prince once more cold to his advice and affection. He rides off, swearing that the dragon’s heart must have done this to his ward, and that he will kill all the dragons left on earth…
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