Review: "Dawn of the Dragon Slayer"

I'm always on the lookout for movies, games or books that encapsulate Classic D&D well.  I had the chance to watch Dawn of the Dragon Slayer over the weekend on Netflix.  Yes, it's a relatively low budget B movie, so before you even read more, set your standards appropriately.  There's nothing I hate more than those who put these films on the same level as the Hollywood stuff.  Money can buy you a lot of shortcuts.

The first thing I noticed about this film is that the acting, screenplay and camera work was pretty darn good.  You can tell from the start that a lot of love went into making it, this wasn't simply a cash grab movie to appeal to the hungry masses, other than the title and marketing.  And that's the thing, this is barely a movie about killing dragons, and much more about the personal journey of a young man to find himself.  But before I get into why I feel this is a true D&D movie, through and through, I want to discuss some of the cosmetics.

The entire movie is filmed in Ireland, and the locations and cinematography is breathtaking.  For nothing else, watch this movie for the natural eye candy.  The protagonist's journey takes him across beautiful ocean cliffs, solitary meadows and valleys, and through foggy mooreland.  The meat and potatoes of the movie takes place at and around a real castle fortification.  I thought this was a wonderful choice rather than setting up a phony prop.  The entire movie takes you out of your living room and makes you feel like you're really wandering the emerald isle.

The artists really outdid themselves with the costume work.  It was very, very good.  In nearly every scene, the main characters are depicted wearing something even more exquisite than the last.  A lot of love and attention went into the clothing and make-up to make it feel, both creative and authentic for the time.  Among indie fantasy movies, this area is often glossed over or overdone so much as to become distasteful.  Watching each scene is a treat for the eyes.

Special effects were done very well also, in that they were used very sparingly and only out of necessity.  The most jarring thing for me in these lower budget films is the hastily, and often poorly used, CG.  Beautiful vistas are instantly marred when a clunky special effect comes out of nowhere taking you out of the mood.  The dragon takes up most of the digital art effects, but it usually only appears at a distance or not at all.  It's a breath of fresh air to see movies that refrain from splattering us with digital gimmickry that all too often ruins modern film.

I won't give out the story synopsis, but this is not exactly your standard "zero to hero" narrative path that we often see in other movies.  This gets right at the meat of what I want to discuss with this film, and why it's a good representative of the old school game.  First of all, the main character, Will, starts off like most other heroes.  His family has been ravaged by the dragon, and he's been given an opportunity by his now deceased father to make a name for himself by hiring himself on as a land lord's servant on another part of the island.  Suffice it to say that Will goes through many of the early bumps and bruises that early heroes experience.  But then something interesting happens, the cathartic moment of "now he's made it", never really comes.

We expect our protagonists in our movies, books and games to suddenly jump out of their weak skins and turn into super heroes at some point.  This trope is so common that when we see a story where this doesn't happen it's actually jarring - in a good way.  You see, about half way through the film, Will finally gets his chance to turn himself into something - on more than one occasion actually.  [SPOILERS] He is offered the chance to duel a visiting noble in sword combat in front of his employer and his hot daughter.  He fails, miserably.  He then gets a chance to kill the dragon and defend the castle on his own.  He fails again.  He gets into a fight with the other house hands.  Yep, he gets his butt kicked.

Now, it's about this time in most movies, where the protagonist finally proves that he's more than just a simple farmer.  It's at this point in most films where the protagonist impresses his boss, goes on to impress the king, slays the dragon and gets the girl.  Not here.  Will starts training at this point, yet even after, he's still gets his butt kicked by everyone (just a little less so).  But even after all of these failures, he becomes a hero because he perseveres - because he never gives up.  In the face of failure, he learns to not hide from it, but to spit in its face.  He earns the girl's heart because of not winning, but losing with style.  I like that.

This is Classic D&D to me.  This is a classic story of a 0 level common farmer who ends up in the end, not at level 16, but at level 1.   It's great to see a movie that doesn't need to lie to its audience about what real heroes are made of.  It's an important lesson for us even in our real life; most of us will never become super men to everyone because we win at everything, but we can become super men to the ones around us who are the most important by our persistence and effort in the face of failure.

I enjoyed this movie, the pacing becomes a little stretched out in the middle, but it really has the whole package and a nice template for a good D&D setting or campaign.  Things are a little bleak, life is unfair, monsters and magic are very rare, and there is no guarantee of success.  Oh, and this is definitely wife or girlfriend approved.  It's got all the signature tropes of a british drama, and enough to keep the fanasy buffs entertained.  Don't go in expecting it to be anything like what comes out of Hollywood, but among the low budget fantasy scene, this is definitely a notch above the rest.

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