I think this movie needs to get more love than it does, so I was very happy when it got selected to be an add-on. Now, if only someone will finally take my advice and develop a RPG around it… But more on that later. Now, let’s see what 1982 had to offer.
The movie starts 1000 years ago. The Green Wizard Carolinus (Harry Morgan), who controls “nature magic,” discovers that his powers, along with the magic in the world, are beginning to fade because Magic is based on faith, and logic/science are starting to overpower faith. This is demonstrated by a waterwheel destroying a group of fairies who were dancing on a swan… it makes sense in context.
This basically summarizes the entire primary conceit of the movie: Science beats magic, and, while Carolinus indicates that they could coexist, the world has chosen logic. Apparently, science beats magic so much that even the scientific education of the EARLY MIDDLE AGES is enough to stop reality-warping spells. However, it’s also noted that science is completely pointless without some kind of magic, that is to say, without some dreams of the impossible to inspire innovation.
So, Carolinus, realizing that logic and science are inherently going to beat magic, summons the other three wizards: Blue Wizard Solarius (Paul Frees), who commands the heavens and seas, the Golden Wizard Lo Tae Zhao (Don Messick), whose realm is light and air, and the Red Wizard Ommadon (Darth f*cking Vader himself, James Earl Jones), master of black magic and the forces of evil. While the three non-evil wizards decide that they will create a hidden realm of magic outside of the world so that they can live on, the evil wizard surprisingly decides to do evil stuff. He decides to infect mankind with fear and greed, which will cause them to eventually use their science to wage giant wars which will destroy them (through nukes). This implies that, prior to the Middle Ages, mankind never waged war because of Fear or Greed. All of history is a lie, kids.
While the other wizards disagree with Ommadon’s plan, they are forbidden to fight him by some sort of magic rule, or because it would make the movie too short. So, instead, they decide to create a party of adventurers to go and steal Ommadon’s crown, which apparently is the source of his power. The party is initially comprised of the knight Sir Orrin and the young green dragon Gorbash (both Bob McFadden), who are outfitted by the wizards so that they can fight Ommadon… which is apparently distinct from just fighting him. The party requires a leader, so Carolinus consults the magical force of Antiquity (which is what bans them from fighting directly), and finds out that the leader should be a man of science from 1000 years in the future, roughly, let’s say 1982. That man turns out to be, I shit you not, the actual author of the book A Flight of Dragons, Peter Dickinson (John Ritter).
It’s important to note that Peter being the main character is not part of the book The Dragon and the George, by Gordon R. Dickson, upon which this movie’s plot is based, nor is there anything in Dickinson’s real-life book that would make it seem like he actually went back in time to study the dragon-based physics and biology that populate his pseudo-science monograph. This movie just decided to make the real-life guy who wrote a scientific text on fantasy creatures serve as the main character that tries to bridge science and fantasy, and, honestly, I think it’s a ballsy move that really pays off in this film. In other movies where they try to shoe-horn an author into this kind of stories, it often seems forced or cheesy, but here, it actually seems kind of natural.
So, in the 80s, in the movie, Dickinson is a former scientist who is now attempting to create a fantasy board game which is actually based on the characters already introduced in the film… somehow. And I mean exactly that, the movie literally just says “somehow” Dickinson already knows all of these characters. When it’s questioned later by Dickinson, the only answer is basically “just go with it.”
Carolinus goes to the future and brings Peter back to the past. Peter meets Carolinus’s adopted daughter Princess Milisande (Alexandra Stoddart), who he has clearly been fantasizing about while designing her character in the future. They’re interrupted by the return of the dragon Smrgol (James Gregory), who reveals that Ommadon now controls basically all of the dragons in the world through a spell, and has ordered them to protect his crown. Ommadon then sends the black dragon Bryagh to kidnap Peter, believing that he might actually pose a threat. Unfortunately, in the middle of saving Peter from the dragon, Carolinus screws up a spell and puts Dickinson’s brain inside of Gorbash’s draconian body, where he stays for most of the film.
So, they set out on the quest, now with Smrgol joining Peter and Sir Orrin to teach Peter how dragons live, which Peter re-explains using scientific principles (that, oddly, are not exactly the ones from The Flight of Dragons). Basically, dragons eat diamonds and store them in a secondary stomach. Then, they eat limestone, which is ground up by the diamonds, then digested. The digestion of limestone produces hydrogen, expanding the dragon’s gut, which is composed of a series of balloon-like chambers, with lighter-than-air gasses, which generate lift like a dirigible, allowing dragons to fly. To land, the dragons exhale the hydrogen, which is ignited by a bio-electric nodule in the mouth, which makes them breathe fire.
As a kid, I thought this kinda made sense. As an adult with a physics degree, there’s a number of problems with it… including the part where they decided that limestone should be the thing that produces hydrogen, even though limestone is mostly just calcium carbonate… which is the chemical form of antacids, and doesn’t produce hydrogen when interacting with any acid (it produces water, which could be separated into hydrogen by electrolysis, but then why wouldn’t you just drink water?). But, whatever, they’re magic, and I still like that the writers were trying.
That night, the party is besieged by sand murks, which are basically rats mixed with cicadas on steroids, with a chittering so loud that it causes madness. They’re saved by a talking undead wolf named Aragh (Victor Buono), because hell yes that’s a thing that happens. Next, they’re attacked by wood elfs (not elves, elfs. the cookie-baking kind by the look of it) and saved by a female archer named Danielle (Nellie Bellflower), and joined by her and Giles, an Elven outlaw. That night, they rest at an inn, but Orrin and Danielle are captured by an ogre. The rest of the party goes to rescue them, but Smrgol dies defeating the ogre. The rest then press on, before fighting a giant worm, which Peter defeats by igniting its insides, which apparently produce sulfuric acid (which isn’t flammable… but whatever, magic).
They then face Ommadon’s flight of dragons (the movie implies that a group of dragons is a “flight”), but defeat it using a magic flute that puts all dragons to sleep, including Peter. However, Ommadon’s dragon, Bryagh, stays awake, and kills the rest of the party, with Orrin sacrificing himself to finally kill the dragon.
Thinking that all the threats are taken care of, Ommadon appears on the battlefield to gloat, but Peter separates himself from Gorbash by stating that two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. Ommadon then tries to kill Peter, but, as he gloats, Peter counters with the logical reason why what he proposes is impossible (e.g. Ommadon cannot pluck the sun from the sky, because the sun’s light takes 8.5 minutes to get here, so the sun isn’t actually at that location). Peter then denies all magic even exists, and proceeds to fight Ommadon’s spells by reciting various scientific principles that counter most of the magic shown in the movie. Ultimately, Ommadon refuses any acceptance of science and dissolves into nothingness. Somehow, this resurrects all the dead characters, which is good, because kids’ movie, and creates the realm that will preserve magic. However, because he denied all magic to beat Ommadon, Peter cannot enter that realm anymore, and returns to the 80s. But, Milisande uses one last spell to follow him, and happy ending ensues.
Alright, so, I admit that the actual plotting of the movie is kind of weak. It’s mostly just a series of random attacks on our generic questing group. In the first half, they get saved from the evil by a new character; in the second half, someone dies to defeat it. The character development mostly happens off-screen, too, during the, apparently long, periods of time between the scenes. For example, Milisande and Peter apparently fall in love in the span of two days together. We get a story by Sir Orrin about how he had vowed to woo Milisande in the past and is dedicated to her forever, but he basically falls for Danielle overnight (with her pretty directly soliciting sex from him by reminding him that they’re probably going to die soon). Giles has literally no character development except that he’s an Elf Outlaw. However, they do a good job of implying that all of the bonding and such happened in between the scenes, which takes some of the sting out of it.
Also, almost everything in the movie that doesn’t make sense is both commented on as being nonsense, but then handwaved as being “because of the will of Antiquity.” It’s basically “a wizard did it,” but the Wizard is the one having to come up with the excuse, so he has to blame a higher power. The magic in the movie is massively inconsistent: Carolinus can’t destroy a waterwheel, but he can TRAVEL THROUGH TIME and not only has knowledge of the future, but has a library full of all of the books that have yet to be written (though, he has Beowulf, which means that the Beowulf manuscript apparently was composed after 982, which is kinda late in the estimates). I mean, I don’t know all of the rules of magic, but I feel like Time Travel and precognition would be a bigger deal than fireball. I’d say it’s because the waterwheel represented science and thus nullified magic, but the time travel takes him to Boston in the 1980s, which is slightly more advanced than a watermill.
The art style in the movie is Rankin/Bass modified to resemble the art style of the illustrations in The Flight of Dragons, but just like other Rankin/Bass movies of the time, sometimes the characters, especially Danielle, look like they were drawn for a completely different film. However, it still kind of works with the fantasy hodge-podge setting, since each of the worlds of the four wizards are both distinct from the “real” world, with their own artistic differences, and presumably all of these characters come from different realms.
The science in the movie is, unfortunately, mostly completely wrong. As a kid, I didn’t know enough about the principles being referenced to disagree with them, but now, I sadly do. What’s super weird is that they are similar to the theories outlined in the book The Flight of Dragons, but changed just enough that they’re now incorrect (though the mechanisms for flight that the book uses still wouldn’t work, they’re at least more viable). However, the idea that dragons sleep on gold because it’s malleable and not flammable is brilliant, and is in my head-canon for all dragons now.
Also, I realized more of what the movie was saying on the re-watch: Science is stronger than magic, because logic itself is infallible and universal. Everyone can do science, few can do magic, so of course science is stronger. However, mankind can’t just rely on science, because magic is the source of imagination, and imagination is how we generate better futures. However, magic is also the source of fear and greed (apparently), which is what leads the world down darker paths, but that’s the trade-off for progress. When I first watched the movie, I thought that the whole point was that science just beats magic, but it’s actually more that logic is superior, but humanity can’t survive without both science as the means and imagination as the motivator. I think that’s a better moral, since it’s accurate that putting all of your belief solely in logic means that you don’t consider philosophical or moral concepts, which tends to end badly for humanity (Like in Rod Serling’s best dystopia). Taken more broadly, it’s saying that science has to win when it conflicts with faith, but faith still has to supply us with a way to deal with the unknown.
However, the final fight between Ommadon and Peter contains one of the ideas that I most want someone to turn into a game: That you can beat a magical construct as long as you can point out why it’s physically impossible. I desperately want that to be a class in DnD or Pathfinder or one of those RPGs: The Physicist. Can’t use any magic or magic items, but as long as the player can explain WHY the magic or monster can’t physically exist, and the caster can’t sufficiently rebut, then it destroys that monster/effect. One day, I will make this game, and then I will be sued by the creators of this movie because I stupidly wrote down that I’m ripping them off and published it online.
Overall, I still love this movie. Is it great? No. But it’s different, and it tries a lot of stuff, and it somehow still feels like it works pretty well. It requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, but the movie is consistent about asking that from the audience. And it’s definitely entertaining, even when the scenes are watching two dragons sing “O Susannah” while getting drunk (and the fact that this sentence exists alone justifies the movie’s existence). I think it’s a movie every fantasy fan should see once. Then read the books, because they’re way better.
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3 thoughts on “Reader Bonus: The Flight of Dragons”
Hehe, glad to see another fan of this film!
I had a feeling the science in this was wrong, especially since even the source material made mistakes even I could spot (tigers and snakes don’t “hypnotize” their prey, said prey’s just paralyzed with fear).
I’m curious, what else did the book in particular get wrong?
I have not read it in a while, but this is a good reason to revisit it. I’ll let you know.
Much appreciated! ^,=,^