(Just a warning that this post is riddled with spoilers about two 80s fantasy films)
Let’s talk about a heroic act where a notable character held a door so others could push on to saving the day. A memorable and emotional sacrifice. Something that has lingered with me for years.
As may be obvious, no, this has nothing to do with a big idiot whose mind was ruined by time-travelling weirdness and who was left holding a door without realising it, by which point it was too late for him to run. By the way, I would love to see said character return as an undead figure, carrying a door to beat a certain teenage boy who destroyed his life with.
No, this is about the character Rell, the cyclops from the 1983 science-fantasy film, Krull.
Then we can talk about that moment when a dragon was killed in a dramatic fight, which hurt me and still hurts when I have watched it since. Those final moments of life from that character. A character who stood out and meant something, and who died playing an important role in the story. Again, I’m clearly not talking about something that just happened on tv. I mean Smrgol, the older dragon, in the animated fantasy 1982 film, the Flight of Dragons.
This is where I get into being a bit of an old grump. I’ve seen people say they lost their minds, literally cried, at the two tv show moments I alluded to. Okay, people react differently to things. I get that. No one can tell you how to be affected by story telling as you grow up. Still, I found these tv moments to be hollow. Dramatic, yes. Shocking, true. But nothing as emotionally scarring as the two incidents I’m going to describe. It makes me feel old and bitter, claiming to myself “young people today lose it over anything, whereas when I were a lad, we got upset over real characters being killed off” etc. I admit I think I’m being unfair, and a grumpy old man. Maybe younger people emote more than my generation did. Maybe they feel for these characters more than I ever could. Maybe the fact I grew up on other moments means these new moments can’t affect me, but they would if I were growing up now. I hope not. I hope I would always need an emotional core to an event for it to get me, and also I can still find my gut being wrenched when the art is worked skilfully. See the beginning of Up or the end of Moon.
I could write a big complaint about how people overreacted to these tv moments, but again, while I have my logical points to make, the bulk is just emotional reactions. Some work for certain people, others don’t. If anyone grieved over a CGI dragon that barely did a thing and had no personality, well fair enough. I can understand grieving more for the anguish the Mother felt than the creature itself, without doubt. Less so for the death on its own. Fewer so? Anyway, people have their own reactions to things and I don’t like berating others for their emotional outbursts, as if we can control them that well. I’m sure I would have been derided for wanting to cry over an animated dragon breathing its last breath, back when I was a child. Even so, I feel fully justified in that grief. Smrgol was a character and he made a choice and it cost him.
That’s a good place to start. Something that binds these two memorable moments. Choosing for yourself and paying the price. I don’t want to go on about things that didn’t move me and how snarky I got when others were affected. I want to use this to springboard into praising what did work and trying to explain why it did. For me.
Rell in Krull. Here is this big cyclops who appears and helps the band of characters out, later joining them. His story is explained in simple terms. Once his people made a deal with the Beast (the villain) but were tricked, losing an eye to see the future, except the only thing they could see ahead of them was the day of their death. They became a sad and lonely people. But as a cyclops, Rell clearly sees the Beast and his minions, the Slayers, as his enemies. He fights them for his own reasons, and joins the other heroes when he can see they are worthy people, and he has been able to prove himself to them. However, when the ending is near, Rell stays behind. The rest set out to reach the Black Fortress before it moves, yet he has to remain, because it is his time to die, and if he tries to avoid this then a very painful fate will befall him.
It won’t surprise to say that Rell does show up later to save them once again, but still, it made my heart leap to see him come riding in. The others are pinned down by Slayers, they can’t get into the fortress, but here comes Rell, stomping his way up, taking bolts to the chest and barely flinching. He works his way up, kills a Slayer and stops a stone slab door from closing.
That’s right, Rell holds the door.
The others begin rushing through. The door is slowly closing but Rell holds it as best he can. It’s still closing though. The others help a bit as the rest go through, except now that door is more closed than not. Rell is struggling. He calls out to them. Colwyn and Torquil strive to help him. It’s no good. There are gurgling noises as the door closes. There’s a shout, but could be from Torquil, still trying to save him. Then the door slams shut.
Rell chose to risk his life. Actually, maybe he chose to give it up – he knew his fate if he avoided the death he foresaw. He had stayed behind because he was meant to. Instead he rode after them, helped them get inside the fortress when none of them could manage it, and enabled them to save the world. Maybe he thought he could do this and survive, but it was highly unlikely. He went to help them knowing the risk, maybe even accepting a death if it could prove to be the difference. It was.
Rell chose. He suffered. Rell made a difference. He paid the price.
During the story, he had been an enigmatic figure who then bonded with other characters and showed a softer side, with a few funny moments too. He meant something to us. As much as Torquil, the outlaw leader, or Ynyr, the Old One. Rell’s character, saving others, his sacrificial, and also brutal, end – it hit me hard back then. Still does.
Now let’s turn to Smrgol. This is an older dragon who ends up having to go on a quest because a human from the 20th Century has gotten fused with a young dragon, who was supposed to go. So a lot of their interaction is Smrgol teaching Peter/Gorebash how to be a dragon.
This teaching goes up a level when Peter has to take on the Ogre of Gormley Keep. This big bastard has kidnapped the other quest members so they have to rescue them by defeating him, and Smrgol is too old for that shit. He tells Peter what to do, then watches in horror as the human gets it all wrong. So into the fray he goes. He gets it right, of course, and down goes the ogre, but just as it was warned, Smrgol found it too much. He collapses. His heart gives out.
Smrgol isn’t meant to go on the quest. Nor is he meant to fight the ogre. He agrees to go because they need him (well, they need three for some reason) and he helps out, and Peter needs a teacher. He gets into the fight to save the young man’s life. I love his “Hey, Hey You”, after they already called the Ogre Hey You in a challenge. He even taunts the ogre a bit as he tries to drag him off the wall. The ogre is a daunting figure, they made a great job of him being terrifying. He matches each dragon, bests one, just loses to the other. Smrgol uses his wits and wins. Experience plays out.
Smrgol is more affable, more likeable, than Rell from Krull. He is a friendly mentor, helping Peter. He can laugh, he cares, and he certainly isn’t in this for glory or bravado. He’s a knowledgeable dragon who knows what is at stake, but should be taking it easy, seeing out his old age. Loses him hurts even more. I mean hell, I just watched the fight on Youtube to check on things and even then I could feel my stomach tightening.
Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the inner kid seeing these images and getting to me. Maybe there’s just something about the noble sacrifice. I’ll admit, I’ve always had a thing for that. Dinobot in Beast Wars. Obi-Wan in Star Wars. Hector in the Illiad. Piccolo in Dragonball Z. Gandalf, even though he comes back. Definitely Boromir.
Still, I feel it has a logic to it as well as an emotional reaction. These characters mattered. They chose to act. They knew a cost would be asked. They risked everything. They paid it. You can’t beat that. Not for me, anyway.
I’ll admit, both films are very 80s, with a fair amount of camp and rushed plotlines, sometimes very stereotypical ideas. For once, I’d love to see a remake of either, or both, with more character development and some improvements to the story. Just witnessing a new generation look on in awe as Bryagh swoops down yelling “Puny scum of Carolinus! Prepare to die!” before scattering the group. He was a great baddie who could be fleshed out to be even better. One of my favourite bad dragons.
Still, I’d understand people scoffing at these films. Many did back then. More seem to like these and others nowadays, but they’re far from perfect, even in the eyes of us fanboys and fangirls. Yet these two moments always get me. Rell held that door. Smrgol died in a showdown. Both mattered to me. They still do. I hope their stories won’t be lost as those of us who grew up with them get older.