Due to an unrelated project, I recently fell down a rabbit hole relating to depictions of western dragons in film. For creatures so ubiquitous in the rest of popular culture, they’re surprisingly thin on the ground in the movies – especially prior to the 21st century.
This led to a Twitter thread in which I explored the early history of dragons in cinema. Oddly enough, the first dragons in film don’t look much like what we’ve come to associate with the term here in the west. 1924 saw, as far as I am aware, the first two dragons ever to grace the screen – certainly in a feature-length project.
One was in the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Bagdad, which I initially forgot about while making the tweet thread, while the other was in the first half of Fritz Lang’s diptych Die Nibelungen. Both looked more like dinosaurs than the winged dragons we’re familiar with from D&D. In fact, the first winged dragon that I know of didn’t show up on film until 1936, where it made its debut in an unlikely spot: a 16-minute Popeye short called Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor.
Popeye Meets Sindbad was bundled with two other shorts, also inspired by the Arabian Nights, and released as “A Popeye Feature.” Ray Harryhausen would later acknowledge that the cartoon was a major inspiration for his 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which also features a dragon of its own, albeit again, a wingless one. As in 7th Voyage, the dragon is far from alone in the Popeye short. Sindbad’s island is also home to loads of other monsters, including a roc, an ettin, and more. It’s dragons we’re here to talk about, though…
Even though the short was combined into a feature, it doesn’t really count as a feature film. In fact, for a winged dragon to make its debut on American screens in a feature, we had to wait until 1959, when Disney introduced one of the screen’s most iconic dragons. The House of Mouse had already put animated dragons on screen before that, notably the eponymous character from the mixed live-action/animation oddity The Reluctant Dragon, in 1941. But in ’59, they gave us the dark fairy Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, who took the shape of a massive black dragon who breathes green flame.
Maleficent wasn’t actually the first winged dragon to hit screens, though. The Russians had beaten America to that punch, with the three-headed Gorynych, who showed up onscreen for the first time (that I know of) in Ilya Muromets in 1956. That flick made its way stateside as The Sword and the Dragon in 1963, where it was eventually skewered by the crew of the Satellite of Love on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Since then, dragons on screen have increased in frequency as the years have rolled on and these days they’re relatively commonplace, by comparison. Early on, though, dragons on film were as rare as they often are in the earliest stories about them – beasts both singular and strange, representing humanity’s desire to subdue a chaotic world. Which, in this case, takes the form of creating elaborate special effects to represent big, magical lizards.