The Dragon Slayer opens in late 19th Century China. Sun Yat-Sen (Lee Montague) is committed to the overthrow of the ruling Manchurian dynasty. Following heavy fighting he’s forced to flee to England, where he seeks to raise both awareness and money. But the Chinese government, fearful of his public profile, decides to imprison him in their London consulate. If he renounces his radical views then he’ll be set free, if not …..
Like He Rises on Sunday and We on Monday, The Dragon Slayer is based on real-life events. Although Sun Yat-Sen probably isn’t too well known in the West, he did later succeed in bringing an end to the Manchu dynasty and served as China’s first president. But if you do know his background then it rather saps the tension of the story, as it’s obvious that no harm will have befallen him by the end of the episode.
Although Sun Yat-Sen is just as driven as Roger McBride from the previous story, The Dragon Slayer has a more layered narrative since others challenge and contradict his point of view. Shortly after arriving in London, Sun finds himself invited to an exclusive reception. As he fingers his tuxedo, it’s obvious that he feels like a fish out of water, but he’s driven by his mission to find benefactors who can supply money and arms. Sir Leslie Parrott (Peter Dyneley) seems such a man – he’s a successful businessman, so he’s certainly rich enough.
But Sir Leslie isn’t going to be swayed by Sun’s picture of a free, democratic China or vague promises of trade monopolies. The bottom line is profit – if there’s no money to be made then he won’t take the risk. As Sun feels Sir Leslie lose interest, the camera tracks away to settle on a well-dressed woman dripping with diamonds – a visual beat which helps to suggest that his plea is doomed to failure (in such genteel society, talk of war is made to feel very out of place).
Sun puts the blame for all of China’s problems firmly at the feet of their rulers, to which Sir Leslie responds that you can’t blame governments for everything. And the Englishman concludes by telling Sun that he might be the menace – not the Manchu – if he leads his people into a massacre. That not all China’s ills are due to the Manchu is a point also later made by Sun’s uncle – helping to reinforce the point that no war can ever be black and white.
I’ve yet to touch upon the area of The Dragon Slayer which will probably be the most problematic for a modern audience, namely that the main Chinese roles are played by British actors. This was very common during the 1960’s and 1970’s – the pool of ethnic actors was so small there was really no alternative. But it’s very strange viewing nonetheless, as a selection of familiar faces try and convince us that they’re Chinese.
Lee Montague (born in Bow, London in 1927 and still going strong today, I’m delighted to say) probably comes off best – Sun might be a fanatic, ready to spill the blood of others for his cause, but Montague manages to capture the contradictory compassion of the man as well. On the other end of the scale there’s Patrick Cargill as Colonel Tung. Cargill didn’t attempt to modulate his normal cut-glass tones (which to be honest was probably wise – had any of the cast attempted “me velly solly” accents that would have just made things worse) so at first you do come away with the impression that his character is an Englishman dressed up. But whilst Cargill doesn’t remotely convince as Chinese, he still manages to invest Tung with a restrained menace. Tung, acting as Sun’s jailer and interrogator, doesn’t need to rant and rave – he holds such a clear position of power that he can afford to treat his captive with amused, icy contempt.
Alan Tilvern and Cyril Shaps (both first-rate actors, but not known for their Chinese looks) are also drafted into service – playing P’Eng Pat and Lao Han respectively. Thorley Walters also appears, but fortunately he’s playing an Englishman, Dr Cantile.
Sam Kydd impesses as Crutchley, an English servant working at the Chinese consulate. Tung tells him to take Sun his meals, but also informs him that he should ignore anything he hears. Sun tries to get Crutchley on his side by telling him that he’s a Christian, but this doesn’t cut any ice with the Englishman. “I may be a butler, but I’m a scientific man myself. You see sir, I’m a Darwinist. I believe that man is descended from monkeys. Oh no offence intended sir, but how could the world ever have been made in six days?” When Sun reveals that his captors plan to kill him, Crutchley calmly replies that as a Christian he’d have assumed that’d be something he’d look forward to! As this isn’t a story with a great deal of levity, Kydd’s scenes help to lighten the mood a little.
So there’s an excellent cast at work here, even if some performances are a little compromised. Three writers were credited for the script, Raymond Bowers, Albert Ruben and Halsted Welles (who previously contributed the first-class story The Incurable One). Since Ruben and Welles were American and Bowers was British it suggests that some rewriting took place. And the committee-like nature of the writing might be one of the reasons why the story never quite seems to work as well as it could.