Let me open this with a disclaimer that will save plenty of viewers the deep disappointment when realizing that the swelling excitement catalyzed by the inclusion of an epic mythological beast in the title is all for naught: There are no dragons. Now pick yourself back up because if that is enough to send you into a slump of despair then the next two hours are not going to go too well for you (assuming you are about to watch this movie, though you reading this is a sign that this is not the case).
Okay so obviously there aren’t going to be any dragons, as the inclusion of “based on true events” should clue one in on; so now what it is not has been determined, it’s time to decide on the plot of the film. On the broadest descriptive level the story follows two men who grew apart with age following a childhood friendship, finding themselves on opposite sides during the Spanish Civil War. A very brief explanation of this is given prior to the film starting, but for those whose knowledge of Spanish history only involves weakly understanding their high school lessons of how to change the retained Spanish verbs to the past tense then the movie will seem a little over the head.
Maybe it is the lack of previous knowledge to base an understanding of the film’s storyline on, but in order to avoid wallowing in self-pity at the fact that I am a complete history dunce I am going to obstinately place blame on the different cinematic elements of the film itself. To sum up the thought process of a viewer (who may arguably be suffering from ADHD), the film’s conflict can be summed up as follows: Whoa… That man is pretty ugly. Or are those prosthetics? Has the actor been aged with makeup? Maybe that’s why they’re hiding his face as much as possible with the composition of the camera frame. Hm… Remember to check imdb.com to confirm suspicions later. Wait a minute. He was a spoiled rich boy and suddenly he is being pulled in by military big wigs to become a spy? Don’t you need training for something like that? Why do they want to kill all of these priests anyway? I know they can be a little annoying cramming Jesus down your throat, but those seem like extreme measures to me. Wow, when did this romantic kindling become important enough to be placed front and center? This would be so much better if it was a Spanish soap opera so that we wouldn’t be able to understand what they’re saying to each other. How are all of these bullets not hitting anyone!? Is fascist a synonym for blind? Goodness I wish this was a prequel to How to Train Your Dragon…
Other than successfully exemplifying a rather unconventional train of thought, this shows how the film is marred to such a degree by the majority of its cinematic elements that the positives are completely outweighed by the other side of the pros/cons list. For example, Charlie Cox and Wes Bentley do pretty admirable jobs portraying the two friends torn apart by society and war, but their performances are weakened by the lack of substantial character development, especially for Manolo considering this is actually his story.
Generally speaking a solid knowledge base for a period film is often unnecessary to still find a way to enjoy it, but obviously it is pretty challenging to do so with There Be Dragons. Often it feels like an older film in dialog and film quality (in the way that old films are often laughably awkward for today’s audience), and the heightened level of romanticism during times of war is completely unnatural in the way that it is forced into the story. Now and again the cinematography proves itself beautifully, and the battle scenes do have a few memorable shots, but with the rest of the film to compare it to these seem to be the exception and stick out because of this.
Though it does deserve praise in some places, overall There Be Dragons is unable to find the secret to mixing an intense dramatic story with the action of war, severely crippled by the fact that it does not have strong enough characters to fall back on. Though it may have deserved a passing grade, with films like Atonement and A Very Long Engagement to compare it to, There Be Dragons winds up falling short of the high bar set by these other films of the genre.
Final Grade: D+