An English knight, Bowen (Dennis Quaid), mentors a Saxon prince, Einon (Lee Oakes), in the ideals of chivalry, in the hope that he will become a better king than his tyrannical father Freyne (Peter Hric). When the king is killed while suppressing a peasant rebellion, Einon is mortally, though accidentally, wounded by the peasant girl Kara (Sandra Kovacikova). Einon's mother, Queen Aislinn (Julie Christie), has him taken before a dragon whom she implores to save the boy's life. The dragon replaces Einon's wounded heart with half of its own on the promise that Einon will rule with justice and virtue. However, Einon soon becomes more tyrannical than his father, enslaving the former rebels and forcing them to rebuild a Roman castle. Bowen believes that the dragon's heart has twisted Einon, and swears vengeance on all dragons.
Twelve years later, an adult Einon (David Thewlis) has his castle rebuilt. Kara (Dina Meyer) asks the king to pardon her father after years of slavery, but Einon instead kills him in order to "free" him. As for Bowen, he has become a very skilled dragonslayer. Brother Gilbert (Pete Postlethwaite), a monk and aspiring poet, observes Bowen slaying a dragon and follows him to record his exploits. Bowen stalks another dragon (voiced by Sean Connery) to its cave, but the confrontation ends in a stalemate. The dragon states that he is the last of his kind, and thus if Bowen kills him, he will be out of a job. The two form a partnership to defraud local villagers with staged dragonslayings. Bowen calls the dragon Draco, after the constellation. Unknown to Bowen, Draco is the dragon who shared his heart with Einon, and through this connection, any pain inflicted upon one is also felt by the other.
Meanwhile, Kara, seeking revenge on Einon for murdering her father, is imprisoned after a failed assassination attempt. Einon recognizes her as the one responsible for his near-death and attempts to seduce her and make her his queen. Disgusted by what her son has become, Aislinn helps Kara escape. Kara returns to her village and tries to rally the villagers there against Einon, but they instead offer her as a sacrifice to Draco, who takes her to his lair. Einon arrives to recapture her and fights Bowen, declaring that he never believed in Bowen's ideals, and only told Bowen what he wanted to hear so he would teach him how to fight. He eventually gains the upper hand and nearly kills Bowen, but Draco intervenes, reveals his half-heart to Einon, and the king flees. Kara asks Bowen to help overthrow Einon, but the disillusioned knight refuses.
After meeting Gilbert by chance at another village, Bowen and Draco's next staged dragonslaying goes poorly, and their con is exposed (after Kara, disgusted by their actions, unsuccessfully attempts to expose the con herself). While Draco is playing dead, the villagers see him as potential meat and attempt to carve him up, but hearing their intentions makes him flee, subsequently alerting the villagers to the con. Angered, they surround Bowen, Kara, and Gilbert, now deciding to make them their meat instead. Draco, however, rescues the three and takes them to Avalon, where they take shelter among the tombs of the Knights of the Round Table. Draco reveals the connection between himself and Einon, stating that he hoped giving the prince a piece of his heart would change Einon's nature and reunite the races of Man and Dragon. Through this action Draco hoped to earn a place in the stars, where dragons who prove their worth go after they die. He fears that his failure will cost him his soul, and agrees to help Kara and Gilbert against Einon. After experiencing a vision of King Arthur (voiced by John Gielgud) that reminds him of his knightly code, Bowen agrees to help, as well.
With Bowen and Draco on their side, the villagers are organized into a formidable fighting force. Aislinn presents Einon with a group of dragonslayers, secretly knowing that killing Draco will cause Einon to die as well. The villagers are on the verge of victory against Einon's cavalry when Gilbert strikes Einon in the heart with an arrow. Draco falls from the sky and is captured. Einon realizes that he is effectively immortal as long as Draco remains alive, and determines to keep the dragon imprisoned. Aislinn attempts to kill Draco during the night, but Einon stops and kills her instead.
The rebels invade Einon's castle to rescue Draco as Bowen battles Einon. Draco begs Bowen to kill him as it is the only way to end Einon's reign, but Bowen can't bring himself to kill his friend. Einon charges at Bowen with a dagger, but Bowen reluctantly throws an axe into Draco's exposed half-heart. Einon and Draco both die, and Draco's body dissipates as his soul becomes a new star in the constellation. Bowen and Kara go on to lead the kingdom into an era of justice and brotherhood.
Patrick Read Johnson, who wrote the story for Dragonheart, first proposed the idea for the film to producer Raffaella de Laurentiis. Johnson describes it as "The Skin Game with a dragon in it...or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Dragon", and that he wanted "the idea of a dragon and a knight conning villages for money" because he thought that the concept was "not only funny, but kind of sweet". Johnson went on to pitch the idea to screenplay writer Charles Edward Pogue, and he agreed to work on the film. De Laurentiis originally intended for John Badham, Rob Cohen's then-partner, to work on Dragonheart. According to Cohen, Badham "didn't respond" to the material, so Johnson was then asked to direct the film.
To be able to stay within the budget that Universal Studios was willing to shell out with Johnson directing, the developers approached Jim Henson's Creature Shop to create the dragon through traditional means. The dragon model was done within eight weeks time, and the crew then went to Shepperton Studios in England to begin shooting the film, starting with the campfire scene. The crew faced difficulties in keeping within the budget.
After working with de Laurentiis on Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story in 1993, Rob Cohen agreed to take over as director for the film. He approached Universal Studios with his new ideas, including the addition of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to animate the dragons similar to how the dinosaurs were created for Jurassic Park.
The principal cast members of Dragonheart were:
- Dennis Quaid as Bowen, a knight who becomes a dragon-slayer and then allies with Draco. Director Rob Cohen was impressed with Quaid, telling producer Raffaella De Laurentiis "[Quaid] is a knight of the old code." Cohen called Quaid "obviously intelligent and fun to work with", and said that he "really [thought] he [was] Bowen." Quaid underwent rigorous training for the role, mostly practicing sword fighting. Quaid and Cohen both wanted Bowen's sword technique to have an "Eastern flavor", so Quaid trained with Japanese sword master Kiyoshi Yamasaki.
- Sean Connery as the voice of Draco, the last remaining dragon. Cohen felt it was "very important that [the dragon's] personality be derived from the actor who was going to play the voice", and said that Connery was the only actor he had in mind for the role. He described Connery's voice as "unique" and "instantly recognizable", but said that it was "what [Connery] stood for in life as an actor and as a man that most related to what I wanted for Draco." Voice recording for Draco was done in three sessions. To help animate Draco's facial expressions, Cohen and the ILM animators took close-up shots of Connery from his previous films, categorized the clips according to what emotion was being expressed, and put them in separate tapes for easy reference.
- David Thewlis as Einon, the tyrannical king who shares part of Draco's heart. Cohen cast Thewlis based on his performance in Naked, stating "what makes a villain scary is the brain, not the brawn." The young Einon in the film's opening scenes was played by Lee Oakes.
- Pete Postlethwaite as Gilbert of Glockenspur, a monk and aspiring poet who joins Bowen and Draco in the revolt against Einon. Cohen wanted Postlethwaite for the role based on his performance in In the Name of the Father, feeling that "anyone who was assured in a dramatic role could take Brother Gilbert and make it real and charmingly funny."
- Jason Isaacs as Lord Felton, Einon's second in command. He hires Bowen to slay a dragon running rampant around his village, but refuses to pay after learning more of Bowen.
- Julie Christie as Queen Aislinn, Einon's mother. Cohen found Christie through David Thewlis' casting agent.
- Dina Meyer as Kara, a peasant girl who seeks revenge on Einon for killing her father. Meyer was the second actress Cohen interviewed for the role. Cohen stated that he needed an actress who was "strong and someone who could, in the end, handle herself with these double viking axes and look believable.". Sandra Kovacikova plays Kara as a child.
- Peter Hric as King Freyne, Einon's father and Aislinn's husband, a tyrannical ruler.
- Brian Thompson as Brok, Einon's knight who served alongside Einon's father when he was king.
- Terry O'Neill as Redbeard.
- John Gielgud as the uncredited voice of King Arthur, who speaks to Bowen during his visit to Avalon.
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