Retro Review: Legend (1985)
To cap off Sword and Sorcery September, I’ve saved the best for last (no offense, Erik), Ridley Scott’s Legend. Coming out in the mid eighties, at the tail end of the great Sci-Fi/Fantasy deluge, Legend was the capstone of the genre, blending breathtaking visuals, tremendous puppetry and costume work, and a clever story that incorporated many threads of medieval, allegorical, and mythological themes. It also features the best screen villain in all movie history, played to the nines by the eccentric and talented Tim Curry.
Three for All
To properly enjoy Legend, it’s important to understand that the movie actually comes in three flavors. The first version is the UK theatrical release, which featured a much more whimsical fantasy orchestration by Jerry Goldsmith, extended scenes, and an implied happy ending. Following this, the movie was re-scored for American theatrical release to feature a more synthesized (and darker themed) score by Tangerine Dream (who you may recognize from their latest soundtrack work on Grand Theft Auto V), an abbreviated run time, narration at the beginning of the film, alternate visual introduction of the villain, and a definite happy ending. Twenty years passed, and Scott released a director’s cut (which some argue is as vision changing to the film as Donner’s Cut for Superman 2) which restored the original Goldsmith score, added in nearly half an hour of additional footage, and leaves the viewer with a more somber ending. While I advocate for seeing the movie as the director intended (and you can find DVD versions with both theatrical releases as well), I will be using the American theatrical release, as it is the version I grew up on and love dearly.
The Story (American Theatrical Version)
Set in an undefined time and place, Legend tells the tale of the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Sorry, Darkness, big D. In the ancient past, Darkness ruled over the world, until the coming of the Light, in the form of two unicorns. As long as they existed, Darkness was banished from the surface world to plot a return to power. Enter humanity.
Two young lovers, Jack and Lilli (Tom Cruise and Mia Sara) exist in a nearly paradisaical world, Lilli as a princess, and Jack as a keeper of the forest that Lilli escapes to when her duties (never clearly defined) leave her longing for adventure. Jack has a preternatural affinity to all things wild, communicating with the creatures of the forest with ease, and in true fairy tale manner, aware of the unwritten rules of the fantasy land they inhabit. The most important being don’t mess with the damn unicorns. Unfortunately, Jack is also a bit of a nebbish, and head over heals with Lilli, who is a tad spoiled. Lilli wants them unicorns. So Jack, fool he is, takes Lilli to see the unicorns, and lo and behold, Lilli gives him the slip and rushes out to touch them.
All along, Darkness has had his eye on the pair, especially Lilli. Apparently, the unicorns can only be touched by the forces of darkness when their purity has been spoiled: like, say, if a not entirely pure and feckless young girl runs out and touches them. Darkness pounces on the opportunity, sending his troops to strike the horn from the defiled unicorn, and imprisoning the other. They also manage to capture Lilli. With this disastrous turn of events, winter instantly swallows up the land, and a very pissed off little sprite named Gump (David Bennet, both delightful and frightening at the same time) lays into Jack, recruiting him to save Lilli and fix the whole damn mess.
Jack retrieves heroic weaponry and sets off on the perilous journey into Darkness’ abode. Meanwhile, Lilli has been seduced by Darkness’ glamour, and is poised to further ruin the situation by delivering the second unicorn’s horn to the evil lord. Can Jack intervene in time, and how will the world be made right? You owe it to yourself to see the epic confrontation, I won’t spoil it. Not even a little.
Legend has endured so long in cinematic memory because of the artful blend of style and substance. On the face of it, Legend is a gorgeous fairy tale of the Labyrinth and Dark Crystal ilk. The puppetry and makeup work is less whimsical than Henson’s creations, but impressive in its own rights. That Darkness is as enjoyable and complex as he is owes both to Curry’s tremendous emoting power and to the expertise of the crew who assembled him. Even throw-away creatures are skillfully wrought, like poor, vain, Meg Mucklebones.
The story-telling of Legend is top notch, as well. Overlaying the decidedly Grimm’s fairy tale structure is a morality tale as primal as Adam and Eve. In fact, with the exception of a single washer woman, Jack and Lilli are the only two humans in existence for the entire film. Their trespass causes evil to enter the world. In Jack’s transformation, we have echoes of Arthur and Excalibur. Lilli’s seduction is redolent with notes of Persephone and Hades, and the black apple Darkness offers Lilli is a nice aside to both biblical and mythological tropes. Jack’s journey harkens to Orpheus’ journey to the underworld. These and many more allegorical themes are lightly scattered throughout, giving a familiarity and depth to the action, and they ensure that multiple viewings reward keen eyes.
The acting is consistently good, with Tim Curry stealing whatever scenes he has, and the support players like Bennett as Gump being surprise delights. Despite my usual antipathy towards Tom Cruise, as a naive Jack, he performs well and with great physicality. Mia Sara is perhaps given to little to work with as a spoiled and willful Lilli, but shows great vigor and ability once taken over by her darker alter-ego. Overall, there is much to enjoy and little to disappoint in Ridley Scott’s Legend.