Looking back at Ridley Scott’s Legend

Director Ridley Scott followed up Blade Runner with the fantastical whimsy of Legend. Michael looks back at Scott’s cult fantasy...

Hindsight is a strange gift. Geek history dictates that the 1980s were a heyday for the fantasy genre; however, few of the decade’s sword ‘n sorcery flicks were outright hits, and many barely made a comfortable profit. Indeed, nostalgia may enshrine the likes of Dark Crystal, Clash Of The Titans and Willow, but even the most successful only just cracked the domestic top 20 for their respective years.

Of the bunch, Ridley Scott’s Legend remains a particularly tricky case. On its theatrical release, it wasn’t just a box office failure, it was that terrible thing: a box office failure that, even after much pre-release tinkering by the studio, still bombed. Various cuts, endings, even soundtracks exist, but nothing that Universal changed attracted the desired audience. In 1985, Legend was pronounced dead on arrival, and Time critic Richard Corliss used the opportunity to open his review with a damning epitaph for the fantasy genre:

“A long time ago, in a conference room far, far away… it was ordained that sword-and-sorcery movies would be the Next Big Thing. Just imagine crossing the fantasy worlds of JRR Tolkien and George Lucas! Mythic reverberations! Megabucks! Didn’t work.”

Nevertheless, Legend lived on. It endures as a pop culture footnote, where, depending on how you look at it, it could be either The Film Ridley Scott Made After Blade Runner, or The Film Tom Cruise Starred In Between Risky Business and Top Gun. However, there is something strangely alluring about its confluence of chaos and creativity, and, with its recent Blu-ray release, there’s no better time to reassess with fresh, 21st Century eyes.

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While the souped-up, high-def transfer is certainly clean, it makes one thing clear: time has not been kind to Legend. The UK Blu-ray release contains both the hour-and-a-half long European theatrical cut, complete with the Jerry Goldsmith score that was junked for the Stateside release, and the recently-recovered ‘Director’s Cut’, which features 20-odd minutes that were lopped off after a series of unsuccessful test screenings.

Unfortunately, whichever cut you watch, you are still presented with a clichéd, hackneyed story, populated by thinly drawn characters and pat plotting that is neither clever nor classic. The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) wishes to cast the world into eternal night, and take the beautiful, if brash Princess Lily (Mia Sara) as his bride. Will Jack (Tom Cruise), the boyish, forest-dwelling lad, rise to the challenge and save both his paramour and the paradise he calls home?

Of course he does, but Scott and writer William Hjortsberg seem incapable of filling this fairy tale with drama, action or the fantastical sweep to make it rise above its self-consciously generic framework. Likewise, neither of the young protagonists make much of an impression. Cruise, at this crucial point in his career, obviously hadn’t developed the easy charm that would be on display in Top Gun, and there isn’t a trace of his eventual star wattage in this dull hero. Throughout, he is upstaged by the surrounding set, by various colourful creatures, and even by his own hair, which is constantly falling over his eyes, making this wild boy of the woods simply look like he needs his ears lowered.

The chemistry between the leads is hamstrung by mannered, stuffy direction and an utterly ridiculous script. Take the scene where the lovers initially meet, in a secluded glade. Jack is cuddling a fox, while Lily harps on about learning the languages of various wildlife. “Rabbit,” Jack replies, looking up momentarily from his vulpine chum, “it’s much harder than finch!”

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Sara seems to fare better, because Lily has more to do, but even then her character mostly amounts to unfortunate displays of curiosity. Her desire to touch up a unicorn unwittingly puts the whole world in danger, and all it takes for Darkness to steal her innocence away is to flash a shiny necklace in her direction.

While the latter may be an unfortunately sexist plot point, there’s some good that comes out of it, namely a key sequence which introduces the Lord of Darkness, played to the pantomimic hilt by Tim Curry. For an astounding 20 minutes or so, all faults are pushed aside, and Scott’s over-designed, kitsch-y fantasy finds its footing.

However, with its romantic Jerry Goldsmith score and Assheton Gorton’s detailed production design, Legend was supposed to be a sumptuous big-screen fairy tale, a contemporary cinematic confection that recalled both the expressionistic fantasy of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast and the animated splendor of Disney’s early features.

But in its best moments, where, for instance, Princess Lily dances with a shady, mysterious figure, who seems to represent her own inner sin, the film is more indicative of glossy, garish MTV music videos of the period. As Lily glides through a banquet hall flanked by huge, chess piece-like columns, and the camera swoops into a high crane shot, it becomes clear. This is high fantasy by way of Jim Steinman.

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And then out steps Tim Curry, wearing what looks to be twice his bodyweight in blood-red prosthetics. 

Oozing sensuality and suggestion, the Lord of Darkness is a fabulous creation on the part of both Curry and special make-up artist Rob Bottin. Bottin, whose work also graces entries in the Verhoeven, Dante and Carpenter canons, here finds a perfect compromise between demonic exaggeration and practical make-up. Despite all of the throbbing, muscular protrusions, in particular the exceedingly phallic horns that shoot out of the character’s brow, the actor is given absolute freedom where it matters: his face.

Curry’s subsequent slide into smaller roles and voice work has only obscured his talents. Indeed, while he is a master of camp theatricality, he is also remarkably subtle, and that is evident in the minute details that transform Darkness from sexual seducer into an iconic fantasy role. As he attempts to steal away Lily’s innocence (or, as he puts it, “INN-NOH-SENSE!”), Curry needn’t chew scenery, he merely murmurs in baritone, and takes his time with the corny lines, relishing their suggestion with a curl of the lip, inclination of the head, or an evocative arch of an eyebrow.

Nevertheless, for all its skillful craft, the image of an over-sexed Satan wooing a princess (wearing, by this point, a plunging black dress with a massive collar) is just absolutely, wonderfully ridiculous. And it only goes to show that, despite the ambition to create a full-blown fantasy, full of Arthur Rackham-inspired woodland creatures and escapist adventure, Legend is best when kitsch outweighs convention.

For in comparison to Scott’s previous films, in particular Alien and Blade Runner, Legend’s sense of place, and the personality found in the characters’ contexts, is lacking. Ripley and Deckard found themselves in future worlds that may have been technologically advanced, but they were lived-in dystopias; both characters were overwhelmed by their surroundings, be it deep space or a tech-noir metropolis. 

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Legend, on the other hand, is cramped and superficial. This is no doubt caused in part by the film being mostly shot on the 007 Stage at Pinewood, one of the largest sound stages of its time. Whereas the same space has been used for some iconic interiors (say, the Fortress of Solitude), the experiment here was to create the magical exterior of the enchanted forest without venturing outside. 

However, without many of the vast establishing shots that are customary when depicting fictional, fantastical worlds, the forest seems small, and, in distinct contrast to Scott’s sci-fi protagonists, Lily and Jack aren’t figuratively overwhelmed by the world they live in, but literally overwhelmed by the cluttered set design of the film itself.

There probably isn’t another film in Scott’s career where the aspects of the production are so at odds with each other: the underwhelming leads are at the mercy of their backdrops, the swashbuckling climax is sabotaged by choppy editing, and the antagonist is a better dandy than demon. It’s such dissonance which led Roger Ebert, in his contemporary review of the film to note that:

“All of the special effects in the world, and all of the great makeup, and all of the great Muppet creatures can’t save a movie that has no clear idea of its own mission and no joy in its own accomplishment.”

Legend exposes that the ‘visionary’ quality that has always been a part of Scott’s work can, at its worst, scupper a film. And all it takes is to remember that the director cut his teeth in both set design and commercial work to realise that, on a bad day, these tendencies can get the better of him, resulting in such over-produced, confused fluff. 

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Even a self-confessed fan of Scott’s work, film critic David Thomson, admits that the director’s films are “made with relish and a boy’s delight in the surface prettiness of things”, and that he is “as much concerned with the design of their … places as with the quality of their people”. 

When writing about 2000’s Gladiator – the film which pulled Scott out of a decade-long slump of 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, White Squall and GI Jane, and found him rehabilitated as a blockbuster director – Thomson calls it “a sumptuously empty film. Monotonous in plot, muddled in action and daft in its ending, it was determined to knock out the eye while neglecting the mind.” Taken out of context, he might as well be talking about Legend.

Of course, unlike Gladiator, Legend wasn’t a hit. Until recently, Scott’s career was characterised by such troughs between box office peaks. The director’s follow-up, the romantic crime drama Someone To Watch Over Me, was, despite the genre shift, another bomb, whereas 1989’s Black Rain was his biggest hit since Alien. So, as he approaches the age of 75, and readies his geek-friendly sci-fi flick Prometheus later this year, it’s worth wondering why Scott’s name is held in such high regard. Have his misses outnumbered his hits, either commercially or creatively?

Over the years, the reputations of Alien and Blade Runner have only grown, as their influence spreads and time reveals their unique qualities. On the other hand, Legend, like many of its 80s fantasy brethren, found life in the long tail offered by home video, and seeded a generation of young cultish die-hards. When they hit adulthood, these fans looked fondly on the films of their youth and, let’s say, decided to write articles discussing them on the Internet, helping to solidify the reputation of this cinematic moment for generations to come. And thus, these cult films developed their own mythologies, and gathered their own disciples.

It’s for this audience that director’s cuts are reassembled and released. And, indeed, is there a director who has benefited more from the rise of the DVD, and from the release of various versions of the same movie, than Ridley Scott? In a period where auteur theory – a mode of thinking where critics bestowed authorial control on the director of a film, as opposed to the writer or producer – has become passe, it seems that the focus on extended cuts, deleted scenes and audio commentaries have given directors similar power by other means.

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In an on-screen text introduction, Scott presents the director’s cut of Legend as “both an archival curiosity for fans and a digitised preservation of my original vision for the film”. However, the additional 20 minutes hold little meat for the curious viewer, and barely changes the film’s overall character. There are additional shots – more lingering looks between the leads, some foreshadowing – but the film has the same canter right up until a laughable alternate ending, where the difference is between Jack and Lily running off into the sunset together, or a minute or two apart. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, it’s a very different story. After all, since they were given the heavily edited version of Legend, where Jerry Goldsmith’s score was replaced with synth-soundscapes provided by Tangerine Dream, the differences are much more pronounced. However, the US Blu-ray, released at the back end of last year, also contains all of the special features from 2002’s ‘Ultimate’ edition, full of documentaries, interviews and other fan bait. 

Curiously, these are all missing from the UK disc, meaning that our Legend Blu-ray may be beautiful, but it is also superficial, shallow, and compromised by the studio. But, it begs asking, doesn’t that fit the film perfectly?

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