Legend (1985)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Even in its early stages, Tom Cruise’s career has been marked by risk taking. Not long after his star-making turn as the privileged teen having a wild weekend in Risky Business (1983), and just before his Air Force recruitment film Top Gun (1986), Cruise appeared in a smallish fantasy film that might have changed perceptions of him among casting directors and fans alike. In it he plays a Puckish forest child whose love for a princess imperils all that is good in the world, though admittedly, he does go on an heroic quest to fight the forces of darkness. That he made this film certainly must be down to his desire to work with the best directors—in this case, Ridley Scott, whose stylish Blade Runner (1982), his last film before Legend, was in a class by itself.

Scott’s earlier scifi/fantasy films, including the highly popular Alien (1979), focused on a menacing near-future. With Legend, Scott turned his gaze toward a pre-Judeo-Christian world. With its emphasis on enchantment, the primacy of true love, and violence without blood and death, this simple story, briskly told, was obviously made primarily for tweens and teens. Yet such is Scott’s skill that this tale is richly embellished with the power of myth for people of all ages via the mythmaking vehicle of the 20th century—film.

Simply, Darkness (Tim Curry) is bothered to learn that two unicorns still roam the earth. No longer content to simply be half of existence, he sends his goblins out to kill the creatures, without which Light will be banished forever. An innocent princess named Lily (Mia Sara), the beloved of Jack (Cruise), is used to lure the unicorns within range of the goblins’ poisoned darts. One is hit, but the other escapes. After the goblins cut off his horn, the world is plunged into darkness, with snow and ice covering the formerly verdant landscape. Lily sets off to right her wrong, and Jack and several elves follow to rescue her and the female unicorn, which has been captured and awaits execution.

Legend honors the era of the Goddess like few mythological works I’ve seen. Some associate the feminine with night, but it is actually the moon, which brings light to darkness, that is feminine. Lily is no silver-spoon princess who looks down on the beings of Mother Earth—its peasants and the embodied spirits of nature represented by elves and sprites. Indeed, when she visits the home of Nell (Tina Martin), a rosy-cheeked peasant woman, she waxes rhapsodic on the riches to be found in the humble cottage and surrounding forest. She loves Jack, whose spritely appearance makes him seem a cross between mortal and enchanted—an earthly man and proper male opposite who is at home in the feminine. When she realizes that she helped the minions of Darkness attack the unicorns, she decides to take action on her own.

Jack is an interesting character. Looking like Peter Pan (traditionally played by a woman), he is mortal, but has crossed over into the semi-deified world. Gump (David Bennent, the wonderful star of The Tin Drum), who seems to be the lead elf, has accepted him completely as a forest being, and let Jack in on all the forests’ secrets, including the location of the unicorns and, when he must fight Darkness, the cache of armor and weaponry he will need for his hero’s quest. He berates Jack for letting Lily touch the sacred unicorn, but recognizes that Jack’s love trumps such rules. In this, Legend is much more forgiving than the deity who expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Scott’s film shares some elements in common with his earlier works, particularly Blade Runner. The underground palace in which Darkness lives is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its dark, claustrophobic, semi-fascistic look. Yet it also exists on a scale of grandeur that fits not only the physical size, but also the importance of Darkness in the universe. Earth inscribes a perfect circle not only around the sun, but also on its axis, the latter action giving equal time to darkness and light. “What is light without dark,” says Darkness, a simple lesson for the physical life of our world that Scott honors and showcases. Jack’s ambiguous status also echoes the uncertainty about Deckard’s status as a human.

Scott also creates some wonderful images. When Lily looks at a clock with moving figures in Nell’s cottage, a portend of her future emerges when she sees snow covering the figure of the young girl being chased by the carving of death. The image of the male unicorn prostrate under a tree, snow swirling to cover him as his mate paces and bucks frantically around him is beautiful and poignant. A dancing black dress Darkness presents to Lily as her wedding gown (Liz Gilbert, whose face is covered in black gauze) is macabre and beautifully lit by leaping flames from his enormous fireplace. Scott’s dazzling palette of colors in the early sequences is a splendid tribute to nature.

I quite admired the make-up and costume designs, but alas, some of the masks were ill-constructed and rather laughable, and whatever was used to keep them affixed to the actors’ flesh didn’t work very well. Nonetheless, a green creature arising from the moat around Darkness’ castle to eat Jack was quite impressive-looking, as was Darkness himself. Annabelle Lanyon, who plays the sprite Oona, has an elfin face as it is, and her otherworldliness is accentuated by intense blue contact lenses and pale, wispy hair. I was transfixed whenever she was on screen.

It’s hard to really talk about performances in this film, since the dialogue is so basic and little complexity is required of the actors. Nonetheless, Bennent is an enormously gifted actor who projects gravity and strength despite his diminutive size. Cruise and Sara make an appealing couple who really do seem to be in love. And well, Tim Curry is at his Tim Curryest.

We’ve grown used to filmed myths and legends of the most bloated proportions these days. It’s nice to reflect on a film that infuses our hearts with the same kind of magic with economy and simplicity.

  • J.D. spoke:
    29th/04/2011 to 3:03 pm

    Love this film – very under-appreciated, altho, it does have a cult following. The scale of this film – the fact that it was shot entirely on soundstages – is mind-boggling but Ridley Scott pulled it off. The film really belongs to Tim Curry and Rob Bottin’s incredible makeup effects on him – one of THE coolest representations of the Devil ever committed to film.

    I think the script is probably the film’s weakest spot and Tom Cruise isn’t entirely convincing in his role but he certainly gives it his best shot. But I think the film works best if you just surrender to its lavish visuals.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/04/2011 to 3:26 pm

    J.D. – The script is basic, but it is coherent and consistent. I don’t get dazzled by visuals, nor do I think Curry, with the best make-up, necessarily makes the film. I actually thought Sara and Cruise were the heart of the film–innocents awakened to the unwitting evil they could do and choosing to immediately take responsibility for returning the balance to nature. Lily had to pretend to be evil, something she wouldn’t have been capable of before, exchanging her innocence for wisdom, and Jack trusted her instead of acting all guyish and running in to save the day. It’s an unusual film in the way it truly balances its elements.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    29th/04/2011 to 11:09 pm

    “The Duellists” is actually my favorite Ridley Scott film, for a limited budget film, it has an air of reality and unearthly beauty jumbled together – every frame is a masterpiece – but “Legend” is a close second in my book. I was amazed how well it translated the classic fairy tales thru a filter of darkness, and was stunningly lovely. Not least because of Mia Sara, who was perfect here; Cruise was less so, he moved awkwardly a lot, but perhaps that’s what Scott wanted, and still did a fine job as the raw kid. Bennent, Lanyon and all the “little” people really carried it, they had a remarkable ability to portray dwellers in a faerie world, even with some strange dialog. Glad you posted this.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/05/2011 to 9:30 am

    I’ve always appreciated this film, and this review captures all the wonderment. It’s a timely post too Marilyn with the opening this week of Kenneth Branagh’s THOR, which bears some obvious thematic and narrative parallels.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    15th/05/2011 to 3:04 pm

    It’s not politically correct to write anything positive about Tom Cruise, but you came close, Marilyn! I think the aspect that separates his career from somebody like Christian Slater’s is exactly what you pointed out, wanting to work with the best directors regardless of what the hell they wanted to try next.

    Jerry Goldsmith’s restored musical score and its extended running time improves LEGEND over the mall version released in the U.S., but this movie has never worked for me. It’s like Ridley Scott remembered the faeries and forgot the “tale” part.

    RETURN TO OZ remains my favorite neglected fantasy film from the ’80s, but LEGEND remains a good one for film geeks to chew over and debate. Thanks for writing this.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/05/2011 to 5:23 pm

    Hi, Joe! Nice to see you! I have nothing against Tom Cruise, and think he’s a fine actor who has done a lot of interesting work in addition to his misfires and crowd pleasers.

    I’m a Return to Oz fan, but I think Legend works very well for its intended audience, and only slightly less well for the rest of us. It is a little sketchy in parts, but not enough to mar the film for me.

  • coral spoke:
    15th/08/2011 to 5:20 pm

    Really REALLY good film! can’t believe no one i know has seen it 🙁 it reminds me of time machine and lord of the rings soo much and the scenery just couldnt be better! Tom cruise is the beautiful young hero and the princess is a proper character and not just the typical damsel in distress 🙂 wonderful work of art 🙂 i think i will go and find the book to read!

  • Chris Morris spoke:
    23rd/08/2011 to 7:09 pm

    I just like it!

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