Ridley Scott’s Legend At 30: From Flop To Fantasy Classic

It’s been 30 years since Ridley Scott’s epic fantasy ‘Legend’ first hit UK cinema screens. How does the flawed yet fascinating fairy tale movie hold up today?

In 1985, Ridley Scott badly needed a hit. After breaking through in a big way with his 1979 instant classic ‘Alien,’ the British director’s 1982 follow-up – another dark science fiction movie entitled ‘Blade Runner’ – had seen him at loggerheads with the studio over the final cut, and met a muted response at the box office.

Of course, ‘Blade Runner’ has long since been reappraised as a modern classic, but this hadn’t yet happened at the time ‘Legend’ was released to UK cinemas on 13 December 1985. 

Seemingly far removed from his earlier two films, it saw Scott step away from all that futuristic doom and gloom into a magical, PG-rated realm – with a young up-and-comer by the name of Tom Cruise in the lead.

Alas, like ‘Blade Runner’ before it, ‘Legend’ would also fall flat commercially and critically on release, leading Scott to a lengthy ‘wilderness years’ period which (1991’s ‘Thelma and Louise’ notwithstanding) the director arguably wouldn’t escape until 2000 mega-hit ‘Gladiator.’ 

Cruise, however, hooked up immediately thereafter with Ridley’s brother, Tony Scott, for a rather different movie called ‘Top Gun’ – and we all know how things went from there.

Even so, ‘Legend’ did ultimately find its audience on home entertainment and, though it’s nowhere near as revered as ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner,’ it is held up fondly by many.

So what are the film’s key strengths – and do they outweigh its weaknesses?    

The first, most immediately apparent strength – true of just about any Ridley Scott film you could name – are the visual aesthetics. From the ethereal woodlands in which the story begins, to the imposing gothic domain where the final showdown occurs, the sets are designed, lit and photographed beautifully, with a deliberately dream-like ambience.

It’s all the more impressive that the early sequences retain such beauty, given that the enchanted forest sets on the Pinewood Studios 007 stage were accidentally burned to the ground before work there had been completed, forcing the production to shoot the unfinished scenes in real woodland nearby.

But if we’re talking striking visuals, undoubtedly the key weapon in ‘Legend’s arsenal is the central villain, Darkness. A colossal, red, horn-headed, cloven-hoofed demon, the prosthetic make-up design by Rob Bottin is a wonder of pre-digital creature FX, brought to life with characteristic relish by an utterly unrecognisable Tim Curry. (And you thought he had a bit much make-up on in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’)

An immediately unforgettable image understandably placed front-and-centre in the film’s marketing, Darkness isn’t actually revealed until over an hour into the movie – a bold move, but a worthwhile one. We anticipate his appearance, and when he finally emerges through a mirror to the horror of Mia Sara’s Lili, it’s a striking scene indeed.

However, the magnificence of Curry’s villain highlights part of ‘Legend’s problem. Scott and screenwriter William Hjortsberg put so much love into Darkness that they neglected to make the side of light anywhere near as compelling.

Tom Cruise’s young hero Jack, a Peter Pan/Mowgli-esque boy of the forest who dons armour and a sword to save his love Lili, simply isn’t that memorable a hero. While physically confident with all the running, jumping and fighting, the fledgling star never seems entirely at ease with the material – nor do his good-natured gnome friends offer anything we haven’t subsequently seen done better in ‘Time Bandits’ or even ‘Willow.’

By contrast, the heroine Princess Lili - Mia Sara’s screen debut, released shortly before she won the hearts of a generation as Sloan in 1986’s ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ - has far more of interest to do. After inadvertently sparking a near-apocalyptic winter from her forbidden desire to touch a unicorn (have fun with that, Freudians), the innocent princess finds herself stolen away to the kingdom of Darkness, where the mighty red beast does his best to lure her over to the dark side.

Despite her initial repulsion, Lili does at points seem tempted by Darkness – and, as Hjortsberg told The Telegraph earlier this year, the first draft of the screenplay took those sinister sexual overtones considerably further, with the innocent young princess and the horned demon actually getting to know one another in the Biblical sense. Unsurprisingly, the studio shot down that notion early in the day.

Still, Lili’s internal struggle embodies the key theme of ‘Legend’ – the eternal conflict between light and dark, and how one cannot exist without the other, which is discussed directly by Darkness himself in a number of suitably theatrical monologues. However, by presenting a world of light which can barely hold a flame to the dark (pun intended), ‘Legend’ can’t help coming off a bit imbalanced.

Still, particularly for those who prefer their fantasy a bit more grim (again, pun intended), ‘Legend’ holds an endless fascination – and while the end product may be far milder than the original script, it certainly stands as a fine example of just how scary PG-rated movies could get back in the 1980s. A mere glance at Tim Curry should be enough to guarantee nightmares in any pre-teen viewer, assuming the malevolent goblin Blix or the slimy hag Meg Mucklebones haven’t already done the job.

So why didn’t ‘Legend’ win over audiences first time around? Speaking to Total Film in 2007, Ridley Scott pondered that the film may have been somewhat ahead of its time in 1985, remarking, “‘Legend’ is fundamentally a fantasy and every damn film that’s happening right now is a fantasy – I just think I did a fantasy too soon. “ (This, however, would seem to disregard the mid-80s boom in sword and sorcery movies.) 

While it may not be held in the same regard as ‘Blade Runner’ (and rightly so), in common with Scott’s earlier erstwhile flop ‘Legend’ offers no shortage of alternate cuts for viewers to seek out, from the initial 95 minute European edition, to the slightly more awkward 89 minute US version, and Scott’s preferred 113 minute director’s cut released to DVD in 2002. Just to confuse matters further, some versions feature an orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith whilst others feature a synthesizer-based soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

In any version, ‘Legend’ is far from a perfect film – but there’s enough cinematic magic at play for it to remain a compelling and rewarding viewing experience, and one well worth revisiting three decades later.

Picture Credit: 20th Century Fox

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