Ridley Scott’s “Legend” (1985)

Given director Ridley Scott’s English background and his affection for highly-detailed and richly-developed world building, it was perhaps only a matter of time until he tackled the fantasy genre.  He would achieve such a feat with 1985’s LEGEND, his fourth feature film.  Released three years after the somewhat disappointing reception of BLADE RUNNER (1982), LEGEND’s genre trappings had beckoned to Scott ever since the production of his first feature, THE DUELLISTS (1977), where he conceived of an idea to do a cinematic adaptation of “Tristan & Isolde” (2).  That particular project fell apart after a brief development period, but through the ensuing years, he still nonetheless harbored a desire to make what he described as a “lean” fantasy picture— one that “didn’t get bogged down in too classical a format” (1).  In other words, he wished to apply the visual grammar of 80’s pop cinema to a genre usually regarded for its regal formalism and swashbuckling adventure. Before he commenced production on BLADE RUNNER, Scott worked for five weeks with screenwriter William Hjortsberg, hammering out over fifteen drafts of a screenplay while referencing Disney’s classic animated films SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), FANTASIA (1940), & PINOCCHIO (1940), as well as Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946) (3).  Once the arduous shoot for BLADE RUNNER was over, Scott turned his attention to actively producing LEGEND, working with producer Arnon Milchan on a budget of $24.5 million.  The final product would prove divisive, becoming the first real failure of Scott’s feature career for a time before finding critical reappraisal in the wake of a Director’s Cut release decades later.

For all the detail and attention he lavishes on its presentation, Scott doesn’t necessarily divulge a lot of information about the world of LEGEND.  We don’t even know the land’s name — we just know that it a lush, forested paradise where magical unicorns run free (an image that retroactively reminds one of a similar appearance in Scott’s Director’s Cut of BLADE RUNNER some years later).  We’re quickly introduced to a beautiful, virginal princess named Lili (played by Mia Sara), whose naive innocence begets a kind of stubborn greediness that kickstarts the story.  When she’s told by her friend, a Peter-Pan-like forest boy/creature named Jack (played by a baby-faced Tom Cruise), that she mustn’t touch the sacred unicorns —that no human has ever dared to make contact with the magical horned horse — she goes ahead and does it anyway.  Jack is the protector of this forest realm, which includes a guardianship over these rare unicorns — indeed, there’s only two left in the entire world, and their horns are regarded by some as a treasure onto themselves. Jack and Lili are unaware that said treasure is being aggressively sought after by none other than Darkness, the incarnation of earthly evil who rules over a massive, foreboding palace shrouded in perpetual shadow.  Tim Curry, nearly unrecognizable under pounds of heavy prosthetic makeup that reportedly took 5 ½ hours to apply every day, delivers one of the genre’s most iconic performances by relishing in his devilish character’s seductive charisma. During a moment of weakness for Jack, which finds him forsaking his duty to dive for a ring that Lili has dropped into the lake, Darkness’ goblin lackeys strike— hacking off one of the unicorns’ horns and subsequently plunging this idyllic, sunny paradise into a dark, icy winter.  It’s only a matter of time until Lili and the last unicorn are captured, prompting Jack to team up with a band of dwarves led by a Puck-style nymph/boy thing named Gump (David Bennent) and venture forth into Darkness’ lair to quite literally deliver them from Evil incarnate.

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LEGEND retains the expressive cinematography that’s hereto marked Scott’s filmography— a blend of atmospheric lighting, silhouettes, dynamic camerawork, and bright, saturated color.  Having originally wanted to shoot on large format 70mm (1), Scott and cinematographer Alex Thomson settle for the standard 35mm gauge in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film’s fantastical theatricality affords Scott to further push the bounds of his aesthetic, evidenced in stylish flourishes like large shafts of concentrated light, impressionistic slow-motion, and even the use of black-light FX on Darkness’ makeup during the Theatrical Cut’s opening sequence.  These elements allow Scott to immediately put his stamp on the fantasy genre, as does the decision to avail himself of the total control of soundstage shooting. Shot on the legendary 007 soundstage at Pinewood Studios, LEGEND finds Scott and production designer Assheton Gorton building the film’s insanely detailed world from scratch.  The controlled conditions allow Scott to fully indulge in his signature worldbuilding, giving lush atmosphere to his artificial forest stages through fog, smoke, snow, and theatrical lighting.  It’s worth noting that only a few shots were captured outdoors, and the absolute seamlessness with which returning editor Terry Rawlings is able to cut these moments in with the soundstage environments stands as a testament to Scott’s unparalleled eye for detail and design.  Scott’s need for absolute control over every little detail speaks to his consummate professionalism and a strategic approach towards filmmaking that wouldn’t be out of place in the military. When he wants to, the man can move mountains and achieve the seemingly-impossible— in a move that would anticipate his recent high-profile replacement of Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer a few short months before the release of 2017’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, Scott found himself confronted with an extreme logistical challenge when, only ten days before wrapping, the 007 soundstage hosting LEGEND’s production burned down in a freak accident.  In the end, Scott’s urgent recalibrations and considered rebuilding efforts would avoid catastrophe, ultimately ending up just three days behind (3).  

Like many of Scott’s films, LEGEND was not well-received upon its theatrical release, only gaining a reappraisal in the wake of an extended director’s cut some time later.  It rightfully received an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup, and would come to be regarded as a cult classic among fantasy enthusiasts (4). LEGEND is even said to have profoundly influenced Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision for the iconic video game series, LEGEND OF ZELDA.  The film’s mixed reaction speaks to its nature as a triumph of imagination; as a filmic experience, however, LEGEND is still arguably something of a mess, possessing little of the laser-like focus Scott applied to his previous work.  The director seems to have waffled in his vision at a crucial point in post-production, his internal conflict embodied in the last-minute switch of composers from Jerry Goldsmith to Tangerine Dream.  Goldsmith’s conventional orchestral score was removed after the initial series of test screenings, replaced by Tangerine Dream’s synth-heavy take: a cheesy relic of 80’s ambient pop comprised of squealing electric guitars and an artificial pan flute that provides only cheap mysticism.  The band’s cinematic collaborations with other directors like Michael Mann are well-regarded, but their work in LEGEND, at least to my mind, is a rare misfire.  The drastic change in tonal styles can be attributed to Scott’s last-minute change of heart, having lost interest in the story’s thematic and narrative complexities and wishing instead to deliver a brisk slice of gaudy 80’s escapism.  He proceeded to cut twenty minutes or so, creating an 89 minute edit that feels slight, rushed, and insubstantial. The Theatrical Cut’s unfavorable reviews support this impression.

As years passed, rumors persisted of the existence of Scott’s Director’s Cut, but it was thought to be long-since lost.  In 2002, an answer print of the Director’s Cut was discovered, deemed to be in sufficient enough a shape for an official release.  With those lost twenty minutes and Goldsmith’s original score restored, the Director’s Cut of LEGEND indeed feels like an entirely different picture.  The extra screentime gives the narrative’ s developments time to breathe, the orchestral nature of the score gives the proceedings more of a timeless aura, and Jack & Lili’s expanded quest reinforces its adventurous spirit with rich, complex thematic undercurrents about lust, greed, and vanity.  In essence, it feels like a completely different film. This version of LEGEND, which was the one initially screened for test audiences to positive scores, is arguably far superior to the Theatrical Cut— indeed, even Cruise himself disowned the initial release when the Director’s Cut was found.  Why Scott was compelled to disregard a positive test reaction and whittle LEGEND down to a trivial swashbuckler is anyone’s guess, although it can be said that this was a rare instance where the director’s trademark decisiveness, which has otherwise served him so well, completely backfired on him.  Today, LEGEND is still regarded somewhat as the minor Scott film that aspired to be major, its ultimate position only buoyed by the fortunate existence of the Director’s Cut.  At the time, however, the damage had already been done—- the initial, highly-regarded phase of his early feature career was over, having given way to a prolonged period of adequate journeyman works that would last for over a decade.

LEGEND is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.

Credits:

Produced by: Arnon Milchan

Written by: William Hjortsberg

Director of Photography: Alex Thomson

Production Designer: Assheton Gorton

Edited by: Terry Rawlings

Music by: Tangerine Dream (Theatrical Cut), Jerry Goldsmith (Director’s Cut)

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References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page
  • Via Wikipedia: Jones, Alan (January 1986). “The Making of Legend”. Cinefantastique. p. 22.
  • Via Wikipedia:Jones, Alan (January 1986). “The Making of Legend”. Cinefantastique. p. 24.