Movie Review – Legend (1986)


Starring Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, and Tim Curry

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by William Hjortsberg

The filmmakers behind Legend certainly know their legends well. In 90 brief hypnotic minutes of visual excess, they deliver a virtual compendium of the history of literary fantasy.

The specific genre in question is that of the Heroic Quest. In very sketchy outline, the Heroic Quest generally goes something like this: the natural balance between Good and Evil is tipped in favor of the Baddies after some particularly nasty turn of events; our intrepid hero is subject to a series of harrowing adventures in which he (or, increasingly, she) and his companions grow in strength and/or wisdom; these adventures culminate in a climactic battle between the forces of Good and Evil wherein Good triumphs over Evil and all is well in the world/country/kingdom/city/hamlet/shoebox once again.

The genre predates Homer by at least several millennia, and more recent examples abound. The search for the Holy Grail was certainly a Heroic Quest, as were Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, ad infinitum.

Legend is yet another child of the genre, a child fully aware of its grand heritage. The specifics of the story are of little importance, but here they are anyway, for the terminally curious: the natural balance between Light and Dark is tipped in favor of the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) after the horn was severed off one of the world’s two remaining unicorns; Jack O’The Green (Tom Cruise) is subject to a series of harrowing adventures in which he and his companions grow in strength and wisdom; these adventures culminate in a climactic battle for the horn and for the future of the world, a battle between Jack and Darkness wherein Jack triumphs over Darkness and all is well in the world once again.

You had to ask.

The entire film is sprinkled with subtle (and a few not-so-subtle) homages to past works in the field. There is a scene where Jack dives into a river for a ring, recalling the discovery of Sauron’s One Ring by Deagol, Gollum’s friend, in the Great River of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. One of Jack’s comrades is later rescued from Darkness’ wicked kitchen after being bound inside a pie crust for baking; Hansel and Gretel would surely have sympathized with his plight. Near the end of the picture, Jack’s true love, Lili (Mia Sara), is awakened with a kiss a la Sleeping Beauty. The entire film resonates with allusions to Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (as well as other accounts of those mythical equestrian beasts). Convincing parallels could be drawn between Legend and Jim Henson’s fantasy feature, The Dark Crystal. And, well, you get the idea.

The unicorn’s vast magical powers, a central theme in Legend, is a highly pervasive myth in most human cultures. Unicorns were known to the classical Greeks and Romans, and examples can be found in Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and even ancient Chinese mythology. Though they were originally cruel creatures, fierce and untamable, unicorns became (by early medieval times) gentle symbols of Christ. The unicorns of Legend are of the latter sort, attracted to Lili’s innocence and virginity. It is through this attraction, their mortal weakness, that the servants of the Lord of Darkness are able to obtain the magic horn.

But plot is not Legend‘s strong suit. Far from it. It is director Ridley Scott’s virtuoso visual style that captures and enchants his audience in a manner few films can match. Scott’s previous pictures, The DuellistsAlien, and Blade Runner (visual masterpieces in their own right) were mere warm-up exercises for the imagery he conjures up here. There are images in Legend that will take up permanent residence in your memory, haunting you for years to come, bedeviling you with their vibrant color, their delicate play of light and shadow. This movie is so damn good to look at that it’s almost scary.

Lest you mistake Legend for a great movie, though, rest assured it’s not. Enchanting, yes; great, no. First and foremost, this film is in dire need of some intelligent wit. Though screenwriter William Hjortsberg (Falling Angel) knows his fantasy, his script is replete with sophomoric humor. At one point, a goblin gets the seat of his pants fried and dances around for several hilarious seconds before dousing himself with water. Yuck, yuck. Cackle, cackle. There’s probably a pie-in-the-face scene lying around somewhere on the cutting-room floor as well.

The performances are all competent, but it is Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness who shines through. He plays his villain (a minotaur of sorts, brilliantly created by Peter Robb-King and his makeup crew) with charm and fury. Tom Cruise does a convincing, but not particularly memorable, a job as the forest hermit, Jack. The rest of the cast moves the plot along without a hitch.

A few words are probably in order concerning the history of Legend itself. Originally planned as a summer ’85 release, Universal balked at its high cost and stiff competition (from that runaway smash, Back to the Future, no doubt). They, therefore, did much the sort of thing they attempted with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: they cut it, from more than two hours to roughly one and a half. The original score by Jerry Goldsmith was tossed out in favor of one by Tangerine Dream. In general, Universal was (as always) never quite sure what the hell it was doing.

Most of the changes seem to have done little harm to the finished product. The shorter, tighter version is probably better for its brevity, and the score doesn’t really detract from the film’s highly visceral appeal.

So what becomes a Legend most? Sneak a peek at this one if you’re curious. It’s certainly worth the price, and you could be in for a mesmerizing experience you won’t soon forget.