It’s true to suggest that a film may eventually find itself held in higher esteem through the passage of time. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, it took 1941’s Citizen Kane a decade or two to be fully realized as the brilliant flick it remains today. (Sorry, kids: I know it isn’t SciFi, but it’s still one big damn masterpiece.) Though I can fully grasp why it wasn’t seen by as large an audience as possible upon its initial release, that doesn’t quite explain how it took our betters the better part of two decades to appreciate how groundbreaking a feature it truly was. The film never changed … but miraculously our collective opinion of it did.
By contrast, films typically christened as ‘cult’ features right out of the gate largely continue to be just that even with the passing of years. (For those unaware, traditionally cult films – even upon their release – appear to be producing to appeal to a very specific and smaller audience than mainstream; as the film ages, it’s still largely found to inspire a small group as new viewers discover it generationally.) Though aspects of the cult flick might give one the impression that it’s meant to be embraced by the greater public-at-large, the finished product has a way of chiseling down the focus to the point wherein vastly fewer folks appreciate the message or appreciate the story’s charm. Here, the passage of time usually means that the film will be unlikely to find break-out success ever but instead will be a source of affection for those who find it, accept it for what it is, and celebrate whatever uniqueness they find between the opening and closing credits.
I’d argue that’s been the fate of Ridley Scott’s interesting Legend from 1985: cult status.
While it’s devastating box office underscores how few folks partook of the feature when it was first in theatres, there’s still no denying the film’s footprint, which quite possibly paved the way for the more popular cinematic Fantasies that followed in its wake even one or two decades later. (Here’s looking at you, The Lord Of The Rings.) Though it’s an uneven if not problematic experience – one that quite probably put a crimp in the careers of those involved making it possible – there’s still no denying Legend’s cinematic brilliance, a reality even more pronounced with my seeing it for the first time in after 36 years.
So Legend has and hasn’t aged well, particularly, but that doesn’t make its shortcomings any less pronounced. Warts and all, it deserves to be seen.
From the product packaging: “In an idyllic, sun-dappled forest, the pure-hearted Jack takes his true love Princess Lil to see a pair of unicorns frolicking at the forest’s edge. Little do they know, however, that the Lord of Darkness has dispatched his minions to capture the unicorns and sever their horns so that he may plunge the world into everlasting night. After Lili and the unicorns are taken prisoner, Jack must team with a group of forest creatures and descend into Darkness’ subterranean lair to face off against the devilish creature before it is too late.”
I’ve always found any discussion surrounding Ridley Scott’s Legend a bit troublesome, mostly because the film has nearly everything in it that I tend to love but somehow the completed version is something I don’t. An otherworldly setting? Check. An impressive cast? Check. A compelling adventure set in the land of mystery, mayhem, and magic? Meh.
Now, let me express right up front that I think much of my woe involving the otherwise memorable film centers around Scott’s choice of Tom Cruise to play the heroic Jack.
Indeed, Cruise is interesting as ‘Jack,’ but because the cut of the U.S. theatrical release was so poorly constructed the resulting story really gave his forest ‘being’ (for lack of a better descriptor) so little motivation. Is he human? Is he … some kind of tree urchin? An imp? A spirit? Well, we never know. (We’re certainly never told.) And in a world populated by non-human beings, that matters.
Yes, Jack felt responsible for Darkness’ rise given that he decided to show the unicorns to Lili – the true guilty culprit here for her daring to touch the untouchable creatures – but there just wasn’t enough dialogue or explanation for this viewer to accept Jack’s life-changing choice. Clearly, he stands for peace and tranquility, not conflict or derring-do, but somehow Jack masterfully develops fighting skills and a warrior’s intellect in the course of what appears to be a single day. (As someone who has shot a bow-and-arrow, let me assure you that it cannot be mastered in a single day.) In his own words, Jack’s never held a weapon in his hand, and yet he learns how to best those who have (sword, shield, bow) in a record amount of time. Unbelievable.
Dare I suggest that Jack might very well be the silver screen’s ultimate Mary Sue?
Mia Sara is, well, good in the role of the princess: while she definitely looks the part, it’s hard for me to distinguish exactly what age she’s representing here. Though a first glance might peg her to be in her teens, her dialogue alternates between a sing-song pre-teen and the blissfully unaware child. Certainly, she’s meant to be of an age where she comprehends how influential her feminine wiles make her (we see her repeatedly exploiting them at every turn); but even that perspective kinda/sorta pushes her toward the lower end of that age bracket as opposed to that of a royal youth. Aren’t ‘our betters’ told to respect the power they have over the regular folks in whatever era is represented? Or is all of her naivety really just a character flaw for a young woman transitioning into adulthood, leaving what the audience is left to experience being her maturation process?
If that’s the case, then why are we never assured she’s learned her lesson at the end? Instead, she’s rewarded. With everlasting love.
Sadly, William Hjortsberg never defines much of Lili or any of the other characters in his script. Though each may be given what a viewer could accept as a ‘great scene,’ I’d still argue that these moments should be additive (instead of singular) – building upon one another – in such a way so that the audience sees them blossoming into the heroic battalion celebrated in the film’s final battle. Instead, the moments are largely wasted as either distracting vignettes that serve little development or – even worse – merely comic relief.
As an example, Brown Tom (played by Cork Hubbert) endures a near-death experience when apparently shot in the head (with an arrow). As the scene plays out, he’s clearly down for the count, leaving the villainous forces full access to capturing not only the remaining unicorn as well as the princess. What we learn later is that he wasn’t shot in the head – in fact, he wasn’t wounded in the slightest – yet still chose to play dead while the bad guys did their worst. Never is his pantomime explained or given any greater context other than being entirely self-serving. What did he learn from it? How does this advance the character? And does he seek to redeem himself from taking a siesta while others are captured because of his negligence? Alas … nothing. With no other context given, how are we not to assume he’s an out-and-out coward who’ll abandon the mission if he can save himself?
This lack of development plagues every character here, even the incredible Tim Curry who puts up an undeniably masterful performance as Darkness himself. Clearly, he’s meant to be the embodiment of evil in all of this fantastical world; as such, you would think that Hjortsberg’s script would have the character constantly trying to one-up his own evil machinations. This is true for the most part, but at one point in the story Darkness professes his love for Lili. Instead of explaining how this could be within the realm of possibility for someone as lecherous, Hjortberg and Scott’s film merely lets the moment go to waste and hang in the air like some twisted bitter irony. Love? How can evil truly love anything other than evil? Lili challenges it, certifying it as completely out of character, so why leave it unexplained? Are we meant to make more of it, or does it demonstrate that pure, unrepentant evil isn’t entirely possible? We never know.
Putting a bit more thought into it, perhaps the storytellers here were offering up an allegory on temptation.
Clearly, Jack is tempted by his feelings for Lili so strongly that he not only risks his life to regain her ring (as a contest for marriage) but also to hazard showing her the world’s only remaining magical unicorns, seemingly the very source for balance in this universe. While he never lays out the dangers for doing either, it’s clear that Jack has a minor change of heart once his world is plunged in the dark. Instead of confronting Lili, he’s instead sent on a quest to put things right. Lili is constantly using her innocence to get her way throughout the film; her relationships – if not her entire existence -- are all founded on seduction – either seducing with her looks or seducing with his charm – and is never really forced to pay the price for wielding such a weapon on others. Darkness is tempted by power. The forest creatures – while said to be pure – don’t escape this narrative fray as even Oona wishes to tempt Jack into a relationship, and she’s even willing to trick him by taking on Lili’s appearance. Undoubtedly, there is temptation at every turn!
But, in the end, what are we to make of all this temptation?
Well, I’ve the temptation to point out that very little is learned that’ll served this world the way it should. Jack is rewarded with Lili’s love; Lili is rewarded with Jack’s heart; Oona is forgiven; and Darkness is even deconstructed into a constellation which – by all indications – could return for a sequel (if we’re to believe the film’s final scene). What’s to stop all of this from happening all over again?
That would be the film’s box office take, which remains abysmal.
Recommended. Honestly, U.S. theatrical cut of Ridley Scott’s Legend is a travesty when one comes to realize that it’s one of the shortest versions available: harkening back to my experience with it in theatres, I remember being more confused by some of its narrative than is ever a good thing, and all these years later I’d still argue that Tom Cruise just wasn’t right for the role. Is it worth seeing? Oh, without a doubt, as this one was definitely produced near the height of the director’s creativity streak; and I challenge anyone to find as many compelling and artistic visuals from any other director of this era. While the film was a box office failure, it no doubt influenced many, many other storytellers to venture into Fantasy. It’s cult status remains firm to this day. But, if you can, seek out the longer edits for a vastly more coherent encounter.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a Blu-ray copy of Legend (1985) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.