Movie Review: “Legend” (1985)

Legend Ridley Scott Mia Sara unicorn

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Mia Sara

Title: Legend (1985) IMDb
Director: Ridley Scott
Lead Actors: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry
Score Composer: one version has Jerry Goldsmith’s score, the one I saw has Tangerine Dream’s
Length: 89 minutes; U.S. theatrical version (there are at least two other versions with different lengths)
Rating (US): ? Couldn’t find an official rating, but it’s an intense PG or a light PG-13, I’d say; there’s lots of darkness and terror to scare kids, and it opens with a scene of unidentified people being tortured in the background of the Lord of Darkness’ lair.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young man of the forest must rescue his girlfriend Princess Lily and the last surviving unicorn from the Lord of Darkness, who wishes to marry Lily and rule the world by destroying daylight.
Reason for Watching: 80’s fantasy film.
Movie Re-watchability: The film’s main attractions are its art design, sets, and special effects, which all combine to create a dreamily dark, surreal atmosphere. You may want to rewatch it occasionally for this, and for Tim Curry’s magnificently campy turn as the Lord of Darkness, and perhaps for some of the oddball side characters. However, the doe-eyed main characters and their simplistic love story and quest may prove tiresome with multiple viewings.
Director Re-watchability: While he can struggle with really pulling a film together so that its themes make sense, Ridley Scott has undoubtedly directed some of the most interesting and entertaining movies of the past three decades (and more if you go back to 1977’s The Duellists, which I haven’t yet seen), including Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Kingdom of Heaven, to name but a few. Some of his movies are much better and more re-watchable than others, but as a director he consistently delivers something of value.
Recommendation: One of Scott’s weaker films, to be sure, but I found it to be nonetheless enjoyable, and rather fascinating in its own way. I’m a sucker for heavy atmosphere that effectively transports me to a different place, and that’s what Legend delivers in spades. If you like seeing classic fantasy tropes played straight, without a lick of irony, and don’t even mind an accompanying lack of complexity, then you will find this movie worth it. But as noted above, the actual story and its accompanying protagonists are too bland and boring for this to be a true classic.

Key Thoughts

If there were a glass ball that held within it an exquisitely cliché, exquisitely beautiful fairy tale world of radiant meadows with princesses and unicorns frozen in their frolicking, with glistening snows and cackling goblins, and with “hidden” treasures and pixies not quite out of sight, and I looked into it and shook it, so that snowflakes and flowers began to fall and the world rolled into action, this might be what I would see taking place.

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Mia Sara
*shake shake*

The main charge against Legend is that it is all style without substance, and this charge I cannot completely deflect. After all, snow globes and glass figurines are wonderful to look at, but do not typically provide much food for the mind. The movie’s characters are the definition of simple, filling only one role each, and its narrative is deliberately designed to be derivative. Ridley Scott—a director known primarily for his striking visuals and epic atmospheres—reportedly set out to film the most classic, archetypal fairy tale he could. He doesn’t attempt a unique twist on the material, or a subversion, or even a transcendence. He attempts what has been done before, but intending to do it better than anyone else—this is intended to be the movie that you think of first when the words “movie fairy tale (not Disney)” come to mind.

More frolicking!

This attitude, while noble to my fairy-story-loving mind, likely informed the movie’s failures as well as its successes. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Lily (Mia Sara) certainly look their parts, but even understood as the embodiments of the Pure Hero and Pure Princess, their lack of energy and distinct personality causes them to fade into the background even when the story centers around them. Jack should be a charming, slightly wild rogue of the forest, a role Tom Cruise should have been able to really make sparkle, but instead he smolders and gazes his way into near-mute lovesickness. Likewise Mia Sara, while delicately gorgeous and believably gentle of spirit, doesn’t quite bring out the warmth or passion that Lily is supposed to have for Jack. The two of them seem pleasant together, but not quite alive. And the main fault for this I lay at the feet of the writing, which gives them dialogue devoid of character and interest, and not much of that to boot. Not that I wanted our heroes to be gabbing the whole time, but their general silence wasn’t adequately replaced by other means of character development. We can root for Jack and Lily, but they are hardly more interesting than the flowers in the meadow or the grim, heavy trees. This didn’t have to be; other film fairy tales have managed to be both archetypal and deliver fascinating characters (i.e. The Princess Bride [1987], The NeverEnding Story [1984], The Lord of the Rings [2001-2003], Pan’s Labyrinth [2006], even Labyrinth [1986]).

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Honeythorn Gump
This music would also be appropriate.

Ah, but the side characters do sparkle! Some of them literally. My favorite is Honeythorn Gump, a fey of swift feet and solid loyalty. Initially the character didn’t work for me—the voice is oddly pitched, mixing tones both high and feminine, and more somberly masculine, and the fact that he’s played by a boy (or very boyish young man) wearing nothing but a fur loincloth made me a bit uncomfortable. I mean, he’s gotta be freezing in that snow, right? But after awhile, he grew on me. The character is the cleverest and most forceful of the heroes, and he feels like something other than human; a true member of the Fair Folk, who are immortal yet unchangeable, fierce yet delicate of frame, and petulant, yet very serious about oaths and honor. While I still wish he would cover up a bit, the voice becomes an asset to the character, and the actor’s performance sells a role that needs to be taken seriously, but too easily could have become a laughingstock. Watch him in this clip, where he threatens Jack with a murderous glint in his eye, and subsequently throws a fit when Jack correctly answers his riddle. Among the rest of the heroes’ allies, the comically noble Brown Tom wouldn’t be out of place in The Hobbit, while the ethereal pixie Oona is even more fey-like (in the traditional sense) than Honeythorn Gump.

Legend Ridley Scott Tim Curry Lord of Darkness
“Well of course the butler did it. Communism was just a red herring!”

Special mention goes, as even Legend’s detractors will admit, to Tim Curry as the entertaining Lord of Darkness. Even cached in prosthetics and red and black paint, and given dialogue no less simplistic than the heroes, Curry’s obvious delight in playing a fellow who relishes in being irredeemably bad shines through; and, as happens here, when a good actor has fun with a role, the audience often does too. Yet while undoubtedly campy, I wouldn’t say the character quite becomes ridiculous. You may laugh at the first sight of his massive black horns, each bigger than his head, and wonder how Curry doesn’t topple over with all that top-heavy weight, but the movie doesn’t let you doubt Darkness’ effectiveness as a doer of evil. His presence is imposing, and you know he will kill and torture to achieve his goal of domination, and that he is cunning as well as powerful. He has no respect for anything good, no honor, and his despicable laugh echoes throughout the whole land. He’ll give nightmares to any children who watch this movie.

In fact, the character of Darkness is so effective that his presence overpowers that of all the heroes combined. Roger Ebert criticized the movie by saying:

To some degree, this is a fairy tale, and it needs a certain lightness of tone, a plucky cheerfulness, to work. Like many recent sword and sorcery movies, it is so effective in rendering evil, so good at depicting the dire, bleak fates facing the heroes, that it’s too dreary and gloomy for its own good.

While I wouldn’t say that the word “plucky” need apply to every fairy tale, Ebert has a good point here; the movie fails to provide enough thematic strength and personality to the side of Good. Even when it’s trying to be carefree and joyful near the beginning by showing Lily frolicking and her romance with Jack, there’s such an air of foreboding that prevents these scenes from evoking blissful happiness, as they are intended to. A shadow hangs over the whole story—the lord of Darkness is too much in control of this movie, and has no effective antagonist on the side of good. Dorothy has Glinda the Good Witch, Bilbo and Frodo have Gandalf, and Bastian Balthazar Bux has the Childlike Empress, but our plucky heroes in Legend have no guiding force of Good who can match Darkness in power or cosmic significance. The introductory text declares that the movie’s universe is dualistic, meaning that the forces of Good and Evil are equal and must maintain a balance, but only the Evil side has an actual person embodying it. All this leads to the final scenes of celebration being tainted by an image of the just-defeated lord of Darkness laughing ominously before the credits roll. We’re not even permitted to enjoy the heroes’ hard-won victory without fearing that the whole battle was for nothing.

Legend Ridley Scott goblins
Also, they speak entirely (or almost so) in rhyme.

[N.B. There was actually a different cut of this movie released to European audiences that has some radical differences, including a different ending without Darkness’ final laugh.]

Some more could be said about the movie’s ideas of innocence and pureness of heart, ideas which are popular in fantasy movies but rarely receive the definition and development they need to be meaningful. Lily is initially held up as pure of heart, as she is allowed to approach the unicorn, but she subsequently falls from grace by breaking the sacred rule and touching one of them, thus leading indirectly to the unicorn’s death. She ignores Jack’s warnings and proceeds in naïve arrogance, and later, when captured by Darkness and dressed by him in a gown of corruption, engages in deceit and faked seduction as she tries to save herself by manipulating him. In the end, only Jack has the right to be called pure of heart and innocent. As pointed out by this reviewer, there’s kind of an Adam and Eve vibe going on: a young man and woman both innocent live in paradise with total freedom, until one sacred rule is broken, which brings death and corruption, and sin. If the movie had followed through with this metaphor and provided a figure for God and Jesus Christ who could redeem them from sin, then the story would feel more complete and purposeful than it currently does. Nonetheless, the foundation of it is there, and that does lend a bit of substance to the proceedings.

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise
Forest Boy, a.k.a. Link.

But what draws me to this movie is really its style. Lush and colorful, it creates a world that is more akin to our dreams than any reality. It feels curiously empty, as if it just might not exist outside the camera frames. Lily is a princess or a noble lady—it’s never quite clear—and yet beyond Jack and a farmer’s wife, we see no other humans, nor even a castle or city in the distance. The characters are wholly in the magical forest, and the story is really from the point of view of the fairies and Jack, who let this human girl into their realm because of her gentleness and beauty only to have her ruin everything by her selfish disregard for one sacred rule. The landscapes reflect this point-of-view, being impossibly beautiful, yet also subtly threatening; artificial, yet bursting with natural life (almost no people, but many butterflies, flowers, rabbits, and birds); petulant and swiftly changing, yet consistent in power.

There are images of iconic power and majesty, such as when Darkness emerges from a mirror and bends ominously over Lily, and of tenderness and grace, such as when Jack shows Lily the pristine unicorns. The synthesized ethereal score by Tangerine Dream brings out both the darkness and the weirdness of the setting, emphasizing our gut reactions to the images onscreen and our sense that as beautiful as it all is, something is not right with this world.

Legend Ridley Scott Mia Sara unicorn
Now that right there is pure fairy tale.

One viewing of Legend did not quite convince me that this is a masterpiece, yet it ranks as one of the more deeply atmospheric fantasy movies I’ve seen, in a way that pleases me greatly. I want to see it again, especially the European version so I can compare the two supposedly very different movies. When I think back to the other great fairy tale movies of the 1980s—the ones mentioned a few paragraphs up—I admit that this one didn’t have as lasting an effect on me, mainly due to the flatness of its main characters, the unbalanced weakness of its dualistic theme of Dark and Light. Yet it still ranks as a fine fantasy movie, if only for its ability to create an entirely other world that is both archetypal and odd, and for how it so fully sucks the viewer into its own tempestuous moods through its visuals and eerie music.

Legend Ridley Scott
A pixie cautiously traverses a truly epic-sized underground hall.
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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

17 thoughts on “Movie Review: “Legend” (1985)”

  1. I do love Legend. I prefer the UK version with the orchestral score which seems a little less dated, the cut is less explanatory too. Tim Curry’s horns are genious (watch them wobble during his slo-mo charge). Whenever I watch this film I always wish that Scott had a adapted a traditional rather than an original tale.
    Also, watch for Tom Cruise’s teeth “improving” throughout the shoot causing continuity errors – it’s a guilty pleasure for sure x

    1. It’d have been interesting to see what he would have done with, say, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, but neither of those have unicorns. And I’m really glad that this movie has a unicorn — it’s the only live action depiction I’ve really seen of one, as I recall, and it lives up to the majesty of such a creature.

      Perhaps once I see the UK version, I can do a comparison of the two. That YouTube review I linked to (when I made the Adam and Eve comparison) extensively contrasts the two versions.

  2. I saw this with the kids long ago, once. I don’t recall details; I recall the atmiospheric part, and liked the score, but we just didn’t get into the story. The ambience was almost destracting.. I’d be interested in seeing my grandkid’s reaction.

    1. Not sure what I would’ve thought as a child; I probably would’ve liked it well enough and been less critical of its flaws. The ambiance does tend to overpower most of the characters and plot; only Tim Curry is able to stand out and command the screen (all the more impressive considering how he’s the one most covered in makeup).

    1. You should! I can’t promise you’ll like it the second time — I can definitely understand how some people just don’t like it. It lacks the charm of other ’80s fantasy movies. But I liked it enough to recommend it to fantasy fans.

      1. One never knows, really, if someone will like a film or not. A friend of mine recently subjected me to the worst (and in consequence agonizingly funny) movie I have ever seen: Flash Gordon. I’m still recovering.

        1. Flash is so much fun! It seems to know exactly what it is (goofy, borderline nonsensical, adventure) and what it can’t be (serious). It came out a few years after Star Wars had forever changed the level of visual realism expected from special effects (not meaning scientific realism, but apparent reality), and I read that the filmmakers decided not to try to do the same thing, but to joyfully acknowledge the camp story and fake nature of the special effects. Anyway, I found it a lot of fun, like an old-style comic book come directly to life. Plus, BRIAN BLESSED. (“Gordon’s ALIIIIIIIVE?”)

          1. Oh, it was highly entertaining, if terrifying. Blessed was… nope, I have no words for that.
            The film had an interesting effect. I will, henceforth, call it the “Flash-Effect.” I watched it with two friends, one whose appreciation of camp is below mine, and one whose camp-appreciation is quite high. The former, I will call her A, is the one who showed us the film and she, like me, found it hilarious. My other friend, I will call her B, was practically hiding behind me for most of the film, writhing in agony similar to the reactions A and I have under more normal levels of camp.
            My theory is that the effect is similar to Mithridatism, in a way. B, having a higher tolerance to camp, was pushed to the same state that lower levels of camp produce in A and I. While A and I were pushed beyond a camp threshold into a state where we could appreciate what we were seeing. I wonder how far B would have to be pushed in order to reach such a state. 🙂

  3. I saw bits of this movie once on tv years ago. I had heard of it before but didn’t know much about it. What I do remember though, you described above- how dark it was and how threatening. I didn’t see the end of it but eventually I think I would like to sit down and watch the entire thing. I kinda feel like it’s one of those movies I have to see to be considered a true fantasy movie fan.

    1. I felt that way too (and also about Labyrinth, which I hadn’t seen until this year). In the end, it’s not such a classic that you must see it, but it is worth seeing all the way through.

  4. Like many Ridley Scott films (“Prometheus” included), I love it for its visual mastery even if the story left me feeling empty. I can forgive most of its problems, but the main issue I have is Darkness’s henchmen all feel too contemporary. Their banter is out of place with the tone of the rest of the movie, feeling like the belong in “Time Bandits” instead of “Legend.” Also, I much prefer Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Tangerine Dream’s synthesized music, which also feels wrong for the setting.

    1. Haha, that’s a fair description, even though I wasn’t too bored the first time. I want to see it again, though I do suspect that it will be less interesting the second time.

      I imagine a list of great-looking but really-boring movies could grow quite long.

      1. Oh, I’m sure it would be an incredibly long list. Legend stands out because the contrast between its lush opulence and utter vapidness is so vast. It embodies a seemingly contradictory impression: my memory that it is arrestingly beautiful is very distinct, yet I literally cannot recall a single specific scene from the entire film.

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