Wednesday, January 04, 2006

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Legend (1985) - Directors Cut

I am the Lord of Darkness. I require the solace of shadows and the dark of night. Sunlight is my destroyer. Tonight, this shall all change...There shall never be another dawn..."

-Darkness (Tim Curry), plots humanity's annihilation, in a voiceover from Legend.

Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors. How could he not be? He's given the world science fiction masterpieces such as Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), as well as new classics such as Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001). The latter is just about my favorite war movie of all time.

But in 1985, director Ridley Scott presented an epic fantasy - a fairy tale - to the movie-going world, and the world responded with a big, fat raspberry. That film is Legend, starring a very young Tom Cruise as the "champion" Jack and Mia Sara as the princess, Lily.

Essentially, the tale of Legend is one of innocent love, as Jack determines to marry his princess and -- in an attempt to impress her -- shows Lily the grounds of the most sacred animals on the planet: a pair of beautiful, majestic unicorns.

Unable to suppress her desire to possess the animals, Lily attempts to touch a unicorn. She is unaware, however, that Blix, the "most loathsome of Goblins" awaits in the shadows of the forest to capture the unicorn, sever its horn, and present it as a trophy for his master, the fiendish Darkness. By killing the innocent unicorns, Darkness can transform the world "to ice...every goblin's paradise." This means day will become eternal night; spring will morph into eternal winter, and the Lord of Darkness will dominate the future of all creatures.

When Lily is captured attempting to save the unicorn she accidentally betrayed, it is up to Jack and an entourage of stock fantasy characters -- elves like Gump (no, not Forrest...) and a sprite named Oona -- to undertake a most important quest. They must rescue Lily, recover the unicorn, and destroy darkness forever. Along the way to Darkness's subterranean palace, Jack will acquire weaponry and armor in a dark cave, and face a swamp monster (Robert Picardo!) and other terrible challenges...

I still remember seeing the shortened, 94 minute version of Legend when it played in theaters back in the mid-1980s. I saw it on a trip to visit my aunt and uncle in Florida, and - well - just about everybody in my family hated the movie. I remember being bowled over by the visuals (the lush forest...), the make-up (Darkness remains an incredible creation...), and Mia Sara (especially in black...), but ultimately I felt that the film was a triumph of style over substance. A disappointment, then.

Now, twenty years later, I've watched Legend as it was intended to be seen, the so-called "Ultimate Edition" replete with the "lost" Jerry Goldsmith score, and I tend to agree with those who view it as something of a lost masterpiece. At its restored 114 minutes, the film boasts currents and thematic turns that were missing before, and more so, captures a wonderful feeling of melancholy (not unlike Dragonslayer and Excalibur...) for a world where mankind still believed in magic and magical creatures.

On the surface, one can look at all the elements incorporating Legend and decipher the tale's origins in our most popular myths and literature. In one sense, the story is an Adam & Eve parable, since it is Lily's transgression that transforms the world to darkness. (though Jack too is guilty of a sin; in his case - pride.) Oona's story evokes memories of Tinker Bell and Peter Pan...she's a sprite who loves a man (Jack) and can be vengeful over his love. And the creature of the swamp encountered en route to Darkness's lair is certainly a Lord of the Rings, Gollum-like character (only even more dreadful in appearance...). Finally, Darkness is nothing short of a Miltonian-tragic character, an evocation of Lucifer as a near-sympathetic figure. Yes, Darkness is terrible and monstrous (in appearance and appetite), but he's also lonely and misunderstood, one suspects. Maybe reigning in Hell isn't such a great thing after all...

But beyond this "fantasy" template of not hard-to-discern sources, Legend works so beautifully because it understands that the world of "fairy tales" is one lost to us today. This forest lush with greenery and gold with sunlight is a place where mankind simply cannot remain. The unicorns are mythological beasts, and as long as they remain on Earth, evil cannot hurt the pure of heart. Dark thoughts, we are told, are unknown to the unicorns...

Well, we don't see any unicorns running around today, do we? And the pure of heart die just as regularly in our lives as do the wicked, right? So, has "evil" won in our universe of 2006? Perhaps, perhaps not, as Legend informs us, for good and evil, knowledge and innocence, must go hand in hand.

In other words (and other worlds...), Legend presents a lost world paradise, a place where simple rules governed man. If he only had protected the unicorns -- the last of their kind -- and not sought to "own" them (as Lily seeks to touch them...), he might have dwelled in paradise forever. Of course, would we really want to live in a world like that, without knowledge? Is that truly a desirable outcome? That's one of the questions Legend asks, underneath all of the unbelievably gorgeous fantasy imagery. "Light and dark" are brothers eternal, Legend reminds us, and perhaps mankind needs his baser, dark instincts - as well as his noble ones - to reach his full potential.

"The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity"...
That's another great line from Legend and one that captures the melancholy feel of the film. There's a great, seductive moment near the climax, wherein Lily willingly (and literally) dances with evil. She embraces it for an instant, and is transformed by her materialistic desires into a black-clad (and ebony lip-stick wearing) goddess of darkness. Importantly, she looks more ravishing than ever before, and thus the film captures the allure, the seductive power of evil.

Finally, when the quest is over, and Darkness is vanquished (for the moment), Jack and Lily return to their lives in the nurturing forest, agreeing to meet there again the following day. In the distance, Scott's camera captures an interesting image of Gump, Screwball, and Oona. These mythic creatures wave frantically to the camera from the forest setting, as they recede into the distance and the end credits roll. This ultimate image reveals not just the end of a magnificent quest (and the movie too), but the end of an era. The fantasy creatures of a mystic and magic age know that their time is done; and they wave madly to us...perhaps to be remembered. As the camera pulls away further and further from them, the feeling of leaving innocence behind is highlighted.

Legend is not a perfect film by any means. Even in this director's cut, some scenes in the middle sag badly and feel overlong. Yet these isolated moments do not sag as badly as the middling second piece of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers. And also, Legend boasts something that Jackson's trilogy definitively lacks: a real villain with a discernible motivation. Quick, who's the villain in Lord of the Rings and what does he want? What's his plan? We never really know anything about the Dark Lord Sauron except that he's a big flaming eyeball. By contrast, Darkness (Tim Curry) in Legend is a creature of desires and emotions, and he actually has a strategy to take over the world; one that kinda even makes sense. Also, I think it important to highlight that the terror in Legend comes from the fact that mankind has caused his own downfall by mistreating and attempting to covet the natural world (the unicorn). In the Lord of the Rings, the ring is merely a tool of evil designed to trick mankind, but man's failing comes not from his own inherent flaws, rather from a piece of jewelry that entrances the wearer. You tell me, which is more dramatic, and true?

Another reason to enjoy Legend today is that it comes from an era in movie history (the 1980s), before CGI, when everything imagined had to actually be created on set. The forest had to built from scratch. The creature in the swamp too. No computers existed to (imperfectly) blend actors with cartoony digital creations. Yes, perhaps I'm "old school," but I stand by my assertion that direction and performance are much improved when talents can actually interact with mechanical creations on the set, rather than simply stand in front of a green screen and imagine something that will be composited later.

Say what you will about Legend's admittedly imperfect pacing, but there isn't a single moment in the film that rings false. Watching it, you are transported to this lush, gorgeous fairy tale world, and much of that authenticity comes from carefully constructed sets, creatures and make-ups. Tim Curry gives one of the genre's great performances under pounds of red make-up and facial appliances, and his Darkness is not easily forgotten. Would a CGI Darkness have worked so well? Been so memorable?

Today we live in the age of reason, the age of a God called the Computer. The age of Magic - the age of Legend - may truly be gone, in movies too...


4 comments:

  1. I've only ever seen Legend through a Pan and Scan VHS, and I was horrendously annoyed by the fact that nearly all of hte film is done in extreme close-up. Does the DVD change this at all? I could not tell if the horrible framings were the fault of my early-1990s VHS or were, in fact, (bad) artistic decisions on Scott's part. I like Scott a lot so was hoping for the former. Either way, I'd like to watch the DVD of the film.

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  2. Hey Kev -

    Thanks for writing! You know, in widescreen (not pan and scan) Legend is a really beautiful film. There are still many close-ups, but also a variation of long shots to present a sense of scope. I recommend a second viewing!

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  3. Andrew10:37 AM

    Dear John, your brief review on LEGEND is one of the best I've ever read on this much misunderstood movie! You perfectly understood the meaningful subtext of this fairy tale, whereas most critics saw only fake snowflakes and a young Tom Cruise! This is one of fantasy cinema's most beautiful and interesting movie, it's so sad that many young movielovers don't know anything about it or never watched it after reading the many negative reviews of the last two decades. I hope your excellent comment will help them to change ideas and cherish this gem as we do... Many thanks!

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  4. Hey Andrew!

    Thanks for writing about Legend. Honestly, it's a film that I prefer to any installment of Lord of the Rings. It is a much better film than most audiences realize.

    Thank you for the kind words about my review. It's always nice to receive positive feedback from readers.

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