Legend (1985) **
Scripts matter. People in Hollywood often like to pretend otherwise, but take a close, hard look at Legend the next time you feel inclined to doubt it. Get a brilliant director like Ridley Scott, a special effects makeup genius like Rob Bottin, and all the money either one can spend, and it still won’t get you anywhere if the screenplay is a jerry-built dud. Presented with this hash of fairy tale leftovers and moldy Tolkienisms, the best efforts of those two extremely talented men (and in Bottin’s case, we are indeed talking about some of his best efforts) amount to no more than an arbitrary succession of beautiful but impotent images.
As everyone knows, one simply can’t have a post-Tolkien fantasy story without a Dark Lord, and in Legend, that means a primary villain who is quite literally the cosmic personification of Darkness (Tim Curry, from It and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Once upon a time, Darkness had reigned supreme over an unformed universe, but then some son of a bitch went and turned the lights on, and he had to go hide in the underground basement of his titanic tree-fort. (No, seriously— Darkness lives in a tree the size of the Chrysler Building, and the tree has a fucking basement!) For reasons that don’t really bear thinking about, the universal principle of Light is embodied in a pair of apparently immortal unicorns— mare and stallion— and so long as those enchanted animals roam the Earth, the power of Darkness is strictly constrained, especially as regards harming the pure of heart. Darkness, like all Dark Lords, does not like constraints on his power, and thus it is that he entrusts Blix (Alice Playten), “the most loathsome of [his] goblins,” with the task of slaying the unicorns and bringing him back their horns as trophies. Of course, since goblins and unicorns are natural enemies, the latter can’t be expected to traipse blithely up to the former for beheading or whatever. They will have to be lured to their doom, and the one sure lure for unicorns is something that is in pressing short supply down in Tree-Fort Hell— innocence.
No, if you want innocence, you have to go to the human world, where you’d best look up typically vapid fairy-tale princess Lily (Mia Sara, from Timecop and one of the entirely too many movies called Daughter of Darkness) and her Peter Pan-ish noble savage boyfriend, Jack (Tom Cruise, of Interview with the Vampire and War of the Worlds). Those two spend all their time frolicking with cuddly woodland creatures in an enchanted grove somewhere, making goo-goo eyes at each other and trading absurdly overblown proclamations of eternal love, and for values of innocence greater than or equal to extreme naivety, you don’t get a whole lot more innocent than that. On the morning that Blix and her sidekicks, Pox (Peter O’Farrell, from Hawk the Slayer and Prisoners of the Lost Universe) and Blunder (Kiran Shah, of Gothic and The People that Time Forgot), pick to go unicorn-hunting, Jack decides that the time has finally come to let Lily in on his deepest secret, that he knows where the unicorns’ favorite watering hole is. The goblins follow, and when the unicorn stallion takes such an interest in Lily that he allows her to touch him (a big enough transgression against Enchanted Forest Law in itself), Blix takes advantage of the beast’s distraction to shoot him in the neck with a poisoned blow-gun dart. The unicorns bolt, but the damage has already been done. The stallion succumbs to the poison, Blix hacks off his horn, and a fairy-tale equivalent of nuclear winter descends upon the world. And all this because Jack didn’t have a prom to invite Lily to… Smooth move, there, Bomba the Jungle Boy! You want to sell logging rights in that forest of yours to some Brazilian cocoa planters while you’re at it, you schmuck?
That’s about what the fairy protectors of the wood say, too, when they come out to ask Jack what the fuck just happened. There are four such entities: Honeythorn Gump the elf (David Bennett, with his voice dubbed by Alice Playten— and once you notice it, it’s really disconcerting that the head goblin and the head fairy are speaking with the same voice), Oona the sprite (played by Annabelle Lanyon, of Dream Demon and The Quatermass Conclusion, when she deigns to appear as something more substantial than a just-barely-macroscopic point of light), and a couple of guys named Screwball (Billy Barty, from The Undead and Masters of the Universe) and Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert, from Lifepod and Sinbad of the Seven Seas), who are supposed to be dwarves or leprechauns or something. They apparently aren’t very good fairy protectors of the wood, though, not only because they didn’t show up until after the goblins killed the unicorn, but also because they mellow out completely once they uncover Jack’s motive for inadvertently helping the forces of evil in their quest to plunge the world into unending night. One moment it’s, “You let a mortal touch a unicorn?!?!” but then Jack says he did it for love, and the next thing you know, Gump is pouring everybody shots of Brown Tom’s elderberry wine for a toast to being an irresponsible asshole. Still, even this bunch of knobs can see when they have a job to do, and Gump fittingly appoints Jack champion for the purpose of getting the unicorn’s severed horn back. (Evidently reattachment of the horn will bring the stallion back to life, even though he was already dead when Blix cut it off. Frankly, it makes as much sense as anything else in this movie.) That means Jack will need weapons, but Gump fortunately knows where there’s a cave full of magical arms and armor. He can’t show Jack the way personally (for no apparent reason), but Oona can (also for no apparent reason), and it’s in the process of doing so that she first transforms into a sexy girl with bug wings, and makes a bid to get into Jack’s sharply abbreviated but chastely sealed pants. She’ll take no for an answer this time, but the subject will definitely come up again later, and Oona also swears Jack to secrecy about her having a larger and more calipygian form than that which she usually adopts. (She imposes this oath for— you guessed it— no apparent reason.)
Darkness, meanwhile, is a bit irritated with his goblins for having accomplished only half of the mission he assigned them, and after making an example of Blunder, he sends Blix and Pox out again to collect the mare. Brown Tom is standing guard over her at the time (the others are with Jack at Swords ‘R’ Us), but in any contest between two goblins with composite bows and a drunk leprechaun with a frying pan, my money’s on the goblins. Lily picks this most inopportune moment to confess her culpability to the fairy rent-a-cops, and she consequently gets hauled away to Tree-Fort Hell along with the second unicorn. In true Dark Lord fashion, Darkness falls head over hooves in love with Lily the moment he sees her (to be fair, Mia Sara in 1985 was cuter than a bushel-basket of fennec fox pups, especially when dolled up in black lipstick and the Gown of Ultimate Gothness), meaning that Jack and his turbo-useless fairy friends will have two rescues to perform after infiltrating Tree-Fort Hell— assuming they even make it past the boy-eating witch (Robert Picardo, from Bates Motel and The Howling) who lives in the outer moat.
Like I said, Legend is a gorgeous film. As with the most successful fairy-tale movies (Beauty and the Beast and Ruslan and Ludmila spring to mind as examples of what I mean), it has an air of carefully controlled artificiality to it that perfectly evokes the Once-Upon-a-Time-ness of the proceedings. This is especially true of those parts that focus upon Darkness, his stronghold, and his minions. Even after twenty years, it’s astonishing that Rob Bottin managed to create a monster suit that would triple Tim Curry’s apparent body mass and render his features completely inhuman while still leaving him sufficient freedom of movement and expression to act at his full ability. Some might find the stereotypically diabolical character design a disappointment, but this is easily the best stereotypical devil I’ve ever seen in a movie. If I get to hell, and Satan doesn’t look like that, then I want my sins back. The moat witch is another example of a traditional monster design brilliantly executed. She doesn’t have a pointy, black hat, but she does have green skin, a big nose, warts, fangs, talons, and a great big hunch on her back, and she’s an extremely alarming sight. And while it makes no sense at all that hell should be situated in and under a giant tree, I have to concede that it’s a damned persuasive hell we have here nonetheless. Ridley Scott, as usual, makes masterful visual use of all this stuff, frequently giving Legend the feel of an exhibition of subtly surrealistic paintings.
Unfortunately, it would probably have been better if Legend really were an exhibition of paintings, for while a painting may suggest or allude to a story, a feature film is generally expected to tell one, and Legend’s, sadly, just isn’t much worth telling. It relies far too heavily on genre commonplaces, some of them literally centuries old, while doing little to invigorate them, and the arbitrariness of its plotting, though no doubt meant as a deliberate evocation of the similar quality displayed by many authentic fairy tales, comes across in practice as mere lazy writing. Too many characters are governed by irrational caprices (as when Oona inexplicably insists on keeping her shape-shifting powers a secret from the other fairies, and Gump and the rest inexplicably get pissed off at her for doing so when they find out anyway), or have their behavior circumscribed by illogical rules (as when Gump can tell Jack where to find the magic weapons, but only Oona can actually take him closer than the general vicinity). The largely redundant opening crawl makes big thematic promises on which the movie proper never delivers, most notably the one about balance between good and evil, light and dark, being the natural and necessary state of the cosmos. Darkness’s mid-ass-kicking wheedling notwithstanding, this is just a straight-up “pure-hearted heroes thwart apocalyptic evil” story, completely interchangeable with the works of all the world’s Terry Brooks wannabes, or with such little-regarded cinematic competitors as Krull. The latter comparison is especially damning because of the number of specific plot points, and indeed specific images and visual devices, that the two movies have in common. No film that lays claim to a title like Legend should be reducible to a do-over of motherfucking Krull!
The limpness of the writing in Legend is made even more frustrating by all the half-formed good ideas wriggling through the screenplay on their stunted little thalidomidey flipper-limbs. For example, innocence, as personified by Lily, seems to mean not purity of goodness, but rather a primitive lack of moral discernment and an inability to grasp that actions have consequences, whatever the motivation behind them. In Judeo-Christian terms, Lily hasn’t even noticed that the Tree of Knowledge has fruit on it, let alone tasted any of the stuff. Developing that premise further would have helped move Legend beyond the simplistic intellectual territory it mostly inhabits, and toward the more sophisticated conception suggested by the opening crawl. There is an interesting syncretism on display in the character of Darkness, who looks like the Christian Satan, but who once ruled like the Zoroastrian archfiend Ahriman over a pre-Creation cosmos that sounds markedly similar to the Greco-Roman primordial Chaos. It is also noteworthy that the cosmology of Legend implicitly includes deities of evil even greater and more ancient than Darkness, for he repeatedly invokes the guidance, succor, or protection of Mother Night and an unnamed Father in times of stress or confusion. Nothing comes of any of that, though, and in the final assessment, Legend treats Darkness as just another generic Big Bad. Even a director in Ridley Scott’s league needs more from a screenwriter than this in order to do his best work.