Legend by name (but not by nature), Ridley Scott’s infamous dark fantasy misfire turns 35 this year, and it’s as mystifying a beast as ever. How many of its images have actually survived in the public consciousness since 1985? Tim Curry’s bulbous, bombastic Lord of Darkness, a tower of glistening crimson, certainly remains an iconic embodiment of camp carnality and menace. And the frenzied dance sequence, in which Mia Sara’s pure Princess Lili pirouettes her way into a plunging neckline, is memorably strange too. But that’s about it—while Scott’s best work sticks fast to the senses, there isn’t much at all of Legend that’s persisted.
The film was brought into the world amidst cutting room tumult, unproductively shape-shifting before it could even emerge from its chrysalis. Scott pruned his original 113-minute version—towards which test audiences were unresponsive—down to 95 minutes for international audiences, and then again to 89 minutes for North America. All three cuts had different endings. There was a change in music, too, with the orchestral swells of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack usurped by the oneiric synth soundscapes of Tangerine Dream for the North American release.
In the end, no amount of modification could save Legend from swift, brutal critical and commercial failure; it was widely dismissed as vacuous eye candy and banished to the fringes of cinema history. That it bombed at the box office is hardly surprising. The 1980s might’ve seen the release of a multitude of beloved fantasy films, many of which are now considered to be touchstones of the genre—The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Excalibur, Highlander, The Princess Bride, Conan the Barbarian, and Willow, just to name a few—but few were bona fide blockbusters.
And although nowadays it’s almost impossible for us to imagine a world in which Tom Cruise, the youthful lead in Legend, isn’t a money magnet, such a world did exist once. Risky Business might’ve put the actor on the map in 1983, but he wouldn’t cement his irresistible megastar power until the year after Legend, when he graced the screen as Maverick in Top Gun, the second film by Ridley Scott’s late, great younger brother, Tony. Legend was far from a sure-fire hit—it couldn’t whet whatever appetite there was for its mildly fashionable brand of dark whimsy, and only managed to win a loyal following when it landed in the realm of home video.
If Legend feels a bit like an alien artefact, that’s because we don’t really see films of its kind anymore. We live, after all, in a post-Game of Thrones world—wonder and weirdness in fantasy entertainment have long since given way to bosoms, barbarity, and blandness. Was anybody even slightly surprised to learn that Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings television series is going to feature sex and nudity? Meanwhile, the corpulent Disney megacorporation continues to plumb its vault for enchanted adventures to turn into flavorless revisionist remakes, draining away the magic drop by drop. And everywhere you look, grittiness, rather than prettiness, is the aesthetic in vogue. Does anybody remember what colors look like? There’s a rueful pang that comes with the realisation that if Legend and its oddball ilk have any place left at all in the fantasy landscape, that place is dwindling fast.
None of this is to say that Legend should be revered as some sort of misunderstood classic now that its particular subspecies is endangered—its deficiencies are no less glaring or crippling when viewed through modern eyes—but that it’s a shame to see that so many of its qualities are now rarities. First of all, does anything made today look this good? To revisit Scott’s film is to be struck all over again by just how visually sublime it is from first frame to last. Cinematographer Alex Thomson, whose distinctively phantasmagorical work includes Excalibur and Labyrinth, as well as Michael Mann’s hazy The Keep, paints Legend with a lavish and versatile palette—luscious green, glowing gold, haunting blue, sickly yellow, sensual red. There’s an overwhelming temptation to pause the film at every opportunity, just to drink in its full visual splendor.
Above all else, Legend endures as a showcase for the supreme tactility of old-school craftsmanship, starting with the sparkling, spectacular forest set, which dominates much of the film, and burned down before production had finished. Inspired by the imposing redwoods of Yosemite National Park, Scott had a soundstage at Pinewood Studios transformed into a bucolic marvel, which looks as startlingly pretty when it’s bathed in warmth as it does when it’s blanketed in snow, complete with pillars of polystyrene convincingly masquerading as majestic trees. The unparalleled makeup effects artist Rob Bottin, whose grotesque fingerprints are all over the films of such sleaze-masters as John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and Paul Verhoeven, fills the forest to the brim with an assortment of grossly textured creatures—lumpy, hairy, and gooey—deepening the film’s sense of uncanny unreality while preserving the sort of physicality that’s effaced by the gloss of CGI.
That Legend works on any level is a testament in particular to Bottin’s genius, because without his touch, the film’s more gripping tonal shades would remain muted beneath a heap of generic nonsense. As a story, Legend falls woefully flat—its conflict between the princess-snatching Lord of Darkness and the princess-saving Jack (Cruise) plays out in enervating monochrome, too simplistic even for a fairy tale. William Hjortsberg’s script bears all of the surface features of the genre—swords, unicorns, and all of the other expected accoutrements—but there’s a vacuum where the viscera should be. There’s barely enough material here to fill a single page of a children’s book. Without drama, and with characters that are somehow flatter than one-dimensional, the writing fails to elicit any sort of feeling whatsoever.
And yet that indelible Bottin touch, that embellishing coat of artifice that renders benign elves and malign goblins equally unsettling, causes a kernel of distinctiveness to germinate. There’s a sinister, and indeed frequently sexual undercurrent coursing through the film’s veins—residue from a nastier, more overtly perverse first draft—that would be almost undetectable if not for Bottin’s scabrous, oozy effects, which at times threaten to topple the film over into body horror territory. What Legend lacks in narrative competence, it makes up for with a sort of creepiness that intimates an encroaching corruption of innocence, like a bedtime story infected by erotic anxiety—a creepiness that’s more than welcome. It’s fascinating, in spite of its slipshod execution.
The significance of Tim Curry’s contribution to that absorbingly uncomfortable atmosphere can’t be overstated. His iconic performance, which somehow penetrates all the way through Bottin’s entombing full body makeup and prosthetics, is nothing short of miraculous. It’s not just that he manages to deliver the broad strokes of flamboyance, which in itself is hugely impressive: the effeminate gesticulations with those curling talons; the seismic swagger of his walk; the booming laughter; the volcanic fury. A lesser actor would succumb to the character design, wouldn’t be able to go big enough to match the mountain of muscles and horns—Curry is more than up to the task.
It’s the smaller things, though, that take the performance from impressive to genuinely idiosyncratic. There’s a precision, even a delicateness to some of what Curry does with his face that few actors could pull off even while totally unencumbered, let alone while drowning in spirit gum: the flicker of shock at being defied; the twitching smile that betrays a slight impatience; the seductive tilt of the head; the unwavering eyes that betray sincere yearning and infatuation. It’s one thing to act through Bottin’s effects, but Curry goes further, owning and even eclipsing them. (It’s worth noting that Jonathan Lynn’s Clue, also starring Curry, was released on the very same day as Legend—further proof, if any was needed, of the actor’s boundless versatility.)
It’s a shame, then, that Scott, such a formidable director, can’t quite emulate Curry’s penetrative power. There’s nothing particularly egregious about what he does behind the camera here, but there’s nothing particularly imaginative either. Compared with what came before—the flowing combat of The Duellists, the merciless efficiency of Alien, and the searching beauty of Blade Runner—Legend feels artlessly composed. Scott’s eye for character detail is lost in the tangled Pinewood tapestry, and the result is often muddy rather than magical. Without a wider sense of scale, the world feels claustrophobic, even microscopic—not exactly what you want from epic fantasy.
Then again, is epic what Legend is even going for? The framework of the quest, those predictable peaks and troughs that recall mythological adventure, seem to suggest so—but then there’s that tone again, more nightmarish than swashbuckling, that seems to suggest otherwise. That the world feels oppressive, rather than expansive, at times appears to be the point. An identity crisis like this is mostly confounding, but there’s something compelling about it as well.
Even with all of the consummate artistry on display, watching Legend today can be a drag. It’s a bit too much like its protagonists, pretty and kind of dull, and not enough like its antagonist, mesmerising and multi-layered. But it can also be a tonic, a reminder of a time when the fantasy genre was allowed to be genuinely vibrant and bizarre, rather than constantly flat and funereal. Legend is a treasure—not conventionally valuable, perhaps, but a treasure nonetheless.