Movie Reviews: Legend

This was a murdered movie, cut to pieces by its own studio and all but abandoned. It has been brought back to life in a magnificent DVD edition that restores almost everything that was hacked out of it and brings it much closer to director Ridley Scott's original vision. This is still not quite the movie he wanted, but it is so far above and beyond any previous edition of the film it scarcely deserves to play under the same name.

Scott described Legend as "not a story of the past, or the future, or even a story of now." He wanted to make the same kind of leap as Star Wars had, into the collective imagination of the audience, and create a film using elements he found there. It opens in a landscape that looks like the illustrations in a storybook come to life, with bears licking honey out of beehives and birds darting through the trees. But all is not well: deep in his underground lair, the Lord Darkness (Tim Curry) simmers with rage. As long as two unicorns still live, his power is curtailed, and so he sends his goblins to find the creature's horn and bring it back.

Against the forces of darkness are two heroes: the fresh-faced Princess Lili (Mia Sara, in her first role), and the "wild child" Jack (Tom Cruise, forelocks a-dangling). As a promise to his love, Jack takes Lili to see the unicorns, and winds up being used as the bait for a trap to take the monster's horn. When this happens, catastrophe overtakes the world: everything is plunged into perpetual winter (a la Narnia), and Lili and Jack are separated in the wilderness.

Jack, Lili, and the unicorns.

Jack is rescued from the snow by the elf Honeythorn Gump (!) and his oafish companions, Brown Tom and Screwball. Gump is played by William Bennent, who also appeared as the malevolent child in Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum. With his burning eyes and his theatrical gestures, Bennent suggests a creature carrying great and burdensome cosmic wisdom. (Bennent was not a dwarf, as has been mistakenly believed, but merely suffered a temporary growth problem as a child. He has since matured naturally and has gone on to do many other roles as an adult.) The remaining unicorn charges Jack with a mission: Bring back the horn and restore the world.

After outfitting Jack with a proper suit of armor and weapons, the heroes set out for Darkness's stronghold, a huge dead tree with catacombs and dungeons reaching for miles in all directions. The fortress is an amazing piece of production design; I especially liked the room that seems to consist of nothing but columns, and the bizarre mix-and-match Gothicism of Darkness's throne room. Lili wanders through this place, mesmerized by Darkness's offers of jewelry and a dress — at least until Darkness himself shows up. Lili is appalled by this creature's interest in her, but soon seems to become one of his minions.

Lili's fascination with the unicorns allows the goblins to get the upper hand.

Cataloging the differences between the new cut of the movie and all previous versions would take a whole book, but the changes are almost all for the better. There are now subtleties to Jack and Lili that didn't come out before. In the theatrical edit, Lili was a vapid creature; in this version, she's a willful and intelligent young woman who simply wants to do things her way. She's basically good, but also somewhat selfish and self-important; in one of the restored scenes, she brags to Jack about how smart her father thinks she is. Jack adores her, and maybe for that reason can't really bring himself to stop her when she does something foolish. The butchered version loses all of these nuances — and along with it, one of the underlying themes of the movie, which is that total evil and total goodness don't really exist, that elements of each are in each.

By far some of the most striking edits come in the form of missing lines of dialogue — small in themselves, but which add up and add gravity to the story:

[regarding the unicorns]
Jack: What you did was forbidden!
Lili: Who says so?
Jack: It is known. These are sacred animals. You risk your immortal soul!

[in the restored version]
Jack: What you did was forbidden!
Lili: Who says so?
Jack: It is known, Lili. These are sacred animals.
Lili: I don't care.
Jack: You risk your immortal soul saying things like that!

Some previously important scenes — such as Gump's riddle to Jack, which is tied into one of the deleted songs — existed in the European version of the movie, but even those scenes have been expanded upon greatly. In the same way, there's more to what goes on between Lili and Darkness in this version. Does he love her? Maybe he does; he tries to win her over, however ineptly. When she spurns him, he rants furiously, and with that she realizes she's the one in control here, not him. The movie also subtly suggests that his thirst for power over the earth is borne of loneliness: if he can't have happiness in his life, no one will. (Scott took Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast as his inspiration for this part of the movie, and it shows.

Jack tries to make amends with Gump and the fairies.

The ending of the film has also been completely changed. In the original version, there is a stereotyped scene of everyone joining hands and walking off into the sunset together. Here, there is a wholly different kind of affirmation of love, one which is a little more saddening and in its own way more realistic and affecting.

Legend had a downright painful birth. Fresh from the troubled production of Blade Runner, Scott wanted to try his hand at a different sort of created universe — one drawn from Western fairy tales and mythology. Legend of Darkness, as the first draft of the project was called, drew heavily on the unexpurgated variety of myth-making that the Brothers Grimm had anthologized — where Little Red Riding Hood indeed does get eaten alive by the wolf-granny, but as punishment for not heeding the warnings of nature. The same sort of dark-blooded mythologizing ran through screenwriter William (Angel Heart) Hjortsberg's story. Maybe it ran a little too deeply: the first draft contained a scene of Darkness raping Lili, something Scott (correctly) sensed would be repellent to most audiences.

Jack and the hag of the swamp, Meg Mucklebones.

With some toning down, and some spirited songs by lyricist John Bettis (introduced as an integral part of the story), Scott went forward to shoot — and if Blade Runner's shoot had been bad, Legend was, well, the stuff of nightmares. The makeup effects took hours to assemble — especially in Tim Curry's case; he could neither eat nor bathe in his Darkness prosthetics. The unicorn effects were unconvincing on film. Perhaps the worst blow of all came when the 007 Soundstage, the single biggest indoor set in the world, burned to the ground. The shoot was finished on hastily-completed sets (many of the shots on these sets obviously do not match previous ones), but the trouble didn't end there.

After the hell of production, the movie's new enemy was Sidney Sheinberg, CEO for Universal Pictures, Legend's distributor for the United States. He disliked the movie intensely and ordered it re-cut from scratch according to his specific directions, turning the slightly bittersweet ending into a sappy-happy one (and adding a final, despoiling shot of Darkness laughing over the happy events!). Other edits in the movie were even worse: by recycling footage from near the end, Sheinberg was able to imply that Jack and Lili had sex (off-camera, of course). The songs were thrown out, many dozens of incidental lines of dialogue omitted, and characterizations deleted. Perhaps the masterstroke of bad decision-making on Sheinberg's part was scrapping the evocative Jerry Goldsmith score. He replaced it with a ponderous and somewhat ill-suited Tangerine Dream soundtrack with songs by Bryan Ferry and Jon Anderson (the latter simply having his voice dubbed over one of the Dream songs without their consent!). Sheinberg later went on to recut Brazil, in an appalling power struggle with director Terry Gilliam which ended with that movie also being torn to shreds (and also being resurrected on video and hailed as a masterpiece).

Lili's seduction.

The misguided attempt to turn Legend into a Tom Cruise "youth" vehicle failed miserably, and the movie faded quickly to bad critical reception. Roger Ebert's review summed up a lot of what had gone wrong:

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.... Despite all its sound and fury, Legend is a movie I didn't care very much about. All of the special effects in the world, and all of the great makeup, and all of the great Muppet creatures can't save a movie that has no clear idea of its own mission and no joy in its own accomplishment.

The movie fared better in Europe, although there it ran slightly longer, still had the Goldsmith score and was not missing nearly as much of its running time. But it was still a crippled movie, and for years fans of the film only had the European cut to console themselves with.

Darkness's last stand.

The Goldsmith soundtrack was reissued in 1993 by Silva Screen Records in the U.K. — a remarkable bit of musical archaeology that pieced together the original score (including the entire missing "Fairy Dance" musical cue) from a backup copy of the original two-track digital tapes. Included with the disc was a fairly detailed description of all that had gone wrong in the film's making, which only whetted appetites all the more. A 125-minute rough cut! Imagine what was missing! It took almost another ten years for the film to be reassembled properly, but the new Legend meets and surpasses all the expectations we could have had for it. This is a grand and daring vision that is only just now getting its day in the sun.

Tags: Ridley Scott movies review

comments powered by Disqus

Product purchases
support this site.

Buy at Amazon

About This Page

This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Movie Reviews, Movies, published on 2002/05/05 16:56.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

About Me

I'm an independent SF and fantasy author, technology journalist, and freelance contemplator for how SF can be made into something more than just a way to blow stuff up.

My Goodreads author profile.

Learn some more about me.

My Books

Out Now

Coming Soon

Previously Released

More about my books

Search This Site