Legend (1985)

When it’s on: Monday, 30 July (7.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

As is customary with Ridley Scott films, various edits of Legend are floating about – I watched it on a Lovefilm rental DVD, which was the standard issue 2002 Region 2 release. It clocks in at a brisk 89 minutes and includes the score by Jerry Goldsmith rather than Tangerine Dream. I have never heard the latter but confess to a liking for the Dream, though the orchestral Goldsmithery is quite lovely.

The film, a big budget affair that was filmed in Pinewood’s vast 007 studio and heavily financed by British backers, is a real mixed bag. It sealed Scott’s reputation as a director with an almost incomparable visual flair that crashes into confused plotting and inconsistent acting, something he’d be stuck with until he struck gold many years later after taking on Gladiator. Make no mistake – Legend is a beautiful film. The forest that doubles as Jack’s (Tom Cruise) home is possibly the most gorgeously shot flora committed to celluloid, the sort of greenery Beethoven might have had in mind when composing his Pastoral Symphony. It suits the mood of the movie perfectly as the archetypal fairy tale woodland. The opposing force in the film is also ravishingly designed. Darkness’s lair has all the inky malevolence required, whilst the main villain cuts a superb concoction of Satanic imagery, cloven hooved, red skinned and sporting two enormous black horns. Tim Curry is almost unrecognisable beneath all the make-up and prosthetics.

Darkness surely deserves his place as an iconic baddie, certainly in terms of his appearance. Whilst he doesn’t appear fully in the film until nearly an hour’s passed, he features heavily on the publicity, which knew a good bit of imagery when it saw one. I’ve chosen the poster above because it’s reminiscent of the demon Chernabog from the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia and beautifully sums up Darkness’s evil intentions.

The downside to all this good stuff is a muddled plot and a black hole at the centre that should be filled with Tom Cruise’s hero. A rising star in the mid-eighties, with Risky Business announcing him to the world but Top Gun in the future, Cruise’s on-screen personality was still malleable at this stage and casting directors clearly didn’t know quite what to make of him. In hindsight, it’s obvious he was miscast as Jack, a forest dweller who possesses the gift of speaking to animals. There’s just no spark to his performance, making it very difficult to care what happens to him. Worse still is his complete lack of chemistry with the mythical characters who help him when Darkness arranges the cutting of a unicorn’s horn, thus plunging the world in semi-darkness.

Mia Sara, making her film debut as Princess Lili, fares better because she has more of an obvious arc. Believing she’s responsible for the unicorn’s mutilation, she goes after the goblins who’ve stolen its horn, only to find herself captured and brought before Darkness. Here, in one of the film’s more dazzling sequences, she’s made to perform a dance with a black masked figure, which clearly represents her own darker side, transforming her from a white clad innocent and into the heavily made up bride of Darkness, wearing her beguilingly plunging black dress and trading barbs with the lovestruck villain.

In terms of narrative, Scott trimmed back William Hjortsberg’s initial script, which would have led to a rambling production stuffed with subplots and tangents. Aiming to keep the already soaring costs down by focusing on a tight, linear narrative, he threw out any degree of investment in the film’s various characters whilst building up to a climax that is resolved with almost ridiculous ease. For all his pontificating and presence, Darkness turns out to be a rubbish Boss, defeated by a light beam and Lili’s duplicity. I was bored for much of the film and that should really have been impossible.

Legend has a small army of fans and apologists. For me, it’s a textbook example of style over substance, a film that works incredibly hard to look great and generate atmosphere, only to ruin it with the plot and acting. Comparisons with Gladiator, both fantasies of a sort, should focus on Russell Crowe’s presence and his ability to fill the screen as the main reason for Scott’s Oscar winner not going the same way. It’s also possible, indeed advisable, to compare Legend with Peter Jackson’s take on The Lord of the Rings, which showed how to do this sort of thing correctly. It isn’t the money invested, the exhaustive pre-production and technical work, the superb effects work created in WETA’s workshops. It’s having characters in whom we believe, caring for the successful resolution of their quest. The absence of this element undermines Legend fatally.

Legend: **

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