Retro Review – Legend (1985, dir. Ridley Scott)

legend

I can remember being in my grandmother’s living at her home in Clarksville, Tennessee. I was about seven or eight. My Uncle Thomas has control of the television and it was on the mysterious and forbidden HBO. The film playing captivated me with the dreamlike world being presented on screen and when the moment came that the towering demonic villain of the piece stepped on screen I was absolutely floored. Later, I would learn this was the film Legend.

Legend is about as classical of a fairy tale you could get. There’s a beautiful princess, Lily (Mia Sara) who plays in the forest with a child of nature named Jack (Tom Cruise). A foolish encounter with a pair of unicorns plunges the world into the beginnings of eternal shadow. It’s up to Jack and band of dwarves and fae to defeat the fiendish Darkness (Tim Curry) before evil overtakes the world for all time.

After watching The Force Awakens I realized more than anything that film is able to perfectly recreate how it *feels* to watch Star Wars for the first time when you were a kid. I don’t know how to explain it but it’s a very primal, emotional thing that Abrams is able to tap into. In Legend, Ridley Scott accomplishes the same sense of nostalgic wonder on the topic of reading a fairy tale. Every single archetype looks and plays so perfectly. Tom Cruise pulls of the generic hero who has received the Call. Mia Sara’s Lily is ethereal in her beauty but also brings a strength to her character not typically seen in fairy tales. It’s by no means a feminist portrayal, but her confrontational scenes with Darkness show she is a character able to overcome her initial fears. The supporting cast of goblins, dwarves, faeries, and demons are everything you remember from laying in bed and leafing through a hardback anthology of fairy tales.

Even now, some twenty-plus years later, the film still brings out that sense of slipping into a dream. This is accomplished thanks to two key crew members: Assheton Gordon, the production designer, and Rob Bottin, makeup designer. Gordon was a British film veteran having worked on some of the great British New Wave films of the 1960s (The Knack…and How to Get It, Wonderwall, The Magic Christian) and was part of the crew of Michelangelo Antonioni’s countercultural crime thriller Blow-Up. I don’t believe Gordon had done production design on a film of this scale before, but he produced a brilliant world. Filmed entirely on the famous 007 soundstage at Pinewood Studios, the entire enchanted forest and hellish citadel of Darkness were perfectly realized. It is obvious that our characters are moving through an artifice of nature, but I think that helps add to the dreamlike qualities of the picture. It reminded me of Canadian director Guy Maddin’s work which intentionally lets its audience in on the layered reality of watching a film. The plan had been to shoot on location and if that had gone through I think the story would have suffered.

Rob Bottin handled makeup design and the variety of magical beings, both angelic and sinister, look wonderful. The obvious crowning achievement of the film is Tim Curry as Darkness. This is the definitive Devil. Massive black horns, piercing cat’s eyes, brilliant white fangs in a malevolent grin, goats hooves that tower him above the rest of the cast. Just from an engineering point of view this is a massive task. Bottin made his way up on some classic 1970s cheesy films (King Kong, Rock and Roll High School), but really broke out through his work with John Carpenter (The Fog, The Thing) and particularly The Howling. The most important part about his transformative work with Darkness, and the testament to Tim Curry’s prowess as an actor, is that neither the makeup or the actor ever overwhelm each other. It’s such a perfect synthesis of both crafts.

Legend did not do well upon its release. The plot is paper thin and character development is almost nil. But I would argue neither was something the film set out to do. Legend is a film about dreaming and about imagination. I suspect it still works to lure in the attention of children even today, evoking in them those ancient curiosities that have kept fairy tales alive in our culture for centuries.

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