Tops among Ridley Scott’s best-loved movies are early entries Alien and Blade Runner. His varied career has also included Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, The Martian, and that movie where Russell Crowe weathers his midlife crisis making wine in Provence. But 1985’s Legend is surely his absolutely weirdest effort.
Side note: I’ve had Legend on the brain since the Tom Hardy movie of the same name—about the 1960s gangster Kray brothers—is all over the place lately. But the original Legend also came to mind after the big reveal during the first episode of Childhood’s End on Syfy (if you’ve seen it you know why).
Sure, Scott would later again enter the realms of fairy tales and fantasies, with movies like Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings. But in the mid-1980s—an era that spawned similarly-flavored films like The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, and Willow—he made good on his desire to make a fairy tale. As the Telegraph recalled in an article marking Legend’s 30th anniversary earlier this year, audiences weren’t sure what to make of the director’s full-throttle foray into the realm of goblins and unicorns:
Legend was the extinction event that brought to a close the early Eighties mini-boom in fantasy movies. Conceived by Scott as a bleak and lavish twist on Disney and the Grimm Brothers (the latter plenty bleak to begin it), the film was a flop – suffering from endless studio tinkering it earned less than $15 million on a $25 million budget and ended Scott’s spell as Hollywood golden boy.
The article, which extensively quotes the film’s writer, William Hjortsberg, goes on to call the film “a carnival of queasiness. It’s as if Scott set out to make Tolkien and ended up tapping David Cronenberg instead.” It also notes that outside of America, Scott’s contract allowed for more creative control and a longer film that better adhered to his original vision. But stateside audiences—particularly any kid who grew up in the 1980s—recall Legend as a freaky relic with a memorably trippy Tangerine Dream score, and (studio-mandated) edits that brought down the running time at the expense of coherence.
Truly, it’s a wonderfully bizarre movie from start to finish. Watching Legend in 2015—or really any year after 1986, when Top Gun was released—is automatically an off-putting experience, given that it stars a 22-year-old pre-Scientology Tom Cruise as Jack, a Peter Pan type who spends his days lurking in the forest. Mia Sara, who’d later achieve more fame as Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend, plays Lily, a princess of some kind (you can tell because of her fancy dress), who’s in teenage-girl love with Jack.
Their dalliance du jour proves horribly timed, since Jack’s decision to let Lily gaze upon a unicorn (in a sequence seemingly guest-directed by Lisa Frank) coincides with the moment that the villainous Lord of Darkness’ goblin squad aims a poison dart at the majestic creature’s neck.
After that, there’s no more smooches among the trees and giggling frolics. A blizzard covers the land in snow, and
Frodo Jack has to team up with elves and dwarves and fairies (some of whom have uncannily dubbed voices, some of whom have glittery make-up smeared on their cheeks) to rescue Lily, who’s been snatched by the Lord of Darkness. Make-up effects wizard Rob Bottin—who’d previously worked on John Carpenter’s The Thing and went on to do RoboCop and Total Recall, among others—makes magic things happen with prosthetics throughout. But Bottin’s most important contribution is making Tim Curry into said evil Lord—and Curry’s over-the-top performance is Legend’s most enduringly memorable element.
Aside from a few shadowy glimpses and some deliciously evil chuckles, the Lord of Darkness doesn’t even show up until the film’s third act—though his presence looms over every part of the story, like a good baddie should. By then, Lily is bedraggled and exhausted, and is trapped with the world’s only living unicorn in the Lord of Darkness’ fiery underground hideout.
“Charm her! Seduce her!” Reel her in with shiny objects!
And a daring evil-queen gown that dances by itself!
When we do finally meet the Lord of Darkness, he’s horned and horny.
The Telegraph retrospective quotes the film’s writer (presumably the person we can thank for penning lines like “I swear it on the festering forelock of Nicodemus!”) as saying the relationship between Lily and the Lord of Darkness was originally planned to be way more risque. As is, he’s creepy ... but in a winkingly lascivious, Beetlejuice kind of way. “The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity,” he purrs. “Dreams are my specialty. Through dreams I influence mankind. My dream is of eternity ... with you.”
But even with his sweet talk (and super-sweet self-filling wine glasses) there’s certainly no danger that pure, sweet Lily—her black-lipsticked goth guise still looking oh so stylish—will fall for his charms. Especially with Jack rushing to her rescue, arranging shiny shields to direct the beams of sunlight into the Lord’s lair, causing chaos as the unicorn is primed for its sacrifice, and enduring the smirking phrase “What have we here? A little boy?”
“What is light without dark? I am a part of you all! You can never defeat me,” the Lord of Darkness vows, but after Legend makes this perfectly valid point, it sends him off into what looks like outer space. There’s a spectacularly corny, soft-focus sequence in which Lily returns to her old self (and her original gown is magically restored), the unicorn comes back to life, everyone rejoices, etc. But Darkness gets the last laugh. Literally.
Though it has none of the humor or self-awareness that would make The Princess Bride—released just two years later—an oft-rewatched and oft-quoted classic, Legend bears revisiting, and not just for Curry’s supreme campiness. From start to end, it’s consistently odd and just slightly off in all the right ways, with two utterly unique curiosity factors: it stars a gawky newcomer who went on to fix his teeth and become a Hollywood icon. And it was dreamed up by a filmmaker whose sparkly romantic streak has rarely since resurfaced.