While Ridley Scott’s long, eclectic filmography has its ups and downs, fans and non-fans alike generally agree that he’s never quite reached the heights of the early one-two punch Alien and Blade Runner. Some would include his first feature, The Duellists, and I’d add his 1985 fantasy epic Legend. While it’s clearly not quite on the same level of Scott’s previous films, Legend is thematically and aesthetically of a piece with them; playing particularly well as a fantasy counterpart to Blade Runner. Like that sci-fi classic, Legend finds Scott dealing with genre archetypes in ways both bold and subtle, on an epic scale, and both films are also masterworks of pre-CGI special effects that transport the viewer to an intricately designed, fully-realised world.
Novelist William Hjortsberg’s screenplay is a simple fairytale about a young, forest-dwelling hermit (Tom Cruise) who must save a kidnapped princess (Mia Sara) from the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) and stop him from killing a unicorn and plunging the world into eternal night. It’s potentially silly stuff, but Legend works because Scott and his cast approach this world of fairies, dwarves, and goblins with straight faces. The movie was released at the height of the ’80s fantasy film craze; a couple of years later, The Princess Bride—a more ironic, self-deprecating take on fairy tales—was released, and soon became a beloved, oft-quoted classic. I like The Princess Bride, but the kind of big-budget, serious-minded approach to fantasy that Scott attempted with Legend—the director cited Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as an influence—wouldn’t be attempted again until the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—and by that point, CGI had rendered the practical, tangibly real approach of movies like Legend a thing of the past.
Of course, Scott bears a lot of the responsibility for Legend’s critical and commercial failure, as he was responsible for drastically recutting the movie after worrisome test screenings. One of the confounding things about Scott is that, after his producers insisted on drastically altering Blade Runner, he’s been the one to initiate last-minute recuts, both subtle and drastic, on many of his films since (perhaps one of the reasons The Martian has clicked with audiences is that Scott trusted that its 140-minute theatrical cut had enough room to breathe). By now, it’s a safe bet that, if one of Scott’s movies seems rushed or truncated in its theatrical form, a better Director’s Cut is a few months away. In the case of Legend, the 113-minute director’s cut was shortened to 94-minutes for its European release; in the United States, it was further shortened to 89-minutes, and Jerry Goldsmith’s orchestral score was replaced by a last-minute soundtrack by electronic group Tangerine Dream (with pop songs by Yes’s John Anderson and Bryan Ferry). Tangerine Dream has done great work on films like Sorcerer and Risky Business, but their rushed work here was a cynical move to remind people of that earlier Tom Cruise hit, and it dates the movie in a way that Goldsmith’s score doesn’t.
It was the American cut that I saw as a kid, and while I always kind of liked the movie for its striking visuals, I considered it a guilty pleasure. When Scott’s director’s cut was released on DVD in 2002, I was stunned to find that, in its original form and with Goldsmith’s score, Legend is actually a solid fantasy epic (my star rating is for that cut). That’s the one I’ve re-watched ever since, though a few weeks ago, I went to a local ‘Cult Classics’ screening of what turned out to be the theatrical cut. Now that I’m much more familiar with the longer cut, revisiting the older one was eye-opening. Scenes that were allowed to play at a more relaxed pace felt rushed and frantic, as characters entered and existed with no sense of rhythm or pacing. This cut sticks strictly to advancing the plot—which, frankly, is the least interesting aspect of the movie—while removing any tangential world-building details that added to the movie’s sense of verisimilitude. It feels like the movie is embarrassed with itself and rushing to get it over with; any subtext about youth, innocence and corruption was gone, and what was left played like a 90-minute music video.
The most damaging alteration in the shorter cut is the introduction of Darkness, as Tim Curry’s performance and Rob Bottin’s astonishing makeup design are the strongest aspects of the movie. In the longer cut, we don’t get a good look at Darkness until an hour into the movie. When he finally makes his full introduction, it’s a wonderful, fearfully effective moment. In the shorter version, we get a full look at him three-minutes into the movie, and, inexplicably, an optical effect has been added to give him neon green eyes and fingernails, which he never has again for the rest of the movie. It’s a baffling choice that destroys the sense of mystery that the longer cut carefully builds around the character.
Thankfully, Scott’s longer, superior cut is out there in the world for people to discover. At the very least, it’s a technical masterpiece; Bottin’s makeup work and Alex Thomson’s cinematography justly received awards attention even though the film was a flop, and the production and costume design remain astonishingly intricate. At two hours, the movie has room to breathe and allow us to become immersed in the world it creates. To approach fantasy so earnestly invites bad laughs, and the earnestness with which Scott and his cast approach the material is brave, in its way (Cruise, in particular, is far removed from the slick, cocky characters that made him famous in the ’80s). Even in this form, Legend isn’t as complex or richly ambiguous as Scott’s previous films, but then, those ones weren’t intended for children. Had kids in the ’80s been able to see the movie at multiplexes in its original form, it would probably be more fondly remembered today as a great cinematic fairy tale.
Cast & Crewdirector: Ridley Scott.
writer: William Hjortsberg.
starring: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry, David Bennent, Alice Playten, Billy Barty & Cork Hubbert.