“The time is ripe for a John Ford of science fiction films to emerge. And I’m determined to be that director.” Ridley Scott told this to author Harlan Ellison when he asked him to write the screenplay for Dune. Although, Scott’s version never happened, for years it looked like he was going to fulfill that bold statement with the incredible one-two punch of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). The 1980s was a fertile period for fantasy films with the likes of memorable efforts such as Dragonslayer (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Ladyhawke (1985) and not so memorable ones likes The Beastmaster (1982) and Krull (1983). The best of the bunch was Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). With this film, he wanted to do for the fantasy genre what he did for science fiction with Blade Runner – create a visually stunning film rich in detail. He cast two young, and up-and-coming stars, Tom Cruise and Mia Sara, recruited acclaimed author William Hjortsberg to write the screenplay, have make-up genius Rob Bottin bring the various fantastical creatures to life, and get legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith to compose the score.
Sounds like the ingredients for a masterpiece, right? Partway through principal photography, the elaborate forest set created on a soundstage burned down. The studio, eager to appeal to Cruise’s youthful fanbase, replaced Goldsmith’s score with one by Tangerine Dream because they had scored Risky Business (1983), the breakout film for the young actor. To add insult to injury, the studio and Scott cut over 20 minutes of footage for North American audiences. After all the dust had settled, Legend was a commercial and critical failure, relegated to cult film obscurity. It’s too bad, really, because even the mangled U.S. version has a lot going for it, namely Bottin’s groundbreaking prosthetic make-up and Tim Curry’s mesmerizing performance as the Lord of Darkness. In 2002, Ridley Scott revisited Legend for a souped-up Ultimate Edition DVD that allowed the director to assemble a version of the film approximating his original intentions.
The opening credits play over shots of a dense forest at night. In typical Scott fashion, we are fully immersed in the sights and sounds of this place. We a goblin by the name of Blix (Alice Playten) walking through the forest until he comes across a foreboding marsh dominated by an imposing structure that resembles a massive tree. It is known as the Great Tree – “when evil anarchy ruled the land, the wicked came here to sacrifice,” a character says at one point.
The first words that are spoken in the film are, “I am the Lord of Darkness. I require the solace of the shadows and the dark of the night,” They come out of Tim Curry’s booming, theatrical voice, one that is absolutely dripping with menace. Not surprisingly, his enemy is the light of day, but he seeks to find a way to make it night forever. Since he is confined to the shadows, Darkness (Tim Curry) entrusts his “most loathsome of goblins,” Blix, whose heart is “black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch,” to find and kill the two remaining unicorns – the most pure symbols of goodness and light. Darkness instructs Blix to bring him their horns – the source of their power.
Reclusive creatures, the unicorns can only be lured out into the open by innocence. Cut to Princess Lili (Mia Sara), a beautiful young woman traveling carefree through tall grass, singing happily to herself. Mia Sara, with her expressive big eyes and fresh-faced look (this was her feature film debut), certainly epitomizes the essence of innocence. When she’s not slumming with the common folk, Lili flirts with Jack O’ the Green (Tom Cruise), a young man who lives in the forest among the animals. While the film’s stylized dialogue doesn’t always sound convincing coming out of Tom Cruise’s mouth, he makes up for it with a very physical performance, moving gracefully at times like a classically trained dancer.
Jack shows Lili the wonders of the forest, including the rare unicorns. Their first appearance, captured in slow motion and soft focus, is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, Blix and two other goblins have been following Lili. When she dares to break the unwritten rule of the forest and actually touch one of the unicorns, the goblins strike, taking down one of the magical animals and removing its horn. Lili’s single act of selfishness plunges the world into darkness, blanketing the once lush forest in snow and transforming a nearby pond into ice. I wonder if Peter Jackson is a fan of Legend as the scene where Jack dives into a pond to retrieve Lili’s ring, with its use of a distorted lens, eerily anticipates a similar shot early on in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) when the Ring’s backstory is recounted.
Lili runs off in shame and guilt, leading the goblins to the second unicorn that they capture. She finds her way to the Great Tree and is courted by Darkness, only to be bewitched and transformed into his dark bride. Crestfallen over Lili’s betrayal, Jack takes refuge in the forest and is discovered by Gump (David Bennett) the elf and two dwarves, Screwball (Billy Barty) and Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert) – providing much of the film’s comic relief. They are in turn helped out by a fairy named Oona (Annabelle Lanyon) who is smitten with Jack. Together, they go to the Great Tree to retrieve the unicorn’s horn and free its mate.
The corruption of Lili sequence is arguably the highlight of Legend as it takes on a captivating, dream-like atmosphere. Dazzled by sparkling trinkets and jewelry, she spots a figure dancing in swirling black garments. Lili is compelled to dance with this mysterious, featureless figure and pretty soon they merge into one and she adopts a stunning Gothic look, complete with black lipstick to contrast her pale alabaster skin. Lili has been bewitched by a powerful spell and it is at this point that Darkness chooses to reveal himself, emerging from a mirror. Scott prolonged the reveal of Darkness’ entire appearance for as long as possible. All we get early on is a tantalizing glimpse of a hand or an arm. But here is the money shot and what an impressive creature he is: massive with two large horns and cloven feet. He is Rob Bottin’s crowning achievement, a creation so stunningly fully-realized that it still surpasses anything done in subsequent fantasy films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy included. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Tim Curry’s personality is still able to permeate the tons of prosthetic makeup that he’s buried under. With that great voice and the deliberate cadence he adopts, Curry gives his dialogue an almost Shakespearean flair with the lyrical quality in which he speaks.
When filming The Duellists (1977) in France, director Ridley Scott came up with the idea for Legend after another planned project, Tristan and Isolde, fell through. He thought of a story about a young hermit that is transformed into a hero when he battles the Lord of Darkness in order to rescue a beautiful princess and release the world from a wintery curse. However, Scott felt that it was going to be an art film with limited mainstream appeal and went on to do Alien and then extensive pre-production work on a version of Dune that never happened. Frustrated, Scott came back to the idea of filming a fairy tale or mythological story. For inspiration, he read all the classic fairy tales, including ones by the Brothers Grimm. However, he wanted Legend to have an original screenplay because he felt that “it was far easier to design a story to fit the medium of cinema than bend the medium for an established story.”
By chance, Scott discovered books written by American author William Hjortsberg and found that he had already written several scripts for some unmade lower-budgeted films. Scott asked Hjortsberg if he was interested in writing a fairy tale. As luck would have it, he was already writing some and agreed. The two men ended up bonding over Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). In January 1981, just before Scott was to begin principal photography on Blade Runner, he and Hjortsberg spent five weeks working out a rough storyline for what was then called Legend of Darkness. Originally, Scott “only had the vague notion of something in pursuit of the swiftest steed alive which, of course, was the unicorn.” He wanted unicorns as well as magic armor and a sword. Hjortsberg suggested plunging the world into wintery darkness. Scott also wanted to show the outside world as little as possible and they settled on the clockmaker’s cottage. The quest was longer and eventually substantially reduced. Scott wanted to avoid too many subplots that departed from the main story and went for a “more contemporary movement, rather than get bogged down in too classical a format.”
The look Scott envisioned for Legend was influenced by the style of classic Disney animation which, incidentally, was the studio Scott originally offered the project to but they were intimidated by the film’s dark tone despite his reassurances that he would not go too far in that direction. Regardless, the director visually referenced Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940) and Pinocchio (1940). Early on, Scott worked with Arthur Lea as a visual consultant, drawing some characters and sketching environments. However, Scott replaced Lea with Assheton Gorton, a production designer the director had wanted to work with on both Alien and Blade Runner. Scott hired Gorton because he knew “all the pitfalls of shooting exteriors on a soundstage. We both knew that whatever we did would never look absolutely real, but would very quickly gain its own reality and dispense with any feeling of theatricality.”
As with all of Scott’s films, Legend is a marvel of production design as evident from the interior of the Great Tree. For example, there’s the hellish kitchen where Jack and his companions find themselves imprisoned only to watch helpless as some other poor creature is tortured among infernal fires. There are the intricate carvings and finely crafted sculptures located in Darkness’ throne room, or the immense columns that lie just outside of this room and Scott gives you an idea of their scale as they dwarf Lili when she runs among them. You could pause the film at almost any moment and marvel at the detail contained in a single frame.
And yet for all of its visual grandeur, the film feels surprisingly intimate. It certainly is not set on the scale of say The Lord of the Rings and this actually works in its favor. Legend has a very specific focus with one overriding quest for our heroes to accomplish. There is a textured, hand-made quality to Scott’s film that seems to be missing from most post-Lord of the Rings films (with the possible exception of The Brothers Grimm as director Terry Gilliam was also working with a modest budget).
Scott also consulted with effects expert Richard Edlund because the director did not want to limit major character roles to the number of smaller people that could act. At one point, Scott considered Mickey Rooney to play one of the major characters but he didn’t look small enough next to Tom Cruise. Another idea they considered was to use forced perspective and cheating eye-lines (later used on in The Lord of the Rings films). Edlund came up with the idea of shooting on 70 mm film stock, taking the negative and reducing the actors to any size they wanted but this was deemed too expensive. Producer Arnon Milchan was worried that the budget for Legend would escalate like it did on Blade Runner and would be an expensive box office failure also. Scott had to find an ensemble of small actors.
After completing The Howling (1981), Scott contacted Rob Bottin about working on Blade Runner but he was already committed to doing John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Scott told Bottin about Legend and towards the end of his work on The Thing, the makeup wizard received a script for it. He saw this as an excellent opportunity to create characters in starring roles. After finishing The Thing, Bottin sat down with Scott and they reduced the amount of creatures to a workable number (the script suggested thousands). It would be a daunting task involving complicated prosthetic makeup that would be worn for up to 60 days with some full body prosthetics as well. According to Bottin at the time, Legend had the largest makeup crew ever dedicated to one project. He divided his facility into different shops in order to cover the immense workload. As actors were cast, Bottin and his crew began making life casts and designing characters on drafting paper laid over sketches of the actors’ faces.
The creature makeup in Legend features Rob Bottin at the height of his powers. Consider Meg Mucklebones (Robert Picardo), a nasty-looking witch with green skin, large ears and a crooked nose – exaggerated ugliness at its most inventive. In the film, she has long, spindly arms that end at curved fingernails. The amount of detail just in her face alone is incredible. With the exception of Cruise and Mia Sara, all the principal actors spent an average of three-and-a-half hours (with Tim Curry taking five-and-a-half hours) every morning having extensive makeup applied. Each person needed three makeup artists working on them.
Curry took considerably longer because his entire body was encased in makeup. At the end of the day he had to spend an hour in a bath in order to liquefy the soluble spirit gum keeping it on him. At one point, Curry got too impatient and claustrophobic and pulled it off too quickly, tearing off his own skin in the process. Scott had to shoot around him for a week. From that point on, he had to have an oxygen tank because the makeup was so claustrophobic. Out of all the characters the most challenging one in terms of makeup was Darkness. Bottin and Scott had agreed on a Satanic look for the character. Curry had to wear a large, bull-like structure atop his head with three-foot fiberglass horns supported by a harness underneath the makeup. The horns placed a strain on the back of the actor’s neck because they extended forward and not straight up. Fortunately, Bottin and his crew came up with horns that were lightweight enough to reduce the strain.
Set at a budget of $24.5 million (that by many reports escalated to $30 million), the film’s sets were constructed on six huge soundstages at Pinewood Studios in England, including the world’s largest film stage where a vast forest resided. It took 50 men 14 weeks to build. Principal photography on Legend began on March 26, 1984. The larger the production became, the less money Scott had to work with. Then, 16 weeks into production, and with 10 days left on the large soundstage at Pinewood, the entire set burned down during a lunch break. Flames from the fire leapt more than 100 feet into the air and clouds of smoke could be seen for five miles away. Scott quickly made changes to the schedule and only lost three days as the crew continued to film on another set on a different stage. Meanwhile, the art department rebuilt the section of forest set that was needed to complete filming.
Scott’s first cut of Legend ran 125 minutes long. He felt that there were minor plot points that could be trimmed and cut the film down to 113 minutes, testing this version for an audience in Orange County. However, it was felt by studio executives that the audience had to work too much to be entertained and another 20 minutes was cut. The 95-minute version of Legend premiered in France in September 1985 and the United Kingdom in December through its world distributor 20th Century Fox. Universal Pictures originally planned to release the film in North America on November 6, 1985 but pushed back the date after audience previews did not go well. They re-cut it and replaced Jerry Goldsmith’s score with one by Tangerine Dream. Goldsmith said, “That this dreamy, bucolic setting is suddenly to be scored by a techno-pop group seems sort of strange to me.” It must’ve been a bitter pill for the veteran composer to swallow. Normally, he would spend 6-10 weeks on a film score but for Legend he spent six months writing songs and dance sequences ahead of time “so they could shoot them. Of course all that is out now.” At the time, Scott said, “European audiences are more sophisticated. They accept preambles and subtleties whereas the U.S. goes for a much broader stroke.” As a result, he made the film simpler.
Considering the problematic post-production phase it is not surprising that the final product was savaged by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “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.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby described it as a “slap-dash amalgam of Old Testament, King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings and any number of comic books.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Scott must have thought the story of Legend was immensely rich and complicated; the film begins with a 168-word crawling preface. Yet it is as simple as a bedtime tale, and may have the same effect: putting the kiddies right to sleep.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott felt that the film was “something closer to Ladyhawke Meets The Goonies.”
In his review for the Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote, “Ridley Scott’s whimsical pratfall, now at embarrassed area theaters, stars likable Tom Cruise and a ninnyish newcomer Mia Sara in a kookaburra cross between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Black Cauldron, but haplessly devoid of whit of charm. Nor is there a whit of wit.” When Harlan Ellison reviewed the truncated North American version he wrote, “If wonder is the creation of a world in which one would love to live—Oz, Lawrence’s Arabia, the streets of Blade Runner—then this film conveys wonder. The things that come before one’s eyes in this motion picture are quite remarkable. Things we have never before seen.” However, he felt that the film was, “at final resolve, a husk. A lovely, eye-popping vacuum from which a sad breeze blows. Because it finally gives nothing. Its steals our breath, captures our eyes, dazzles and sparkles and, like a 4th of July sparkler, comes to nothing but gray ash at the end.”
With Legend, you can see Ridley Scott aiming for the prestige and grandeur that Peter Jackson achieved with his The Lord of the Rings films. Scott’s film had the ambition and the sterling production values but failed to capture the popular imagination because of the lack of faith and belief that the studio had in it. Did Scott not do his homework and remember how Universal screwed over David Lynch on Dune (1984) and Terry Gilliam on Brazil (1985)? This was not a studio friendly towards fantasy and science fiction films. One wonders how Legend would have done back in the day (or now for that matter) if this director’s cut had been available and the studio put everything they had behind it like New Line Cinema did with The Lord of the Rings films. We’ll never know and as it stands, Legend is a fascinating cinematic what-could-have-been and a cautionary tale of an ambitious filmmaker succumbing to a myriad of problems and pressures that marred his original vision. Alas, Scott never did realize his dream of becoming the John Ford of science fiction and fantasy films. The commercial and critical failure of Legend, coupled with its production and post-production problems, scared him off from revisiting these genres ever since. Although, he’s been talking up doing a prequel to Alien so only time will tell.
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