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The Story of ‘Legend’ (1985) and One of Cinema’s Great Tragic Characters

Ridley Scott’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed horror masterpiece Alien (1979) and the sci-fi noir classic Blade Runner (1982) was for many, a surprise. A dark, fairy tale starring a fresh-faced Tom Cruise seemed an unlikely project, but it was one the director had long envisioned before it came to be, a project that started with one persistent idea: Unicorns.


In 1977, while filming his first major motion picture, The Duelist, Ridley Scott struck upon the idea for a mythological story and turned to the Brothers Grimm for inspiration, finally developing an idea about a young hermit who evolves into a great hero in battling the Lord of Darkness, thus saving the world from an eternal winter. He contacted William Hjortsberg, a writer and screenwriter to come up with a fable-like story, something, it turns out, he was already working on. He delivered an epic script that rivaled Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series in scale and premise, but was, at the time, un-filmable with a cast of hundreds of thousands. Revisions slashed much of the grand size and narrowed it down to the core elements of Hjortsberg’s plot where a miller loved a princess who challenged suitors by tossing her ring into a deep pool of water and tasking them with retrieving it. The miller dives in but at the very moment he is beneath the surface, Darkness has his minions slay a magical unicorn, the holder of light, which freezes the world and traps the boy beneath the ice.

As revisions were being made, Scott was thinking of locations and travelled to Yosemite National Park, a forest of redwoods and fir trees that provided the perfect setting for the tale, but proved impossible to shoot due to the lack of light. Production moved to the famed Pinewoods Studios 007 Stage near London, and a massive forest was constructed within, populated with real animals and birds that actually came to live there. Trees were made to scale, carved of polystyrene and painted, while a brook and a pond were built as well, where real plants and ferns were grown. It became its own ecosystem that was so loud during filming, every line spoken on set had to be dubbed in post-production. Shooting began in March 26, 1984 with Tom Cruise cast as Jack, once the miller but now a forest dweller who can communicate with animals. Cruise was just off Risky Business and All the Right Moves, two years away from Top Gun and poised to become an international superstar. Mia Sara, at only 15-years-old and in her film debut, is Princess Lily (depending on which version – see below). And Tim Curry, best known at that time for his memorable performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is the Lord of Darkness.


Like many of Scott’s films, the production had setbacks, most notably when, with only ten days left to shoot, the 007 Stage burned down, destroying the forest set (fortunately, no human lives were lost). That was bad enough, but then, once production wrapped, came the screenings and reactions from test audiences that prompted Scott, who later confessed he reacted too quickly, to cut the film and so the studio released two versions (four would eventually become available to the public). The European cut, in theaters in December 1985, was 95 minutes and featured a Jerry Goldsmith orchestral score. The American release was several months later, in April 1986, trimmed to 89 minutes, and replaced the Goldsmith music with a more contemporary, up-beat synth sound with German electronic group Tangerine Dream. The two versions have a number of significant differences in the story as well, including songs that Lily sings, which are stripped from the American version, and even her title. She is a princess in Europe, part of a royal family, but only a ‘lady’ in the US release. The endings are also vastly different, with one featuring a return of Darkness, or at least a hint to it.

In the US, the film was delayed past several release dates as the studio lost confidence in the movie’s potential and more so in the length of Tom Cruise’s hair, which is quite long in the film. Released a month before Top Gun, but shot two years before, the studio feared audiences would not accept the star in anything but short locks. But it really didn’t matter. Critics ravaged the movie and ticket-buyers ignored it. Losing over ten million dollars on its theatrical run, the film disappeared quickly. By 1986, the sword & sorcery fantasy genre was all but exhausted with dozens upon dozens flooding cinemas in only a few short years (much like superhero titles of today). Legend’s tale of good versus evil, with magical unicorns and goblins and monsters was just one more in the blurry mix of titles like Krull, Ladyhawke, Labryinth, Willow, The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story and many more.


In 2002, an Ultimate Edition Director’s cut was released with the restored Goldsmith score and a runtime of 113 minutes plus a number of editing touches and added scenes (most especially with a beloved character named Meg Mucklebones played by Robert Picardo). Fans who grew up with the American version will have the most to discover and perhaps feel a little cheated by the differences. The Goldsmith score adds tremendous weight to the already dark story, but those who cherish the Tangerine Dream music might find the loss jarring. 

Either way, no matter which version you’re watching, Legend simply doesn’t rise to heights it promises. While the visuals and special effects (both signatures of Scott) are arguably the best ever created for the genre, the plot doesn’t move as is should, hampered by some slow pacing and editing. Cruise is miscast and never really captures the woodsy feel his character demands. There are glimpses of the emerging action hero in some of the better moments, but there is no depth to his performance beyond that boyish, charming smile. Sara is slightly better, but like Cruise, her role is one-dimensional and made only to fill the generic role. The fairy tale connections of the two are obvious, but it doesn’t translate with any real wonder. The rubber-faced creatures, no matter how cleverly designed, bobble about with no authenticity, save for Mucklebones and Darkness, though Blix (Alice Playten), as the devil’s most dark-hearted goblin, has a few effective moments. Because of this, despite the truly lavish sets and production design, the result is a film that looks pretty but doesn’t grab, and while it’s entertaining to a degree, serves better as a reminder of how without well-defined and interesting characters, no amount of production will lead to success. That said, there is one saving grace that lifts this to the next level.


Many films have put to screen visions of the devil, but few have made him as memorable. Often spectral or possessing an innocent, or even wholly unseen, Satan is generally conceived as more of a spiritual being rather than corporeal. Designed and created by the undervalued Robert Bottin (who made all of the creatures), the manifestation of the Lord of Darkness for Legend is nothing short of astonishing, with much all of that deriving from how well Tim Curry brought him to life. The actor, who is a relatively small man, was costumed in prosthetics and hoofed stilts, covering nearly every inch of him, making him almost 9 feet tall. The fully-articulated rubber appliances gave him a very life-like appearance, made all the more effective by the highly expressive Curry. Excusing the American cut where Darkness is seen briefly at the start, sitting in shadow as he summons Blix, his arrival in the third act is one of the best in cinema, with the Dark Lord slowly emerging from a giant mirror as the distraught Lily looks on. This moment (used similarly by John Carpenter in Prince of Darkness a few years later), is the big reveal, with an enormous, red-skinned, black horned beast with all the archetypal features, stepping into the human realm, a great hoof leading the way.

Curry’s performance works because he understood what the role and film should have been about. While dark, he was also exaggerated, and that elevated his scenes, giving the film the right tone. The heavy-handed, serious approach to the story left no room for joy, the whimsy the creatures should have embodied never fully realized, except for Darkness, who, while potentially scary for children (a necessity in any good fairy tale), is also the first time the film feels ‘good’, his presence so invigorating it shifts the dynamic. Scott does his best direction with Darkness as well, giving him an astounding stage on which to perform, the cavernous room draped in black with towering pillars and a palatial fireplace bursting with licking flames. Lily, now taken by the dark spirits of the underworld is clothed in a plunging black dress, and meant to be his bride. The site of the gargantuan figure of Darkness looming over the demure and virginal Lily is imposing and magnificently conceived and executed, the subtle fable-like suggestion of the dangers of lust perfectly teased. Just look at these images.


The Lord of Darkness is a masterpiece of design and conception, performance and direction, a character that has long out-lived the story it occupies. Holding place among the best incarnations of the devil, Tim Curry’s Darkness is the heart of Legend, the primer for the plot and the reason that any hero film works; he is a perfect villain. Seemingly indestructible, cruel and yet infinitely likable, we want to watch him, we are mesmerized by his appearance, and are fascinated by his motivations. What’s better is his weakness, the very thing that makes any villain so interesting. Here, it is the longing for love, something none would expect of such a miserable creature. His hopes are to destroy the light, but we understand that this is really in defense of his heart, for if the world is plunged into blackness, we all suffer as he. The pursuit to capture and mutilate the unicorns are symbolic of the desecration of what he can never have, the hope and light of shared loved. The girl supersedes his ambitions, the desires of her heart and her flesh make even the sacrifice of the steeds secondary. His anger at her denial is testament to his frustration and his obliviousness to her betrayal like a shroud over his eyes. His failure is his methods, the temptations of his dark promise of eternal power have no strength against the purity of her soul. So blind, he doesn’t even see she has turned his own tricks against him. A tragic figure, the Lord of Darkness remains a classic character and worthy of a closer look.



Ridley Scott


William Hjortsberg


Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry

The Ridley Scott Encyclopedia,  Laurence Raw, Scarecrow Press, Sep 28, 2009
Ridley Scott DVD Commentary for “Legend: Ultimate Edition”, Universal Studios Home Video, 2002
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