Throwback Thursday: Journey into a Time of Legend

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

I didn’t consciously plan it this way, but it’s back-to-back Ridley Scott weeks. Last time I looked at Kingdom of Heaven while this time it’s 1985’s Legend. This is Sir Ridley’s one and only foray into the fantasy genre; however, it has a lot of things going for it. There are quite a few films in his oeuvre that don’t do well at the box office but upon later examination (and director’s cuts) are considered classics. Both Kingdom of Heaven and Legend fall into this category.

A clear white-outlined appled with a man and woman inside. A red hand with black fingernails is holding it. Underneath it says: "No Good without Evil. No Love without Hate. No Innocence without Lust. I am Darkness." LEGEND

Theatrical poster for Legend.

Once again, studio executives and test audiences didn’t quite get what they were seeing, so the film was changed significantly for its theatrical release. This included having two different scores between theatrical release and the director’s cut, as well as cutting almost a half hour from the film for the theatrical release. What are now available are two very different films because of those changes.

The film follows Darkness (an incredibly ripped and horned Tim Curry) as he tries to break free from his prison. He realizes the only thing that keeps him underground is the power of two mythological creatures, so he sends some servants to take care of them. After one of the creatures is dispatched, a mortal princess, Lili (Mia Sara), is brought back to his kingdom and he realizes that he could love her if she’d just meet him halfway. She pretends to go along with him but then at the last minute (spoiler alert!) proves that she was conning him so that she and her real boyfriend, Jack (Tom Cruise), could assault Darkness in his home and then run away. In all seriousness, though, it’s your standard hero quest following Jack trying to save Lili and some unicorns.

First off, if you’re not a fan of Tom Cruise, then this film probably won’t change your mind. However, he is playing against type as a denizen of the forest who is in love with the Princess Lili. It’s not an easy role for him, walking the line between young, innocent, and knowledgeable at the same time—think Mowgli in the latter half of The Jungle Book. Sure, he can talk to animals, but he’s not ready for human treachery or civilized interactions.

Still from Legend of character Meg Macklebones

Believe it or not, that’s Robert Picardo (the Doctor) from Star Trek: Voyager.

Cruise has a great relationship and interactions with the other forest denizens, but his chemistry with Mia Sara is a little off. But then again, the whole film is a little off. It’s a darker fairy tale, from the setting and lighting to the characters. And really, you’re not coming for the “true love” story—you’re coming for the unique fairy-tale creatures, and there are quite a few of them, including the main elves, the goblins, the swamp hag Meg,  the piggish cook/prison guards, and the man himself, Tim Curry as a standout Darkness. He remains in shadow for over half of the film, but when he comes into the light, the camera is all about him. Even with copious amounts of latex, huge fake horns, goat feet, and red skin, Curry is riveting.

Darkness - a devilish appearnce, rendering Curry utterly unrecognizable.

A face only Tim Curry’s mother could love.

I would also like to acknowledge the scenes featuring Curry and Mia Sara. There are some great moments when Darkness is attempting to corrupt and woo Lili, tempting her with jewels, food, and even a dress that dances on its own. These are the scenes in which Sara shines—it’s a shame she wasn’t able to take this film and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and ride them to higher stardom.

The prison guard/cook scenes evoke a certain similarity to the work of Terry Gilliam. You can definitely feel Scott may have been influenced by Gilliam’s 1981 film Time Bandits. However, Scott really wanted to make his own fairy tale—keeping the main tropes, but giving it an original spin in a new story. What’s especially unique is the ending in the director’s cut. After vanquishing Darkness, Jack could go back and be with Lili, which is where most fairy-tale romances go. This ending is a little more ambiguous, though, and Jack instead decides to remain in the forest and allow Lili to go on without him. At least, that’s how I interpret the ending.

The Gilliamesque scenes aside, this film is soaked with atmosphere, and it’s amazing that all of this was created on sound stages, which allowed cinematographer Alex Thomson to light and shoot this ethereal woodland. It’s real, but at the same time because it was shot on a stage, it has an almost otherworldly dreamlike feeling. It’s as though the woods in Grimms’ fairy tales have come to life.

A bonfire in the woods, several dark figures, snow on the ground, and inexplicably, bubbles.

Bubbles in a frozen land? Makes complete sense.

The shortened version of the film cuts a lot of atmosphere and makes some scenes jump a little too much, but it has an amazing score by the group Tangerine Dream. The score gives a certain German electronic, synthesizer-y, ambient feeling to the proceedings. Even if you haven’t heard of them before, odds are you have heard Tangerine Dream’s music, since they’ve scored over 50 motion pictures. The longer cut foregoes their music to have a more traditional score by Jerry Goldsmith. It’s interesting to watch both versions and see how the different music cues affect the mood. I’m partial to the Tangerine Dream score with the director’s cut length. Maybe someday we’ll get them combined. Don’t get me wrong—Goldsmith wrote a wonderful soundtrack, I just prefer the Tangerine Dream.

Jack and Lili in the forest in the daylight.

“Mia, look over there! Scientology!”

If you’re looking for an otherworldly, atmospheric fairy tale, this could be right up your alley. However, note that it is more about the atmosphere than the action, so littler ones might get a little bored. This is another Ridley Scott cult gem that deserves a wider audience.

This film can be found on DVD and is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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