Some movies reach “cult status,” which means they have a devoted following of hardcore fans who absolutely love them in spite of critical reviews from the movie going elite. One of these films is Legend, a production from the mid-80’s by then lesser-known Ridley Scott (best known nowadays for his action-packed blockbusters Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven). Having only done four movies at the time and wanting to try a fairy tale before moving on to modern projects, Ridley phoned up one of his screenwriters and pitched a fairy tale. It only had three requirements: he wanted unicorns in it, a princess, and the villain’s name was to be Darkness.
That’s not much to go on, but out of it stemmed one of the most interesting cinematic tales in a long time.
A half dozen drafts and several minor and major disasters later, the film landed in theatres — to something of a critical snubbing, but for the starry-eyed audiences that have seen it then and since, Legend has more than lived up to its name. My own experience with the film was in my younger years. I had just discovered the fantasy genre and was curious about one of the few recent live-action “fairy tales,” so I rented it. And… I did not much like it. Chalk it up to extra sensitivity to such dark themes or a difference in taste, but I watched it once and sent it back to the library without being all that impressed. Ten or so years later I rediscovered it and what can I say? Tastes change as you grow older and the story suddenly appealed to me on an entirely different and much more magical level. I think this is in part to the restoration of the Director’s Cut, which comes on the two-disk version of the recent release. I saw the original and Scott’s intended vision is different in enough ways that it does make an impact.
The story revolves around a number of charming and wonderfully amusing or frightening characters. There is of course a beautiful princess, Lily, who is in love with a woodland boy so perfectly in tune with nature that the mythical creatures consider him one of them — including the slightly demented but ultimately adorable (he would hate me for that) leader of the elves, Gump, and the unicorns, whose presence ensures that Darkness never gains the upper hand. But Darkness is tired of only dominating the night and orders his goblins to slay the unicorns. Lily’s unintentional participation in allowing the goblins to find and carry out their dark deed forces her into submission to Darkness, leaving Jack, Gump, a faerie known as Luna, and their other friends to rescue her and restore light to the realm.
Either you are going to love this movie or you are going to hate it. There seems to be no middle ground. It’s not your average fairy tale but interestingly enough, is closer to the inspiration for real fairy tales than recent “sanitized” versions. Fairy tales as we know them were not what was taught to wide-eyed children in much older times. Our modern fairy tales all have “happy endings,” the result of Disney tampering and concern that some of the stories might be too gruesome for modern children. I don’t argue with that, since I remember reading the original story of Little Red Riding Hood and being rather appalled at what happened to the wolf. I was also not terribly pleased when I learned that the Little Mermaid did not in fact have a happily ever after, but lost her chance to woo the prince and became nothing more than white surf in the depths of the sea. That was depressing, but a reminder that life sometimes does not come with a happy ending, and fairy tales are not always full of singing mice.
Fortunately, Legend, although dark, does have a happy ending. But that does not mean its grim aspects are downplayed or glossed over. I have known many a fan of the film to confess that as a child, the movie scared them — and it would be hard for it not to, between the demented goblins (their scenes even give me the creeps), the bloodsucking and truly hideous hag Meg Mucklebones, and then of course the big reveal of Darkness, who looks like the Devil out of one of those paintings from the middle ages, complete with cloven hooves and four foot horns. (Tim Curry, when donned in his full Darkness outfit, measured in at over thirteen feet tall! No wonder his costars were intimidated.) Its universal themes of temptation and sin are contrasted with redemption and forgiveness. Lust is shown in comparison to true love. Christian audiences can even find a great deal of religious symbolism if they care to look for it.
And like any truly epic story, there is humor to balance out the frightening moments. Most of it originates from the amusing gnomes and elves that surround Gump, who is not above his own colossal temper tantrums now and again. And then there are the rhymes, which have a nasty habit of sticking in one’s head. From wondrous light into horrific darkness and back again, Legend is one of those movies I am uncertain of at the start and in love with once again by the conclusion. Somehow, magically, it lures me in and convinces me that light will always triumph over darkness, and true love can defeat even the most fearsome adversary. Even if the woodland set did burn down during the last week of filming!
* Explore the symbolism in Legend in our next issue of the Costume Chronicles, Myth & Fairy Tales, out December 1st!