From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: Legend

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have embarked upon a project of epic proportions: re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether they withstand The Test of Time for us. So far we’ve done, among others, Conan the Barbarian, Tank Girl, and Vampire Hunter D. Now, on the last Wednesday of each month, we’ll be posting exclusively fantasy-themed “Films of High Adventure” efforts here, on Fantasy Magazine. So, without further ado. . .

The Film: Legend (1985)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Script by William Hjortsberg, who previously wrote the Dick Benedict vehicle The Georgia Peaches and the David Carradine moonshine epic Thunder and Lightning, as well as the screenplay for Angel Heart, which was based on his novel Fallen Angel. Fantasy fans may best remember him for his novel Nevermore, which Wikipedia accurately describes as “Harry Houdini joins forces with Arthur Conan Doyle to solve a series of murders, which eerily re-enact the stories of Edgar Allan Poe” but somehow fails to mention that part of the plot hinges on Houdini being pegged by an ivory apparatus filled with warm milk. Ah, William Hjortsberg. Direction by Ridley Scott, best known for his possible split-personality that compels him to make gorgeous and highly watchable (if overblown) films like The Duelists, Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator when he’s on-point; garish and unwatchable (and still overblown) dreck like Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, and Kingdom of Heaven when he’s not. Soundtrack by Tangerine Dream or Jerry Goldsmith, depending on which version you want to inflict upon yourself—fair warning, though, Tangerine Dream teaming up with the guy from Yes lacks the awesome of, say, Brian Eno working with Toto for Dune, but more on the music later. Still passable monster effects by Rob Bottin, unconvincing hero effects by Tom Cruise. “Acting” by Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Tim Curry (Rocky Horror), and David Bennett (uh, She Hate Me), and some pretty good mugging by Billy Barty (Willow; Masters of the Universe), Cork Hubbert (Where the Buffalo Roam), and. . . Alice Playten (the Doug cartoon series).

Quote: “The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity”—which sums up the experience of re-watching this movie far more succinctly than we ever could.

Alternate quote: (when a ringwraith-style cloak-clad Tim Curry appears, pissed) “It’s Big D!”—oh, how we wish we were making this line up.

First viewing by Molly: No idea! Before I moved to Florida, so pre-sixth grade, as I recall asking my dad to set up the VCR to tape it off television cuz it was going to show on cable while we were visiting my grandmother for Thanksgiving (why do I remember this?!). I was excited, as I’d seen it before and loooooved it. I’d put it between fourth and sixth grade, I guess.

First viewing by Jesse: At my aunt Nicki and uncle Matt’s house when I was pretty young—we watched a double feature of this and Troll, which made my younger sister throw up. Even then she had an understandably low tolerance for Sonny Bono.

Most recent viewing by both: Last Night.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: High. Because of “The Black Dress Scene” (see below) that is often the only part of this film most folks remember from Legend, leading them to think of it more fondly than it might perhaps deserve. . . you know, objectively and stuff. I have no idea whatsoever if it occurred to me that, ah, “Big D” (perhaps not short for Devil, but rather “Darkness” as that is the name given to this character on the IMDB, wtf) was Tim Curry, who I’d previously fallen in love with as the Grand Wizard in the BBC short film The Worst Witch where he sings and dances and. . . ok, you know what? I’ll just link the clip for the benefit of the uninitiated. Then we can chat about the way Tim drawls “you. . . young witches” and what that did to my pre-pubescent psyche.

Back on topic, Legend had, basically, everything a younger me wanted in a movie: unicorns, more unicorns, woodland sprites, glitter, ethereal soundstages full of bubbles and pink petals and, most importantly, a giant devil-man played by Tim Curry who just tries like hell to seduce Mary Sue for Girls of a Certain Inclination AKA Mia Sara via shiny stuff and black lipstick and a way sexy dress that I still want to this day. Woah.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Moderately higher than moderate—keeping in mind that when I first saw it I was young enough to mistake Tom Cruise’s Jack for a cool dude instead of a bland nothing-master who psychologically abuses his girlfriend (Molly says: even as a girl, I knew, uh, “Darkness” was a way more interesting male than that milquetoast in a mail shirt that looks like it’s made of Hanukkah gelt. Just sayin’.). As a kid I had a strong fondness for monster make-up (full disclosure—still do), and so that combined with the lavish sets and what I took at the time to be adventure was a surefire move to keep seven year-old Jesse entranced. This was also the start of a lifelong love affair with Tim Curry, a romance that has weathered such rocky patches as McHale’s Navy, Scary Movie 2, and Congo. In what will come as a surprise to virtually no one, I found Mia Sara’s Lili far more interesting after she got all gothed-out near the end.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

No, no, wait:

That’s better.

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Well, I was pretty nervous because. . . I actually own this DVD (Jesse bought it for me for Christmas a few years ago, most likely after I waxed drunkenly upon the virtues of The Black Dress Scene as I am wont to do when the mood strikes), and upon receiving it I watched the director’s cut with friends and realized my memories of this film were very, very different from the actual film. To wit—perhaps conflating Legend with Labyrinth, I remember Lili dancing with “Darkness” instead of just the (glittery, natch) golem in the black dress, and I also recalled way more interaction between Lili and “Darkness” where she was more into him and stuff. Wishful thinking, I suppose. So more than Mr. Bullington I remembered, for example, the odd decision of the scriptwriter to have the goblins rhyme with one another uncharmingly, how there’s a lot of downtime where the only action is people wandering in the glittersnow as more glittery things glitter in the moonlight, that sort of thing.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: After much (read: a minute or two) debate, we opted to watch the original theatrical release with the Tangerine Dream soundtrack instead of the director’s cut since the express purpose of this project is to re-watch what we saw as kids, which most assuredly had some citrus nightmares going on (yuk yuk yuk), so unless noted that’s the version we’re referring to here. I was more optimistic than Molly, confident in Tim Curry’s ability to carry a film even when he’s relegated to the shadows (ho ho! Legend humor—hilarious). As someone who far prefers old school make-up and practical effects to modern CGI, and who has a fondness for soundstages, I was ready to bask in some Ridley Scott eye candy even if the movie itself proved to be dumb as balls.

Bonus Talk: The Black Dress Scene:

Here it is:

OK. I (Molly) felt like we needed to pull out this scene to talk about it separately than the rest of Legend. I’ve had a lot of friends accuse me (usually without too much sincerity, I hope) of using this project to stomp like Bigfoot all over favorite childhood movies, and truth be told, that’s a pretty fair assessment, though I do it for films I loved as much as for films that I’m viewing for the first time. With Legend, however, I feel like my feelings regarding this scene are so wildly different from my feelings regarding the rest of the movie that it deserves to be pulled out and talked about separately.

While the plot of the film languishes along with Jack No-Pants and the extras from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have this weird interlude that trumps everything else Legend has to offer. Shots lingering on the glittery, sweaty, half-lidded face of a girl on the cusp of puberty? Check. Ethereal voice whispering “seduce her”? Check. Prurient statue coming to life to check out the goods? Check. Ballerina-golem making vaguely orgasmic sounds as it dances around and touches our heroine’s face? Check. Moment where a billowing-caped Tim Curry kneels menacingly over Mia Sara after she faints, breathing heavily? Tim Curry then asking if she likes her “bridal gown” and alleging she’s his “true mate” and that “beneath the skin [they] are already one”? Yeah, uh, that too. Damn, this scene still gives me chills. It’s like, after fucking around with glitter and unicorns and the Gump for an hour the filmmakers decided to ring up Angela Carter and were like, “hey Angela, we’re making this sorta-kinda fairy tale movie. . . what is it that makes fairy tales awesome?” and she was all “read The Bloody Chamber and get back to me if you have further questions.” It’s just so weird and awesome and inappropriate and I wish the rest of the film held up as well.

OK. I (Jesse) pretty much just agree with everything Molly says here—this scene is the scene of the movie, and it holds up remarkably well compared to the rest of the film. I’m pretty sure it’s a bit longer in the director’s cut, which is just fine by me. It’s perfectly understandable that if all one remembers from Legend is this scene then the likelihood of remembering it as an overall good movie increases exponentially. Conversely, the more scenes one remembers in excess of the Black Dress Scene the worse the film suffers; I’m pretty sure someone better than I at math could figure out an equation for this phenomenon, something like a – b = c, where a = The Black Dress Scene, b = just about every other scene in the movie one vividly remembers, and c = either Legend-is-awesome or Legend-is-not-quite-awesome, depending on the variable that is b.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I have some complaints, as anyone familiar with this feature knows is pretty par for the course. I think most of my issues fall under three sub-headings:

(1)  World-building

(2)  Character motivation/the film making sense within its own universe

(3)  Relentless disempowering of female characters

So. On the world-building front, is there even a larger world in this movie? I get the sense that Lili is a princess—the quaint peasant-woman at the beginning tells her that she ought not to be hanging out with lowly sorts now that she’s a young lady, and Lili’s dress is pretty princess-like—but. . . princess of where? There is not a single castle, not a single town, not a single group scene in the movie! We’re told it matters big-time if darkness grips the world or whatevs, but really. . . would anyone even notice? There are far more bad dudes than characters with an inclination to keep the world all glittery and sunshiny and filled with pollen, because the only location other than the ethereal woods, the fen, and Tim Curry’s Tree-Lair is the peasant lady’s house. My reason to care about the Big Picture is pretty limited to “the Good Guys are good, and the Bad Guys are ugly.” Cry “it’s a kids’ movie!” at me all you want but I’m just sayin’ that plenty of kids’ movies give kids enough credit to know they, too, like a reason to care.

Second up is character motivation/internal consistency. I feel like Jesse and I have, of late, been asking one main question of these old fantasy movies—“why do the characters do what they do?” This is, most people will admit, a valid concern when it’s not made readily apparent by the text itself. Ridley Scott provides no answers regarding “why?” at any point in the film. In the director’s cut, which we watched for a few minutes before deciding to use the theatrical release, there’s this awful monologue wherein Tim Curry intones everything sorta relevant about his character and it adds up to, mostly, “I’m a bad dude who wants bad dude stuff to happen.” OK! Done and done, say the filmmakers. Wait a sec, say we. As to the Good Guys, their motivation is. . . they are good cuz they like unicorns. To wit: who is Jack? A child of nature or innocence or something like that, says the scrolling text at the beginning of the film, but. . . OK? Does. . . he have parents? Why doesn’t he know the woodland sprites if he lives in the woods? How did he meet Lili? Does he have a house? I mean, even Dickon from The Secret Garden had a mom, right? Also: why doesn’t he wear pants? How does he know facts about the unicorns, like that they’re not to be touched and are of cosmic importance and stuff? Knowing this, why does he then show his flaky girlfriend the unicorns without telling her not to upset the balance of nature by touching them? (Love, he says later, but. . . OK?) This all ties into my world-building complaint and relates to the other question I feel the filmmakers should’ve asked themselves, which is “does this plot make any kind of sense?” Because the answer is no.

Let’s just discuss how the plot of Legend is thrown into motion—Jack takes Lili to see the unicorns. She wants to touch them. Jack gets pissed and turns away poutily. (Why does his character do what he does? Again, that issue rears its ugly head.) Moving on: Lili kneels in a pool of water and. . . wait for it. . . the unicorn comes to her and nuzzles her hand. At this point, the minions blow a poisoned dart into the unicorn’s flank and we have time-lapse clouds. Why? Never mind. Jack is all mad and stuff at Lili because she’s not supposed to touch the unicorns. How was she supposed to know? Who cares! The fact that the unicorn approached her and touched her as much as she touched it? Not ever discussed! It’s her fault! Okay! So she feels like she has to “make it right” after, for no reason, the minions of “Big D” return to the house where she’s hiding and discuss their plans loudly. AND IT GOES ON FROM THERE.

That segues into the female-empowerment issue. Lili is held responsible by everyone for the situation at hand, and that’s never really questioned internally. Why does Jack blame her and not himself? I mean—he showed her the damn unicorns and he was the one that knew that, apparently, they weren’t to be touched. I guess. . . unicorns are immortal and important and relate to the sun rising (?) but they don’t know they’ll upset the balance of the universe if they nuzzle some lady’s hand? Shouldn’t, then, people who know this take a few steps to ensure the protection of the unicorns and the universe from errant maidens with sugar cubes? I guess not—it’s Lili’s fault, ’nuff said. Jack says it, Gump says it, Lili feels its true for some reason, and I just don’t buy it. Thank goodness there are menfolk around to save the day! That whole conceit annoys me big-time in that way I get annoyed at texts that just don’t fully mesh with my so very feminist sensibilities, I guess. For brevity’s sake I won’t bother to drone on and on about the other female characters in the film, who mostly just want to bag Tom Cruise’s doughnuts. Meg Mucklebones sure does, and Una the sprite is pretty much characterized by her desire for him. Why? Don’t ask! Like those freaky rabbits in Watership Down who forbade the question “where?” the same sort of moratorium is placed on the question “why?” in Legend.

I feel like I’m being mean. . . and maybe I am, and maybe I’m doing my usual Bigfoot-stomp on things people cherish but I guess it’s just a desire on my part for this film to live up to the shining paragon of awesomeness I still, somehow, remember it being for me as a kid—a darker, more dangerous version of The Neverending Story, I suppose.

But. . . you know what? When you come right down to it, that five minutes in the middle with Mia Sera and Tim Curry makes up for just about every fault I could pick on. And it’s pretty! Woo!

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Re-watching Legend has confirmed for me that movie is not without its flaws. These flaws include the plot, script, world-building, music, and pacing, to name four of the chief offenders. That said, the movie is still pretty goddamn, well, pretty, and not even Tom Cruise’s adamant refusal to put on a pair of pants can detract from the visual bravado of the film. Much of the film is downright gorgeous, a spectacle just as worthy of that title as anything else Ridley Scott has done, and yet the film somehow feels claustrophobic—it may be a spectacle, but it’s far from epic. Epics usually require a cast in excess of a dozen actors and even more extras, but for all the meticulous detail that went into the sets Scott and Hjortsberg never felt compelled to actually populate the film, as Molly pointed out, leaving one with the weird sense that the world ends at the borders of the soundstage it was built on. It may be a gorgeous world, but it’s a damned small and uninhabited one.

Still, for me the film squeaks by via the nostalgia factor and the visual flourishes (Molly says: For me, too, even though I was playing bad-cop above!). I would like to emphasize the word “visual” here—the Tangerine Dream soundtrack leaves much to be desired (namely, a soundtrack by someone other than TD). I seem to recall liking their work on the gritty, underrated vampire flick Near Dark but here the effect is akin to what we endured from the Alan Parsons Project during Ladyhawke. If you think I’m being a little harsh, let’s take a looksee at the lyrics to the theme song “Loved by the Sun”:

Legends can be now and forever
Teaching us to love for goodness’ sake
Legends can be now and forever
Loved by the sun, loved by the sun

Again, “teaching us to love for goodness’ sake.” You know, of all the reasons to love, I think “for goodness’ sake” is perhaps the most important—it’s certainly repeated enough times in the song to convince us that Yes-man Jon Anderson thought so, as he wrote the lyrics to this terrible and, frankly, baffling song. I know this amounts to heresy in some fantasy communities but I’ll go out like a Cathar if I must, bellowing to my last breath through the smoke of my burning robes that this song is, if not inherently evil, intrinsically stinky.

High Points: The set and creature design. Tim Curry. That damn Black Dress. Tim Curry. Meg Mucklebones sexually menacing Tom Cruise, especially in the director’s cut:

Oh, and Tim Curry.

Final Verdict: Molly votes “a mixed bag,” Jesse says it’s fairy-glamoured to look like an amazing glitter and soap bubble sandwich but is actually composed of ham and cheese.

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herbivore Magazine, and her short story “In Sheep’s Clothing” is forthcoming in the werewolf anthology Running with the Pack. You are welcome to find her any time over at her blog.

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