Ridley Scott revisited: Legend – the director’s sole attempt at fantasy

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In 1985, Ridley Scott followed the commercial disappointment of Blade Runner with a more mainstream fantasy. We take a look back at Legend…

Although Legend might have sounded like an unusual move following the critical and commercial success stories of Alien and Blade Runner, it made sense for Ridley Scott, fascinated as he is by historical fantasy.

Following The Duellists, Scott sought to develop Tristan And Isolde, a film based on the 12th century medieval romance, not to mention showing interest in a version of Dune after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s now legendary abandoned attempt. Scott was concerned, however, about his commercial career prospects if he went off and spent a few years making another expensive “art movie” like Blade Runner. Turning his attention to Alien was undoubtedly a smart move, but the desire to develop a true fantasy epic never left him.

After reading a litany of established fairy tales and fantasy stories including The Brothers Grimm, Scott soon realised many of those stories had too light a touch, and using them as a jumping off point to develop something new was the way to go. Scott wanted a tale shot through with the kind of darkness he didn’t often find in those tales, coming up short until he found the work of American author William Hjortsberg, whose undeveloped lower budget screenplays contained the sensibility for his fantasy tale that he had been looking for, as he explained to Cinefantastique:

I wanted something with a broad appeal. I didn’t want to do anything overtly inaccessible which might have happened with a European writer. On our first meeting I ran Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast and based our working relationship on the fact we were both wildly enthusiastic about it.

Scott here references the work of French artist Jean Cocteau, a filmmaker key to the avant-garde and surrealist movements of the early 20th century, and perhaps best known for 1950’s Orpheus. His 1946 film Beauty And The Beast adapts the 1757 fairy tale, perhaps better known thanks to the 1991 Disney animated version, though Cocteau’s version – starring French actors Jean Marais and Josette Day – is celebrated as a classic of French cinema. Scott wanted to give the tale he and Hjortsberg named ‘Legend of Darkness’ a level of grit beneath the world-building.

After writing a number of drafts, he and Hjortsberg worked to create something both contemporary but also likely to appeal to a wide audience, which Scott at this stage in his career seemed acutely aware that he needed. He seemed concerned that the projects he was taking on might lead him down a niche path, and as a showman – a director balancing the artful and the populist – Scott saw Legend as a turn toward the mainstream.

By that logic, Scott and Hjortsberg stripped away side quests and mythological fantasy trappings to maintain a clear narrative through line for hero Jack (Tom Cruise), who must help prevent the sinister Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) cast the world into eternal night by killing the last unicorn, while rescuing his potential future bride Princess Lili (Mia Sara). As Scott later explained:

I could have taken this script and gone two ways. One would have been dark and Celtic, which would have limited it. The other was the Disney route, and as I made Legend primarily for children, my children to be precise, that’s the avenue I pursued. Having visual references to Snow White, Fantasia and especially Pinocchio were clear cut decisions by me.

The admission that Scott made Legend for his children explains the choice in part, though given his sons Jake and Luke (born of his first marriage in the 1960s to Felicity Heywood) were approaching or turning twenty at the time this was being made, it’s likely he was thinking about his daughter Jordan (with second wife Sandy Watson), who would have been a youngster at the time. Either way, his focus on developing a Disney-leaning fantasy movie, after his darker, more adult films, made sense personally and commercially.

It could also partly have been a palate cleanser, given the pallor of sadness that surrounded Blade Runner’s production following the death of his brother Frank in 1980. Legend is deliberately lighter than his previous three films and feels, often, like a strange cousin to parts of Return Of The Jedi, particularly sequences concerning the Ewoks or at Jabba the Hutt’s palace. It uses dwarf actors, creature effects and lavish fantasy sets (built at Pinewood Studios on the vaunted 007 stage), and exists in line with George Lucas and Jim Hendon’s creations around the same time. It has strong shades of Labyrinth, just without the David Bowie factor.

Instead, Scott opted for, at the time, relatively unknown leads. Curry at this point was probably the most prominent player. Stephen King’s It was a few years away but The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975 had shot him to a level of cult fame that continues to this day. Legend was the screen debut of sixteen year old Mia Sara, who would go on to have a relatively short career in the spotlight. The star of the future was of course Tom Cruise, at this stage best known for Risky Business, with Cocktail and Top Gun on the verge of beginning his path to superstardom. As Jack, he’s the archetypal youthful hero, greener than green. His name is even Jack of the Green.

Cruise does the best he can with a rather reedy, anonymous hero role, but there’s  sense that his competition – Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey and Robert Downey. Jr – might have each brought something more intriguing and eccentric to a world that needed a touch of the unusual. In a nod to the Cruise of the future, though, the actor did his own stunts in certain sequences, even with live alligators only feet away from him.

In an interview with filmmaker Cameron Crowe in the 80s, Cruise alluded to Star Wars as he attempted to reconcile a filmmaking experience that he didn’t necessarily love:

Legend was an interesting thing. I don’t know how Harrison Ford has done so many of those types of films. I mean, I did All The Right Moves, and I thought, “Okay, I’ve done the two extremes of high school life. I’ve done that.” In Legend, I’m this magical character, Jack O’ The Green. The sets were huge. Sometimes we would be working on a scene that might last 30 seconds in the film, but it took a week to shoot it. It’s stunning and gorgeous and poetic and most of the time I would be looking at a piece of black tape and having to imagine all of it. It was exciting, but it made me hungry to do a piece like Top Gun.

The reality is that Scott doesn’t entirely gel with this kind of world, and pointedly never revisited fantasy again in this manner across his career. He instead channeled his instincts for heroic characters, warriors and battles against light and dark into historical epics, especially after the success of Gladiator, which turbo-charged his career after an underwhelming 1990s. Legend was a challenging shoot, as many Scott films, given their technical complexity, were and are. Ten days into filming, the entire set burned down, but Scott, ever nimble and organised as a filmmaker, only lost a matter of days after reorganising the schedule.

What he found on Legend was a studio which struggled to match his ambition, which perhaps explains why, for all of the inventive fantasy sequences and vividly constructed sets (one action sequence inside the Lord of Darkness’ kitchen is brilliantly designed), Scott’s vision for Legend as a children’s mythological epic, as he and Hjortsberg envisaged, never comes across. The running time was reduced by half an hour. Jerry Goldsmith’s typically excellent score was replaced for American audiences by a synthetic piece by Tangerine Dream (who admittedly did a fantastic job scoring William Friedkin’s Sorcerer in the late 70s), though thankfully Goldsmith’s superior work remained on European versions of the film.

Scott discussed these frustrations in his Cinefantastique conversation:

The American cut of Legend is much simpler. The clockmaker’s cottage sequence, showing the real world, is being removed so the film will open on Jack and Lili meeting in the glade. Therefore the comparison is really obvious in terms of what Darkness’ rule has meant before and after Lili enters the cottage will be lost. Also Darkness’ entrance may be brought up to stop the audience from getting restless. Structurally I prefer holding him back as in the European print. Also on my insistence, part of the campaign will point out Legend isn’t my usual sort of film.

There’s a striking contradiction here from Scott. He sought to make a film deliberately more commercial than those previously, more aimed at children, yet he’s equally torn between the artistry of what he wants to put on screen and the realities of corporate approaches to cinema distribution. It speaks to how Hollywood was changing in the wake of Star Wars, moving toward audience test scores and focus groups, to crowd-pleasing films where audiences can never be bored, never allowed to be still. Scott mistakes American audiences as unsophisticated for this, when it was rather a sign of the evolving 1980s pop cultural landscape.

Scott did manage to put together a ‘Directors Cut’ of the film in 2002, adding around 20 or so minutes of footage back in, but this was far too late to prevent Legend from being a box office disaster. It barely made its budget back, and certainly wouldn’t have been in profit on its theatrical run. Critics were decidedly mixed to negative about it. Inevitably with such fantasy films of the 1980s, Legend grew a cult following over time, but few would list it among the greats of its genre, and certainly not within the pantheon of Scott’s career. In the same interview above, the director expresses disappointment that he wasn’t approached to be involved in what would become Aliens, directed by James Cameron, as he figures out what his next move will be.

Partly given to the underwhelming critical and commercial response to Legend, Scott rather deliberately came back down to earth as the second half of the 1980s beckoned. For the first time, he stopped creating worlds and began telling stories in our own.

Read more: Ridley Scott revisited | Blade Runner, a film that changed sci-fi cinema forever

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