Review of Legend

I first saw the VHS for Ridley Scott’s Legend sitting on a shelf in my university library. I’ve always enjoyed films from this era and decided to give it a watch. The version I saw was the US cut and, though I was impressed by the film, I can’t say that I really “liked” it. Fast forward several years and, though I had not seen it since that first viewing, images from Legend stayed with me. Roughly five years later, when I saw that a Director’s Cut was available on Blu Ray on Amazon, I decided it was worth forking over the $10 to see it again. I’ve since seen it once or twice more and, though it will never be one of my most watched films (you can check “My Big Five” for those) it’s a movie I’ve come to appreciate. I will say, however, that even though the Us Theatrical Cut has it’s fans and strengths, the Director’s Cut is the superior version.

What is Legend?

Director Ridley Scott was often interested in filming a fairy tale but, since he thought that it would be more of an art film with limited audience appeal, he postponed working on it, instead directing Alien and participating in the pre-production of what would become David Lynch’s Dune. After these projects, Scott returned to his original fairy tale idea to make the film that would become Legend.

Though seeking inspiration from the Brothers Grimm tales, Scott wanted Legend to have a unique screenplay, written with the visual medium of film in mind. By chance, he encountered writer William Hjortsberg to whom he offered the opportunity to write the screenplay.

After several rewrites, Scott approached several production companies to fund the film, including Disney, who turned him down because of the Legend’s dark tone. After getting the green light from 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures, production began.

Interestingly, Legend is different depending on which release you watch. That’s because the film was heavily edited for it’s US Release with about 20 minutes cut for the European version (95 minutes) and an additional 12 from the US version (83 minutes). On top of that, Jerry Goldsmith’s original score was replaced with a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream for Legend’s US cut. The film was released to mixed reviews from critics, and performed poorly at the box office outside of Europe, but has since gained a sizable cult following, thus allowing Ridley Scott to release his own 113 minute cut of the film to be released on on Blu Ray and DVD.

What is Legend About?

Legend is set in a fairy tale world in which the demonic Darkness, unable to survive in the light, is imprisoned within the shadowy confines of his forest fortress. However, sensing the presence of two unicorns, he commands Blix, his leader of the goblins, to hunt down the unicorns and bring him their horns so he can plunge the world into an endless winter night and at last be free in the world.

In the meantime, the beautiful princess Lily often journeys into the forest to spend time with her close friend and love interest, Jack, a forest dweller who teaches her the language of the animals. Trusting Lily, Jack takes her to see the unicorns, who will only approach those who are pure in heart.

Blix and his comrades, sensing the purity and innocence of Lily, follow them deep into the wood where the unicorns appear. Charmed by Lily, the unicorns approach, but are frightened off when one of them is shot by Blix’s poison dart. Fearing that he has made a mistake in bringing her, Jack flees into the forest, leaving Lily on her own.

When the poisoned unicorn falls, Blix approaches and, using his blade, cuts off the unicorn’s horn, thus throwing the natural harmony of nature off balance and freezing the forest beneath a thick layer of snow. At the same time, Jack is approached by the fairies and dwarves of the forest who attempt to decide whether or not Jack should be punished for what he has done. After proving his innocence, the fairies find the surviving unicorn and some of them depart to give Jack the weapons and armor he will need to return the stolen horn, leaving one of the dwarves to guard the surviving unicorn.

Lily, having followed Blix, arrives to warn the dwarf of their approach, but he is overwhelmed and both Lily and the unicorn are captured and taken to Darkness’s fortress. When Jack and the others return, they discover what has happened and set off for Darkness’s realm where they hope to defeat him for good and save Lily and the unicorn.

What Happens in Legend?

Legend has a relatively simple story. Given that it was going for that Brothers Grimm sort of fairy tale style, it’s passable. However, that is probably also one of the film’s greatest weaknesses. The story is not only simple but, sadly, not very engaging. Normally, that wouldn’t be much of a problem. Movies with simple stories but great strengths in other areas can still be fantastic (just reference my review for Enemy Mine). However, that isn’t quite the case with Legend. Beyond the story being simple, I jest generally struggled to find the little story that there was to be very engaging.

I guess the reason that the simplicity of Legend’s story hurts it because of how it’s shot and paced. With the way the story was told, and the way that scenes are set up, it seems like it should be a somewhat epic story with a larger scale. For that reason, when the finale finally roles around, I always kind of scratch my head and ask “so, that was it?”

I think the best example of what I’m talking about is the movie’s villain, Darkness. Tim Curry portrays him phenomenally and his design is incredible, so neither of those is an issue. However, I never found him to be a totally legitimate threat. His reach just seems to extend over this forest, and that’s it. Fans of the film will probably correct me on this, but I’m talking about how it FEELS and not necessarily what it IS. The small scale and the scarcity of big events seem to conflict with it’s epic pacing and storytelling and it just feels a bit…off. As stated above, the biggest problem is that I didn’t find the story all that engrossing or engaging, and that’s kind of a big deal within the fantasy genre.

In Legend’s defense, I never felt angered by anything that happened story wise like I have with other films. The issue is just that I didn’t feel very involved in what was going on and what was going to happen. Just to cement my point, in my experience, those who enjoy the film tend to praise aspects beyond the story (acting, visuals etc.)

I will admit that this issue is alleviated somewhat Legend’s Director’s Cut. The extended scenes help the film to flow a bit more evenly and add some much needed character to specific scenes. Beyond that, the extended climax helps Legend’s finale to seem much less….anticlimactic. We actually get a fairly lengthy and well paced final confrontation and, while not the best put to screen, it does help.

How are the Effects in Legend?

Okay, now we get to the good stuff. Legend is an incredible film to look at. Anyone who has seen any of Ridley Scott’s work knows that, visually, there is no one better in the industry. I’m going to go on a limb and say that Legend is his best looking movie by far. The film makers really went out of their way to give us something visually spectacular, and they delivered resoundingly. Everything from the makeup effects on EVERYONE, the sets (which, by the way, everything INCLUDING the forest was done by hand on a set) and even the lighting is done to absolute perfection.

I’ve watched many movies from before the use of CG that we see so often these days, and as much as I love old fashioned effects, I always find at least one shot or one effect that doesn’t look the greatest. That isn’t true of Legend. Everything looks fantastic. Absolutely everything.

The real standout here is Tim Curry as Darkness. As stated above, his performance is phenomenal in and of itself, but his iconic design and the masterful prosthetics and makeup work that were put to use to bring it to screen really are breathtaking.

I had said above that the story was not engaging, and i hold to that. However, what engrossed me into Legend was not the story, but the visuals and the atmosphere. I was mesmerized. I can’t praise the visuals enough, they are absolutely GORGEOUS! Everyone should see Legend at least once if for nothing else then just to SEE it!  I’m not kidding. It’s that beautiful.

How is the Soundtrack in Legend?

This is the area of Legend Theatrical vs Legend Director’s Cut that seems to be the most divisive. Originally, the soundtrack for Legend was done by Gerry Goldsmith (who, among other things, did the soundtrack for The Secret of NIMH, which I love). This soundtrack remained in the final European cut of the film, even though much of the film was edited down. However, for Legend’s US release, Gerry Goldsmith’s original soundtrack was removed and replaced with music done by Tangerine Dream.

Speaking first of Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, it’s far from bad. It’s actually pretty catchy and memorable. However, I never felt that it suited the film’s tone. It just seemed out of place. I will admit that this soundtrack gives Legend a unique tone and feel (and so I can see why it has it’s fans) but I’ve always preferred the more traditional, orchestrated, Goldsmith score.

Which Version of Legend is the Best?

As stated above, there are multiple versions of Legend. There was just over 2 hours of original footage which was edited down to about 95 minutes for the European version and even further to 83 minutes for the US version, along with a completely new soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. I’ll admit that I can’t write about the original European cut, as I’ve never seen it, but in 2011 Universal Pictures released Ridley Scott’s own Director’s Cut of 113 minutes with the Goldsmith Score restored on DVD and Blu Ray.

Personally, I prefer Legend’s Director’s Cut as opposed to the US Theatrical Cut. The extended scenes, as well as the extended climax, just flesh the film out much better and smooth out some of the pacing problems that the US version had. However, I will admit that which version you prefer will really rest on how you feel about the Tangerine Dream score. Fortunately, both versions of Legend are on the same Universal Pictures release. I would recommend starting with the Director’s Cut, but if you enjoy the film enough, the US version is at least worth a look. It has it’s fans who will defend it as being the superior version. They just tend to be the minority.

Is Legend a Good Movie?

Legend has what, on the surface, should be a crippling weakness. The story. It is pretty simple and non-engaging. On top of that, the pacing feels a tad uneven at times. However, some of those issues are alleviated somewhat in the Director’s Cut released back in 2011. However, in spite of these issues, the film’s incredible visuals really elevate it into must see territory for anyone interested in seeing something amazing and unique. In truth, Legend’s main weakness is possibly its only weakness. The acting is solid all around and the music (depending on the version you watch) solidifies the tone and keeps the right atmosphere.

Legend isn’t for everyone. Like Dune, it is a bit style over substance. However, unlike Dune, it’s style over substance on purpose, and that’s it’s greatest strength. Legend is exactly what it was trying to be. All of the magic of a fairy tale brought into the visual medium. I recommend that anyone who is in the least bit intrigued by that idea see the Director’s Cut at least.

Director’s Cut

US Theatrical Cut