This beautifully staged and costumed fantasy is about young Jack and his lady love Princess Lili, and how Jack battles Darkness to save both the Princess and the world. When the peasant Jack takes Princess Lili to see the unicorns, the strongest animals around, he does not know that Darkness, with his cloven hooves, yellow eyes, and red skin plans on using Lili as bait to weaken the unicorns which he does -- and plunge the world into an ice age. Soon after that disaster, Darkness captures Lili and, Jack has to rally his elves and elvettes to rescue her and subdue Darkness at the same time.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
. Starring: Tom Cruise
, Mia Sara
, Tim Curry
, David Bennent
, Alice Playten
, Billy Barty
, Cork Hubbert
, Peter O'Farrell
, Kiran Shah
, Annabelle Lanyon
, Robert Picardo
, Tina Martin
, Ian Longmur
. Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
, Tangerine Dream
, Eric Allaman
Heroic fantasy films can be divided into two categories, Before Jackson and After Jackson. Peter Jackson's seminal "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was the first great cinematic masterpiece of the twentieth century, and although never equalled it has at least influenced some very watchable fantasies, notably the "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter" series.
And Before Jackson? "Legend" reminded me of how bad fantasy films could be (and generally were) during the seventies, eighties and nineties. About the best of a bad bunch was Ron Howard's "Willow", and even that only achieved the modest distinction of being a mediocre film rather than a truly awful one. Having a famous director at the helm didn't always help matters. For a long time I always thought of Richard Fleischer simply as 'the idiot who made that rubbish "Red Sonja" -' an unfair assessment, as Fleischer had earlier been responsible for films as good as "The Vikings", "20,000 Leagues under the Sea" and "10 Rillington Place". "Red Sonja", together with the equally dreadful "Conan" films, probably damaged Arnold Schwarzenegger's career by establishing him in the public mind as a musclebound hulk with minimal acting skills.
"Legend" was also the work of an otherwise distinguished director. Indeed, Ridley Scott's previous film had been "Blade Runner", in my view one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. "Legend" probably represented a desire to follow it up with something as different from it as possible. Scott's original aim was to produce a film based upon a traditional fairy-tale or legend, but could not find one which suited his purposes and so had the idea of commissioning an original story. The film is set in a sort of wooded fairyland which would forever be a place of beauty and enchantment were it not for the principal villain, the Lord of Darkness (or just "Darkness" for short). You can tell he is a villain because he looks just like traditional depictions of the Devil, except that his horns are more like a cow's than a goat's. As the film opens, Darkness has just decided to kill off the world's last two remaining unicorns, as (contrary to what astronomers may inform you) it is unicorns which cause the sun to rise every morning. A world bereft of unicorns will therefore be a world of eternal darkness- from Darkness's viewpoint, a Good Thing, but from everyone else's a Bad Thing. Darkness also has lustful designs on the beautiful Princess Lili (or Lily, depending on which version of the film you see).
The task of foiling his evil schemes falls to Lili's sweetheart, a young man named Jack, who has the assistance of various characters lifted straight from the pages of some sub-Tolkienesque fantasy novel. Among these are a lisping, effeminate faun named Honeythorn Gump (brother of the more famous Forrest), a fairy named Oona and two dwarfs named Brown Tom and Screwball. (Or are they elves? Or perhaps leprechauns, given that they speak with a strong stage-Irish brogue?) There are also goblins, but as in Tolkien they are the bad guys, so they bat for Darkness's team. You can work out the rest of the plot from here.
The lead role of Jack was taken by an up-and-coming young actor named Tom Cruise, at this time in the middle of his 1980s "pretty-boy" period, but he never does anything to show why he was, within a few years, to establish himself as a major Hollywood superstar, although, to be fair, he was possibly unlucky with a dull, hackneyed script and some stilted, ponderous dialogue. Cruise was fortunate that he followed "Legend" up with "Top Gun", made by Scott's brother Tony. This was probably the best of his pretty-boy movies and a huge box-office success. As for his leading lady, the teenage Mia Sara, she shows all too clearly just why, despite her striking beauty, she was never to become a big name herself. The best acting comes from Tim Curry as the spectacularly-horned Darkness, but even he cannot really manage to rescue the film. Indeed, he may have inadvertently made it worse. In a film where the villain seems more real than the heroes, the audience might start rooting for him, which was probably not anybody's intention.
Scott originally wanted to film in Yosemite National Park, but financial considerations precluded location shooting, and a complete forest set was built at Pinewood Studios. A lot of effort was obviously put into this, and yet the result is still oddly unconvincing. (Even fantasy films need a certain grounding in reality, and Yosemite might have done for "Legend" what the New Zealand landscapes did for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy). The same can be said of the whole fantasy universe in which the story is set; it never seems to hang together as a coherent whole in the way in which, say, Tolkien's Middle Earth does. I think that the difference lies in the fact that Tolkien spent many years working out all the details of his imaginary world, whereas all the details of the imaginary world of "Legend" were probably worked out on the back of a fag-packet during someone's coffee-break.
"Legend" is not the worst fantasy film of all time; compared to "Red Sonja" or "Prince Valiant", which continued the tradition of the execrable sword-and-sorcery epic into the nineties, or to "The Scorpion King" which continued it even into the After Jackson era, it can look quite presentable at times. Compared to something like the "Narnia" or "Harry Potter" series, however, to say nothing of "Lord of the Rings", it seems sadly wanting, a low point in Ridley Scott's career.
Review by James Hitchcock from the Internet Movie Database.