One of the things that made the 1980s such a fun period of time for movie-goers was the proliferation of fantasy movies to choose from, even though visual effects and budgets of the time never really had the ability to deliver the kind of mind-boggling spectacles that audiences can expect today. And while many of these efforts ranged from Really Good to Thanks for Trying, there are those that, even now, continue to stand out because of how well they embody the enduring qualities that have made heroic tales of myth and legend so compelling over the centuries. And one such movie is director Ridley Scott’s under-rated classic, Legend.
In a timeless fairyland of good and evil, the young Princess Lili lives on the edge of an enchanted forest, where she routinely visits with her love interest, Jack, a young lad who lives among the various woodland creatures. Jack brings Lili to see one of the forest’s unicorns, even though he fears that if she touches the mythical creature—which she does—it will imperil the entire forest. To calm Jack, Lili sends him on a quest to the bottom of the pond to fetch her ring, with the promise that if he succeeds, she will marry him. But while he is below the water, vile goblins sent by the demonic Lord of Darkness take Lili prisoner, kill the unicorn and plunge the forest into an instant and eternal winter. Jack teams up with sylvan allies—the elf Honeythorn Gump, the fairy Oona and the dwarves Screwball and Brown Tom—and journey across the frozen forest to the Lord of Darkness lair so they might retrieve the unicorn’s severed horn, rescue Lili, and save the world from entering a never-ending nightfall.
Fantasy is a strange genre because it spans so much narrative tradition over such a long period of time that it can be difficult to pin down what fantasy really is. Often it reflects the presumed expectations of its audiences while fantasy can incorporate ancient storytelling from almost any culture or tradition, as far as Hollywood concerned, it’s really something that hearkens to the kinds of Western fairytales that are so familiar to Western audiences. Princes and princesses, wizards and witches, knights and dragons, swords and sorcery. But even by that narrow standard, every fantasy movie provides an entry into a genre that, in cinematic terms, is increasingly new and yet familiar at the same time. Each story is a new opportunity—and fresh obligation—to re-introduce audiences to a world that they probably were already partially familiar with, while selling them on something new they had not really seen before.
The irony with Legend is that it provides us with a most primordial version of Western fantasy, one steeped in the kind of fatalism of the Brothers Grimm, of fairy tales in which the faeries are not people you want to meet, gloomy traditions of heroic romance where victory always comes at a cost, and others. By the time this movie came out, there had been a major fantasy renaissance, but one largely fueling itself on the works derived from older, classic material. For many audiences, Legend wasn’t drinking fantasy straight from the tap, it was just a darker and less tidy version of the fantasy they had come to expect. And that’s a missed opportunity, because if ever there was an ideal distillation of the ancient fairy tales that form the core of most modern fantasy, Legend would be it.
One of the things that makes Legend work so well are its visuals. A hazy, summertime bliss so verdant that any viewer with pollen allergies is likely to start sneezing. A winter so sudden and so grim that it’ll keep the ice in your soda from melting. A glistening darkness that provides us with an unwanted glimpse into the kind of world we can expect forever, should the Lord of Darkness prevail. Ridley Scott is a notorious stickler for detail, and it shows here. Yes, we know the movie is on sound stages. Somehow, Legend gets us to look past it, as only the best movies of the time really can.
But there is also a lack of explanation throughout the story that drives things here. Most fairy tales don’t come with a lot of backstory because your life, the world you live in, and the world you wished you lived in all serve that purpose. It’s the same in Legend, presuming a universally known set of suspended disbelief that somehow falls apart the more you try to explain it. In fantasy, less is almost always more, and so it is here, as well. It takes a certain kind of narrative courage to employ understatement.
But the greatest strength of Legend comes from the incomparable Tim Curry, who steals the show as the Lord of Darkness. His every line is filled with a reverberating, baritone bombast that makes you imagine that yeah, maybe a world without unicorns isn’t such a bad thing. But he also sells our moment of truth in ways no other actor could. As he stands on the brink of defeat, the Lord of Darkness delivers a memorable passage about how good never really can be free of evil. It is a speech that, in less capable hands, would simply tee up a sequel or give an overturned villain a final, impotent moment of defiance. But here, it is as true a moment of truth as there is: a reminder not just to Jack and Lili of the symbiosis between good and evil, but to the audience as well, that all fantasy stories descend from ancient truths steeped in warning. And in Legend, that warning is that the more we come to expect clean and easy victories without cost or sacrifice, the less we value them. And a world where heroism has lost its value is a darkened world, indeed.