Review: LEGEND – Fairy Fare not Fit for Man

LEGEND (1985) directed by Ridley Scott, was originally a box-office bomb, and has since become a cult classic. The reason for both failure and success is clear on close inspection: for the box-office audience wants substance for their ticket price, whereas cult fans gazing alone at videotape can be content with flash.

If ever there was a film that was glamor without heart, a fairy food as pleasing to the eye as colored shadows, but as empty to chew as a mouthful of air, then this is the film.

No review of this film would be honest that did not praise to the sky the visual splendor, glamor, and magic captured by the camera. In these days when audiences grow discontent with computerized graphics, seeing a film of an older generation, with honest to goodness practical effects, models, make-up, prosthetics, pyrotechnics, is source of wonder.

In terms of make-up, Ridley Scott had his actors and actresses worked on for three hours each shooting day, applying up to a dozen prosthetic pieces molded to move with their muscles, by the largest team of make-up artists ever employed, at that time, on a film. In terms of sets, he had built an entire fairy forest on a soundstage in Pinewood Studios, England, sculpted out of polystyrene, complete with trees sixty feet high and thirty feet wide. In terms of falling flower petals, pollen, fairy dust, snowflakes, smoke, sparks, bubbles, there is more confetti of one sort or another on screen at any moment than a tickertape parade.

The result is unparalleled. In terms of make up and set direction, lighting and blocking, no film captures the look of dreamlike glamor of fairytale better than this. Even the odd choice of using the modern electronic jazz of Tangerine Dream for the soundtrack is memorable and eerie.

There have never been more better looking unicorns.

For that matter, no other film captures the essential flavor of old Celtic tales of otherworld as well.

Here, for example, is a clip from the Director’s cut (unwisely cut from theater release) of the young, untested hero (who has never handled sword before) entering the accursed bog where evil creatures dwell, and confronting a man-eating hag with his silver-tongued blarney to catch her off her guard.

This dialog is priceless. Glory in it.

Meg: What a fine fat boy you are, Jack!
Jack: You don’t really mean to eat me, do you, ma’am?
Meg: Oh, indeed I do!
Jack: That would be a shame! Because someone as fair and lovely as yourself, Miss Meg, deserves far better than scrawny me.
Meg: Think me fair, do you, Jack?
Jack: All the heavenly angels must envy your beauty.
Meg: [cackles] What a fine meal you’ll make, be the rest of you as sweet as your tongue!

Please note that Meg screams for a long moment after her head is lopped off. Fairyland is a disquieting place at all times.

Snippets of the dialog likewise capture perfectly the rhythm and sense and nonsense of ancient folktales.

When the Dark Lord asks of his goblin “Are you not the most loathsome of my goblins? Is not your heart black and full of hate?” the answer: “Black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch.”

Or when Oona, the twinkling fairy no larger than a spark, takes on flesh assumes the form and face of a Jack’s true love to tempt him, he is allured at first, but recoils from the fairy magic. He says “Human hearts don’t work that way.” Her girlish anger blazes at him: “What care I for human hearts? Soft and spiritless as porridge! Fairy hearts beat fierce and free!”

And she flits away, leaving him to rot in the dungeon of the Dark One. Will she find the key to free him, or has his fine sentiments condemned him and the other prisoners? Fairies are nothing if not inconstant and fickle in this film. Which is just as it should be.

But be warned: this film takes its inspiration not from the bowdlerized fairytales depicted in Disney cartoons, fit for children, but from an older, deeper strata of story lore, when elfs were alluring but dangerous creatures, and their company was not safe for the children of men.

The idea of approaching fairyland from the dark side has its appeal, but, in this case, it is a double-sided blade, and calls for a delicacy of approach and a thematic integrity that, sadly, is lacking here: for real fairytales always revolve around a rather stern and clear moral vision of the world. This is a vision no film maker as modern as Ridley Scott seems able to see.

Which brings us to the flaw that haunts this film, and led to its initial loss at the box office. The outer garments gleam and flow with unearthly beauty; but beneath the fair exterior beats no heart.

A very lengthy opening word crawl announces the basic plot and theme. This is an inauspicious beginning presaging the weakness that will haunt the film to its last frame.

The plot is that primal darkness, older than time, driven into subterranean exile by creation’s dawn, plots against the unicorns, most mystical of creatures, in whose soul light and laughter is protected, but who cannot be found save by the most pure of mortals.

This is all well and good, except that each such point is explained and repeated at least twice once the film begins, sometimes thrice.

This same very lengthy opening word crawl also announces the theme that Lily and Jack are pure and innocent and love each other with pure and innocent love; both believe nothing but goodness exists in the world, but will soon learn that there is no good without evil, no love without hate, no heaven without hell, no light without darkness. The harmony of the universe depends on the eternal balance.

This is all well and good, except that it is false, both in the real world and in the story that follows. There is nothing in the film to indicate either that Jack or Lily believe no evil exists in the world. There is nothing in this whole film, except for the dying boast of the Lord of Darkness — hardly a nonpartisan witness — that light somehow needs darkness to exist. The Lord of Darkness is not portrayed as any part of anything immortal, since he is killed onstage both by being stabbed with an alicorn and by being blasted with sunlight and by being flung screaming into a bottomless abyss that was somehow convenient to hand. And, indeed, aside from a fleeting and meaningless image of him laughing just before the credits roll, is there any hint that this was not final as can be.

The other problem is that nowhere, either in the real world nor in stories, does heaven and hell exist in an harmonious eternal balance. Neither druids nor Taoists nor any ancient pagans believe in a balance between harmony and disharmony, good and evil, hate and love.

Rather, the ancient belief is that active forces and passive forces exist in a balance, and that day and night must stay in harmony, because the good of darkness and rest become unbalanced if not moderated by the complementary and opposite good of light and action. And in the Christian view, darkness symbolizes evil, which is not an equal and opposite force, but a corruption, or lapse, or disease of the good, which, when cured, is washed away, forgiven and forgotten, and not part of an eternal return nor endless cycle: the triumph of heaven means hell sealed up forever.

Now, this story, or any other, can pick one theme or the other, and say that darkness and light are coequal and interdependent, or say darkness is the absence of light; but one cannot say both, as this film attempt, and fails, to do.

The theme is not so much absent as incomplete: one theme, that of devilish evil attempting to seduce innocence, jars and does not match the second theme, that of otherworldly beauty containing perils not meant for man. Either theme would be a fit matter for a fairy story, but, here, the two are never combined into one.

All the elements of a fairy tale plot are present, but never cohere into a whole.

The Lord of Darkness sends his goblins to hunt the unicorns, which they cannot find unless led to them unwittingly by an innocent mortal maiden. Princess Lily is said in the dialog to be just such an innocent maiden, except that her first act upon being introduced is cutting the clothesline of her peasant friend as an impish prank, and then running off into the woods looking for a handsome young Jack, without listening to the timely warnings about willow trees and toad stool rings. Aside from dialog calling her innocent, nothing in her words or deeds displays any character of innocence.

At no point, for example, does she nurse back to health some wounded goblin child, who, when grown, recalls and returns her guiltless kindness. Nor does she give away the magic ring that collects all power and riches in the world to its wearer, because she cares nothing for worldly pelf. That would be an act of innocence.

Jack leads Lily to see the unicorns, a stallion and a mare. He understands the speech of animals, and says their speech is nothing but love and laughter.

That Jack, like Sigfried or Dr. Dolittle, knows the speach of bird and beast, is a plot point safely forgotten. Nothing comes of it.

Liky approaches a unicorn to pet it, while he, without putting out a hand to stop her, warns her not to, without saying why not. As she touches the stallion, the goblins, who had been following, smite the unicorn with a poisoned dart from a blowgun, and give chase.


Lily, not understanding why, or if, she did anything wrong, quarrels with Jack, but the lovers soon make amends. Teasing him, she says she will wed whoever recovers her ring, which she tosses away; but it falls from an unexpectedly steep cliff into a deep river, and Jack dives after, while she cries out in fear.

Meanwhile the goblins slay the stallion and take his alicorn. Sunlight fails; snowstorms coat the forest; Jack is trapped under the icy surface that forms instantly on the water. Lily flees in panic, finds her peasant friend frozen, and overhears the goblins boasting of their victory. Vowing to set right her wrongs, she bravely follows them as they seek the unicorn mare.

The goblins boast that the alicorn contains magic enough to overthrow the Dark Lord, and allow one of them to take his place. One need not note this important plot point, because nothing whatsoever is made of it later.

Meanwhile, Jack is met by a pointy-eared, sly-eyed elf name Gump, two leprechauns named Screwball and Brown Tom (played brilliantly by Billy Barty and Cork Hubbard) and a flickering fairy-dot called Oona.

Upon learning, to their wrath, that Jack is to blame for the woe of the snow and the end of all sunlight, they all drink a fairy toast from the bottle Brown Tom carries under his hat, and become fast friends, joining forces to find and protect the remaining unicorn.

Let none complain of such jarring changes of mood when dealing with elves. This is a virtue, not a flaw, in the writing. Fairies are fickle. Few films, or none, capture the mood. This one does.

Gump leads Jack to the barrow mound of an ancient king, there to despoil the dead of mail, sword and shield. He can go no further himself, but sends Oona to lead Jack. Here she reveals that she can assume solid form, and he swears to keep this secret, which, later, he does not. This plot point does crop up later, but his oathbreaking creates no consequences, dire or otherwise. Like all in this film, it is here only for mood, and nothing comes of it.

Meanwhile Brown Tom protects the unicorn mare, and Lily (who followed the goblins here) by deflecting the goblin arrows with his frying pan while chortling and calling defiance. It is at once serious and absurd, as elf battles should be, and beautifully filmed, like all scenes here. He is shot through the brain and killed entirely and the goblins snare both Lily and unicorn in a net.

Brown Tom is not as entirely dead as he might seem, and when Jack, now armed and armored like a golden hero, returns with Gump, the party sets off to the Tree of Darkness, where the goblins have their castle, and feast on the flesh of the living.

The heroes fall through a trap door into a hellish dungeon, befriend one of the goblins (who turns out to be a leprechaun), fight the trolls of the kitchen staff, and save one of their number from being baked into a pie.

Meanwhile, the Dark Lord is smitten with Lily, attracted by her innocence, and is commanded by his father, a voice in the fireplace, to seduce and hypnotize her. This is done in an eerie scene where an empty dress dances with her, and, as they spin together, Lily dons the dress, black lipstick, and an evil hairdo. The Dark Lord steps from a mirror, and announces they will be wed; she defies him, screaming and spitting in a frankly silly fashion, but then, a moment later, agrees to the proposal provided she is allowed to kill the unicorn. He laughs his gushing laugh, and agrees.

As they talk, the Dark Lord confesses that sunlight can destroy him. Overhearing this from hiding, Jack asks his leprechaun friends to take the oversized platters and plates of the Dark Lord’s kitchen, catch the dying rays of the setting sun to send the reflection down the chimney and around the corners of his crooked halls and through the great doors of the chamber of sacrifice.

In the climatic scene, Gump and Jack, hidden in the rafters, see Lily, dressed in all black with evil black lipstick, flourishing high an oversized knife high as if to strike the chained unicorn. Gump tells Jack not to judge Lily with his eyes; and then, a moment later, tells Jack to shoot Lily with an arrow, since she looks evil. This is sort of a mixed message. Meanwhile, someone closed the great doors, which, being opaque, will block the beam of sunlight so cunningly reflected down the chimney by the leprechauns and platters.

Lily smites the chain with all the strength of her slender, girlish arm. Because this is a movie, the stubborn iron parts at her dainty blow, and she calls on the unicorn to flee, even though the mare is still trapped in the same chamber as is she. But then the beam of sunlight smashes the great doors asunder, breaking them off their hinges, and creating one of those vehement tornados sunlight never actually creates.

Jack fights the Dark Lord. Jack dodges and leaps while the Dark Lord throws fire. Then Jack spies the severed unicorn horn of the stallion as it falls into a boiling pool. He recovers the horn somehow without scalding his hand, and stabs the Dark Lord with it. As the beam of sunlight picks up the Dark Lord and shoves him toward a convenient bottomless abyss that was not there a moment ago, clawing to stay upright, he boasts the darkness can never be defeated, and then he falls screaming in defeat into the bottomless abyss that was not there a moment ago.

The fate of the trolls and goblins filling the evil castle is forgotten in a lapse of continuity. Rumor says an unfilmed scene in the script has them abandon their master to his fate, and slip away quietly.

Lily, dressed once again in her princess garb, is now enchanted and cannot wake. The elfs restore the horn of the stallion, who springs to life again. Jack dives in the river, recovers the ring, places it on her finger before kissing Lily, she wakes, sun rises, music plays, the Lord of Darkness laughs one last laugh, and roll the credits. The end.

The bit of business with the ring granting marriage to the princess was set up with no follow through, for neither Dark Lord nor Jack o’ the Wood end up wed to her. It was a fairy tale element properly set up, but with no real follow through.

If love’s first kiss wakens the innocent maiden under a spell, there is no need for the ring. If the ring is needed, the kiss is not. If she just fell and hit her head, there is no spell. If there is a spell, the way to break it must be said.

In a fairy tale, if one thing kills a Dark Lord, nothing else does: Therefore, if beam of solid sunlight can throw a Devil back into hell, there is no need to stab him with a unicorn horn; and if there is no need to stab him with the unicorn horn, there is no need for dialog where goblins say the horn has magic enough to overcome him. And if, contrariwise, the horn can overcome him, there is no need for dialog where the Devil to say sunlight destroys him, and no need for a solid beam of sunlight to batter down his great doors.

And, again, if the innocent maiden by her cunning agrees to marry the Devil if he allows her to kill the unicorn, then her freeing the unicorn should lead to his downfall. And, thematically, if she is innocent, her innocence should be what protects her, not her cunning. And if she is cunning, what need for innocence? The two qualities do not really mix.

This lack of coherence plagues the film at every turn. Every scene is as beautiful or horrible as a fairytale, bright or dark, should be, and the dialog is gilded with glamor and gold. Every element by itself is fit and fine, but none of them fit with each other. It is all the images of fairytale without understanding.

Ridley Scott decided not to use any real fairytale for his fairytale, but merely throw together a montage of his own invention, peopled by stock characters common to all folk tales: goblins, elfs, a princess, Jack o’ the Wood, a peasant matron, and a red devil with a magnificent rack of horns, complete with hairy legs and split hoof of Pan.

Let no one object to stock characters being used in any tale: the objection should arise if they are misused. While none is obviously misused in any given scene, none are really used either, not to their full effect. This movie seems unable to make up its mind.

In effect, the film attempts to have both Devil and Elfs in one film, Hell and Fairyland, and they are hard to mix.

Hard, I say, but not impossible: Disney’s DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE of 1959 did an expert job of exactly this, making the fairy folk impish and devilish at once, both alluring in their magic, and fearful of the Irish village priest.

The Christian worldview from which comes the Devil, and Celtic paganism, from which come Leprechauns, have different moral rules. Their tales therefore require different themes, for the different rules would lead to different conclusions in the plot.

Fairytales set in a Christian world often begin and end in a church: for they begin with baptizing a baby, as in SLEEPING BEAUTY, or end, if not in a graveyard, then in a wedding mass. Tales in a pagan world tend to end with a final parting of natural and supernatural, civilized and wild, as when the magic fades from middle earth, and all the lordly sorcerers and kings return to the Summer Country over the western sea.

This is a matter of theme, not religion. This theme is present, for example, when Kipling writes of Mowgli returning to the man-village, following a girl, the one thing the jungle cannot offer him: human life. The melancholy of paganism drenches such scenes, for the world and the otherworld cannot meet of mingle save by mischance, or when light and dark are out of balance.

Ironically, there was an alternate ending filmed for LEGEND, but not used, which would have been in keeping with the pagan world: Jack of the Wood, the boy who can talk to animals, must decide either to stay with the princess in wedlock or to return to the wood with his fairy friends never to be seen again.

Instead, in the theatrical ending leaves Jack with the princess, nor is the parting with the elves sad and final, as it should have been. But neither do we see a wedding, with Jack departing forever his woodland life, and entering civilization.

Instead, an image of the Dark Lord laughing is superimposed on their sunny joy at the return of the unicorns, as if promising that no victory is final — a sentiment which is unsupported by anything else in the film, except, perhaps, the dying boast of the Dark Lord, and the overly long opening word crawl.

Overall, the flaws listed here are forgivable, if one seeks spectacle and dreamlike glamor from a film. The writing captured all the outward forms of what makes fairies fae, and none of the inner mystery or melancholy. There is no moral, no point, no theme.

Men are jealous of fairies because their lives and magical and wild, while men and wives must sow and reap and sew and spin; and fairies hold us in awe, because we can be gathered to heaven after death, where they fade into the elements. They are, at once, wiser and grander while smaller and sadder than we.

Every fairytale contains some element, some far echo, of this original sorrow. But not here.

The name of the film is the word LEGEND, without saying what or who is the matter of the legend. It is as generic a title as can be.

As it only fitting: the movie is fair, but is not really about anything in particular. It wanders, lost, in the maze of its own wonders.