Wednesday, December 19, 2012

LEGEND (1985)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

I haven't seen the original U.S. version of LEGEND since its original release, so I can't compare it with my recent screening of Ridley Scott's director's cut.  My sole comment is that I thoroughly enjoyed the Jerry Goldsmith score, so I imagine that the so-called "techno-pop" score that took its place in the States would come in second-best.

LEGEND comes roughly halfway between two other big-budget 1980s attempts to do cinematic versions of quasi-Tolkien "high fantasy:" 1983's KRULL and 1988's WILLOW.  Compared to both of these, Scott's film, scripted by William Hjortsberg, doesn't confine itself to merely imitating the window dressings of high fantasy, but shoots for a mythic theme not unlike those of Tolkien's oeuvre.  Whereas all three films deal with a hero's attempt to banish evil and preserve the world of life and light, only LEGEND deals with characters whose failings mirrors the vulnerability of the world.

An opening sequence makes this theme overt, as a shadowy figure in a hell-like domain plots to bring an end to the prevalence of light in the mortal world.  Once darkness covers the world, then Darkness (also the name of the head demon) and his goblins will enjoy unchallenged rulership.

In that world of sun and life, Princess Lily (Mia Sara)-- whose court is never seen, doubtless due to budget restrictions-- goes out into the forest to meet her friend and possible romantic interest Jack (Tom Cruise).  Jack is a "child of the forest" who knows the language of animals, and Lily has charmed him into teaching her the language of animals-- the first signal of the film's emphasis on the feminine ability to ensorcel men without magic. 

Jack, who generally tries to protect the secrets of the forest, seeks to impress the princess by taking her to a secluded grove, to watch the sportings of a male and female unicorn.  Jack knows that they are sacred animals, whose vitality is tied to that of the world.  Lily rashly tries to touch them, but though they stampede at her approach, Lily manages to charm the male with her singing in time-approved virgin-charming-unicorn fashion.

However, Darkness' goblins are watching.  Does Lily's breaking of the taboo give them an opening in some metaphysical manner?  Possibly, for once Lily and Jack have left the goblins manage to ambush the male unicorn, kill it and cut off its horn for use in their plans. 

Jack upbraids Lily for having profaned a mystery.  She changes the subject, flirtatiously offering to marry whatever man can retrieve her ring, just as she throws it into a nearby lake.  Jack springs to retrieve the ring, but fails to locate the bauble (a possible reference to the loss of the One Ring in Tolkien).  He almost loses his life, for when the unicorn's horn is severed, a wave of snow and ice sweeps over the forest, freezing the lake's surface.  Lily comes to believe that her taboo-violation caused the dimunition of life, and seeks to correct her error.  Jack is separated from her but gains other allies devoted to defeating the dark scheme of Darkness: a Puck-like elf, a fairy named Oona, and two dwarfs.  Their only advantage is that because the female unicorn still lives, the world's light has not yet entirely died.  The goblins naturally seek to sacrifice the remaining unicorn, but their scheme is complicated when Darkness himself falls in love with Lily.

The dominant motif of LEGEND is that of the separation of male and female principles, beginning with the killing of the male unicorn (though at the very end of the film he seems to have been reborn, for two unicorns are seen in a "farewell" scene).  After the mystical creature's death, Jack and Lily are apart for most of the narrative, in marked contrast to one of Scott's cited influences: Jean Cocteau's 1946 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  Despite the fact that Jack does not satisfy Lily's marriage-task, they have forged a soul-deep loyalty to one another-- a loyalty which is tested when both of them are wooed by supernatural beings.  Lily, spirited to the domain of the goblins, is subjected to Darkness' attempts to seduce her with jewels and an erotic dance.  His magic transforms her into a demonic version of herself (originally, she would have become a cat-like creature as a nod to the Cocteau film), but it's never definitively stated that she's entirely suborned by Darkness' will, and in the end she does manage to betray the demon and save the female unicorn.

Jack, for his part, has another female charmer after him.  The fairy Oona--who originally appears as a dancing light-- transforms herself into a winsome fairy-woman and tries to persuade Jack to love her, even transforming herself into the image of Lily.  Jack manages to resist Oona and also reveals to her fellow creatures a secret she tells him to keep, so that Jack betrays Oona as Lily sort-of betrays Jack.  To be sure, Jack only reveals the secret to save the lives of himself and his allies.

In a commentary on the Old English poem BEOWULF, J.R.R. Tolkien observed that the poem blended elements of the earlier Celtic-pagan culture with those of the newly minted Christian culture.  By chance or by design, Ridley Scott and William Hjortsberg succed in evoking a similar blend of mythic elements.  Characters occasionally reference "God" or "angels," while Darkness is without question based on the image of the Christian Satan, and even follows the Satanic pattern of tempting mortals.  However, it's also a world sustained from start to finish by the magic of the unicorns.  The faerie-creatures have their own morality and not entirely friendly to humans.  When their leader Honeythorn Gump first meets Jack, the elf challenges the human to a riddle-contest, where Jack's life will be forfeit for a wrong answer.   Finally, though Darkness is defeated by a blast of light that disssolves him, he yells as he perishes that he is still a part of all of them. This is  a sentiment more befitting the ideals of modern paganism than of Christianity, which insists that Satan can be definitively defeated and expelled.  Further, the demon's references to "innocence" don't have the usual Christian resonance.  In Christianity innocence is meant to be preserved at all costs, being conflated with all the ideals of the Good.  But in paganism "innocence" is a state that must come to an end due to mortals' ability to make errors-- in effect, to break the taboos of their sacred beliefs, which in a roundabout and un-Christian way, confirms the sacrality of those beliefs.

I will mention one change wrought by the director's cut: Wikipedia testifies that the original release showed hero Jack and heroine Princess Lily riding away together in connubial bliss.  In Scott's preferred version, Jack and Lily pledge love to one another but remain apart because they are from two different worlds.  In a commentary Scott says that this is because if Jack married Lily-- which the plot has repeatedly suggested-- Jack would "die," being that he is a forest child.  This seems an odd choice given that, as noted above, almost everything in the film has emphasized images of what the Greeks called *hieros gamos,* sacred marriage.  Thus I find myself wondering why Scott did not want such a marriage between his lead characters, going against the conclusion where Jack does locate Lily's ring-- and again, in contrast with the conclusion of the Cocteau film.  My speculation is that Scott wanted to imagine his fantasy-world living on beyond the limits of its formal beginning and end, and that the only way to "freeze" it was to keep Jack and Lily in a perpetual trysting-state, where they would continue to meet but not marry.

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