1985 was a fine year for Hollywood. Icons fell under the stampede for sequels while future classics were created. It’s time to look back.
In the coming weeks and months the HeyUGuys team will focus on some of best from ’85, exploring their legacy and capturing something of their enduring essence.
We’ve already watched a boxer win the Cold War, shone a light on an oft-forgotten Disney outing, hung out in a pool with Steve Guttenberg, endured bad Bond, today we catch up with a bout of risky showbusiness…
Even by today’s standards, Ridley Scott’s cult classic would be considered a Faustian gamble by the studios. Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth foray aside, the fantasy genre is hardly the stuff of box-office magic. Established brands, such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Percy Jackson, quickly lost their audience, and infinite attempts to ignite new franchises, The Golden Compass, Inkheart, The Dark is Rising, all went up in a puff of smoke.
Flashback to the mid-80s, Ridley Scott was fresh off the back of a not-too-shabby Alien and Blade Runner double-whammy, and held a desire to take the side-step from Sci-Fi to Fantasy with a long-gestating adaptation of Tristan & Isolde, which he eventually exec-produced as the 2006 James Franco stinker.
Scott wanted to create an original fairytale, something seeped in the macabre traditions of The Brothers Grimm, so he turned to novelist, William Hjortsberg (Angel Heart), and together they came up with an outline, and approached Disney, who were having their own issues with The Black Cauldron, so declined. It was Universal who eventually stumped up $25m so that Sir Ridley could create his enchanted forest on Pinewood’s 007 Bond Stage.
Genre appeal can be cyclical, but fantasy has always struggled to permeate the mainstream, with the early 80’s being no different. Disney’s live-action Dragonslayer had failed to recoup its budget in 1981, but that same year had seen the release of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, a critical and commercial success. The Dark Crystal did middling business a year later, before 1984’s The Never Ending Story generated $100m in worldwide receipts. While that’s hardly gangbusters, the films were turning a profit, and that might be what convinced a young Thomas Mapother IV, hitherto seen as the all-American pin-up in the likes of Risky Business and All the Right Moves, to go all Peter Pan for Ridley Scott.
An established director, an emerging actor, huge set construction bringing to life an entire mystical valley on which Scott’s vision could play out; it’s the kind of premise that would have Comic-Con Hall H packed to the rafters. So why was it, that instead of being introduced to Legend as bona-fide classic, it became one of those films that you’d discover at Christmas, hidden away at 10:45 on BBC2?
Well, despite a fire that burned down the entire set, which only put filming back three days for the ever-economical Scott, and the meticulous make-up process for Rob Bottin’s triumphant creature design, the production wasn’t too problematic. The issues would arise from the darkness of the editing suite. Scott’s initial cut ran over two hours, which even he agreed had superfluous plots strands which could be discarded, but it’s the fractured nature of the global release that’s the most interesting twist in this tale.
Over the years you might have watched different versions of Legend without realising it; there was a European release, which ran at 94 minutes and was orchestrated by a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score. There was the US theatrical version, which was five minutes shorter and replaced Goldsmith’s work with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, all because Universal President Sid Sheinberg felt that the Euro-version wouldn’t appeal to that key demographic of US teenagers. And finally, there was the US Network TV version, which was a bastardised mix of the two.
There are noticeable differences between the cuts, but the US version is shorn of a lot of the mystical charm of the European one. Lilly (Mia Sara), now referred to as a ‘Lady’ rather than a ‘Princess’ is robbed of her songs, Jack’s encounter with Mary Mucklebone, one of the stand-out sequences, is also noticeably shorter in the US edit, with most of the pre-kill flattery absent, and the same goes for the entirety of Gump’s life-or-death riddle game.
Whichever incarnation you watched, it was undeniable that Legend was a stunning piece of fantastical whimsy. Beautifully framed, each alive with creatures, dandelion pixies, and shards of light, the whole thing was like an indulgent music video. Pause the movie at any moment, particularly during the opening twenty minutes, and the picture composition is immaculate.
Aside from the technical achievements, which lets be honest, Scott could do in his sleep (heck, even The Counselor looked good), the plot, which is as wispy and all over the place as a drunken fairy, adheres to tropes, is very simple, and requires the abandonment of cynicism, but remains thoroughly enjoyable throughout. Princess and the Pauper, Unicorns, elves, goblins, a fantastic swamp dwelling animatronic monster, and Tim Curry’s iconic Darkness.
Scott had been watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a view to having Richard O’ Brien play Meg Mucklebones, but it was Curry who had caught his eye, and was eventually persuaded, commenting that it “sounds weird, but ok, I’ll do it”. For all of the films flaws, Curry’s Lord of Darkness, only appearing for the last 20 minutes, which in itself wasn’t surprising given the painful transformation process he had to endure each day (ping pong balls pressed into his eye sockets), is an indelible piece of fantasy iconography.
Released in the UK on December 13th 1985, box office statistics and time-capsule reviews are hard to come-by, so it’s the delayed 1986 US release which acts as an indicator for success. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “a slapdash amalgam of Old Testament, King Arthur, “Lord of the Rings”, and any number of comic books”, whilst Roger Ebert said “it’s too dreary and gloomy for its own good”. Those opinions were reflected in bums on seats for the April 20th opening weekend, as Legend crawled towards little over $4m bucks, and ended its brief run in the early days of May with a $12m total.
Tom Cruise would hop into a Mig 28 for Ridley’s bro in Top Gun, and Scott had Thelma & Louise just around the corner and over the cliff, but what of the fantasy genre and Legend’s legacy?
Much like a flurry of films that followed it – Labyrinth (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), Willow (1988) – over time, theatrical failure was forgotten, instead replaced with cult classic status. In part this is down to the release of Scott’s 2002 directors cut, a format which has benefitted the director’s films immensely over the years, but watch Legend today and you can’t help but be seduced by the waking dream visuals, or practical effects that stand up to anything you’d find in Snow White and the Huntsman.
So, with Peter Jackson moving on from Hobbiton, and the most recent genre effort arriving in the form of The Seventh Son, it might be worth re-visiting the archives, because a great fantasy, which Legend is, are about as hard to come by as a unicorn.
Read on about other classmates from 1985…
Most Likely to make an inappropriate joke while arching an eyebrow: