Retro Nostalgia: Legend (1985) and the Power of Innocence

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(A different subtitle might say this:  “A World of Oppositions, Stricken By Their Equilibrium.”  This, of course, assumes I will follow Jason Sanford‘s story-title-generation process for these features.  I’ll leave artistic license aside for now…)
One of the curious things about Ridley Scott’s 1985 fairy tale — appropriately entitled Legend — is how desperately it clings to its fairy tale origins.  I do not mean “desperate” in a negative sense; rather, I see Legend as trying to avoid falling into the trap of its own making precisely so it can maintain its format in a way that benefits the fairy tale that is its heart.  Thus, what begins as a saccharine childish fantasy of naive, star-crossed lovers from different worlds (Princess Lily from the Court of Men and Jack from the Court of Nature) falls into the abyss of its darkest undercurrents (love, betrayal, darkness, blood, and utter wickedness) before it is righted by a
terribly cheesy narrative reversion (it was a sort-of-dream) and a return to normalcy — Jack and Lily part, presumably to repeat similar events the next day, always a step away from “completing” their relationship (marriage, more or less).
It’s perhaps because of this structural necessity that I love Legend in ways befitting greater works.  Despite the narrative tricks, the sometimes too-cutesy plot points andcharacter quirks, and so on, I am drawn to the narrative’s return to a static universe.  True, the Lord of Darkness and his wicked goblins (Blix, expertly played by Alice Playten, still terrifies me)* disrupt the perfect world of Jack and Lily by assassinating one of the two living unicorns and shrouding the world in cold and darkness, but all of his damage is instantly reversed in the last 10 minutes of the film when Jack is allowed to jump back into the forest pool and retrieve his love’s ring.  The only indication that anything ever happened is the convenient arrival of Gump and his dwarf friends — themselves aids to Jack in his quest — with the two unicorns.  Only even in that moment the world is magically righted again, because the unicorns cannot, as far as the film makes clear, magically rebirth young in a matter of seconds, thus proving to us that the only true change to the world is that of memory.  Historical time is disrupted to return us to a special alternate world of “perfection.”
For lack of a better term, I am calling this necessity for a static fairy tale world (a utopia, perhaps) the politics of innocence.  Legend never shies away from its affair with innocence, reminding us from the start that Princess Lily (Mia Sara) is naive, perfect, inquisitive, and ultimately unaware of the very real dangers in the world — one of her “royal subjects” even tells her so in the opening scenes.  Jack (Tom Cruise), too, suffers from this naivety, though with at least some awareness that certain “codes of conduct” should not be broken — which is exactly what he allows to happen.
Innocence is so central to the story of Legend that it even dominates the conscious thoughts of the principal villain:  the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry).  In a revealing scene — because, why not, right? — he admits his unquenchable desire for Princess Lily, calling upon his faceless father for advice, who tells him that he must “turn” her to darkness.  After all, the very person whose existence as an “innocent” was required to end the joyous reign of the unicorns — Lily being a diversion and temptation of sorts — must be the object of focus here, not because she’s a woman, but because she embodies a certain fairy tale stereotype of a woman.
I don’t want to read this movie as a stereotype of ideal womanhood** — naive, innocent, and in need of controlling.  Why?  Because I think a more compelling view of this film is to imagine how it operates through a variety of innocences, some of them products of a misogynistic fairy tale tradition and others governed by the profound static-ness of Legend‘s world.  Nobody is left unaffected by the power of innocence, whether Jack, who cannot seem to grasp the fact that Lily is a “free spirit” who has no concept of boundaries (perhaps because she is a rebellious youth); the Lord of Darkness, who is compelled by desire to cross the social barriers befitting a, well, lord of darkness; or even the unicorns, who are just as tempted by Lily as by Jack (who, it appears, they trust well enough to let him know where they will be).

This is the profound power of innocence, whether embodied in the ideal image of Lily (virginal, free, beautiful, and sweet as rain) or in the internal philosophy of a fairy tale, where innocence destroys itself, only to be reborn exactly where it began.  Legend is only static because innocence is cyclical.  For the world to return to its original place — a world of life, beauty, and wonder — no trace of the real consequences of the temptation of innocence can remain.  It’s an almost childlike reversion, if you will — as if Legend were the child that had to be returned to us, pre-influence (say, pre-Janet Jackson).  The audience, however, can’t return.  Ever.  The world might right itself, but we will always remember, like parents remember their children’s experiences, that something has occurred and that, just as innocence and light are cycles of power, so too are the darkest recesses innocence and light produce.  The Lord of Darkness is right:  he is in all of us, and he will return one day, perhaps in a different form, but returned nonetheless.  Regardless, historical time shifts, because we know the history as it actually happens, and narrative time swings back around to start all over again.  Rinse and repeat.

Stepping out for a moment, I think it’s interesting to consider how this might apply to the narrative if we consider Legend either as a children’s fable OR as an adult fantasy.  For me, Legend is far too dark to fall under the traditional children’s fable, if only because the imagery, sound, and tone are undeniably macabre.  At least in Disney movies, the villains sing a song.  Here, the only one who sings is Lily, while all else is nearly gory in detail — excessive, vivid, and all too real.  To think of Legend as an adult fable, then, means perhaps realizing how innocence compels us to action in the real world.  We, in a sense, are always trying to keep the Lord of Darkness at bay, if only so we can protect the illusion of a utopia for ourselves and for our children.  Princess Lily, then, is more than just an embodiment of ideas, stereotypes, and innocence; she is also a reflection of the eternal battle between child-like perfection and “evil.”

And on that note, I will sign off…

*There’s also Meg Mucklebones, played by Robert Picardo of Star Trek:  Voyager fame, who appears on screen for only a few minutes and terrifies me enough remind me why I didn’t get to watch a lot of fantasy movies when I was a kid…
**Though this is a valid reading to take.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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