A Critical Stylistic Analysis of Legend
by Capt. P
Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) is a fantasy film that pits forces of good and evil against one another to highlight the virtue of true love. In a raw retelling of an age-old tale, the Lord of Darkness has been exiled to the extreme depths of the earth. He sends one of his goblins to capture the purest creature of all: a unicorn. In the process, The Lord of Darkness captures the beautiful princess Lily and attempts to seduce her with possessions and power. Jack, a mere mortal, sets out on a quest to recover the unicorn and Lily, his true love. Through the use of wits, strength, and courage, Jack defeats Darkness, rescues his true love, and sets the unicorn free. The excerpt discussed and analyzed below comes from the first ten minutes of Legend. These first few moments set the mood for the duration of the film, illuminating the dichotomous nature of good and evil through carefully constructed shots and sounds.
The first suggestive stylisitc element the audience sees is Scott’s use of low key lighting, a technique he uses throughout the film (and frequently in his other projects). The opening credits are revealed against the markedly dim backdrop of shots in a forest. The entire frame is dark and no fill light is used at this point. Because the entire frame is dark, there is no contrast, so it might be difficult to discern certain objects within the shot during an initial viewing. As the credits continue we see shots of mysterious boot-clad feet slowly trekking through the snow. These tracking shots of the feet spliced in between different shots of the forest create a feeling in the viewer that they, too, are literally trudging through the forest with the mystery figure.
While the audience moves through the forest, we hear nondiegetic background music with a very mysterious tone. The combination of low key lighting, mysterious background music, and the fact that the face of the creature is not shown creates a sense of suspense and intrigue. Finally, after a few moments of walking through the forest, the creature’s face, and thus his identity, is revealed. He is some sort of a goblin; dark green, dank, and hideous. The very next shot reveals his destination - a palatial lair conjuring thoughts of the Tower of Babel, encircled by some foreign flying creatures. It is no coincidence or happy accident that these two shots are placed in this exact manner, one immediately after the other. This technique, which also utilizes the art of the subjective point-of-view shot, serves the purpose of tying the goblin to the domain, letting the audience know that both the goblin and the lair are evil. The "eyeline match" method is used here. The goblin is focused on something in the distance, his face filling the entire frame of the shot. A quick cut reveals what he was peering at - the haunting tower. Throughout the entire sequence the lighting remains very low key, yet some fill light is used to contrast the feet with the ground. Also, the first time we see the goblin’s face, lighting is used effectively to create highlights and shadows on the face and bring out distinct features such as his nose and ears.
In the next shot we have moved inside the lair. Scott uses elliptical editing here. One moment the goblin is looking out at his destination and with the next cut he is inside the haunt. The time it takes for him to travel is omitted. The camera slowly pans across a vast room, tracking the goblin. In this shot the foreground is again very dark, however bright reddish-orange highlights saturate the background. The dissonance briefly seizes our attention, forcing us to take note of the action going on in the background. The diegetic audio levels spike simultaneously with this shot; whips cracking, fire popping, and captives screaming. At this point the non-diegetic music shifts from a mysterious tone to an ominous, dark tone to create fear, or at least uneasiness, in the audience. The marriage of diegetic and non-diegetic sound along with haunting visual cues provide further clarification that this is an evil place.
In the next series of shots a dialogue unfolds between the goblin, whose name we learn is “Blix,” and the Lord of Darkness, played by Tim Curry. In this sequence, there is a series of shot / reverse shot takes. The background music fades so the audience can concentrate on the dialogue between the two characters. Throughout this exchange, whenever Blix is featured his face takes up the entire frame, the camera above him at a high angle, conveying the idea of inferiority to the Lord of Darkness. Conversely, when Darkness is on screen the shot trajectory is low angle, showing him from mid-chest up with his face still firmly the focal point of the shot. This technique makes him seem powerful - almost omnipotent, and clearly superior to Blix. Sound is used very effectively in the ensuing dialogue. Blix’s voice is gravelly and alloyed, his monotone speech broken only by an insecurity that causes his voice to waver. Darkness has a very dramatic, majestic, commanding voice, supplemented with eloquence. The juxtaposition of these characters’ speech patterns mimics what we see on screen; the foreground quite dark, the background lit to create sharp contrast.
The set dressing is further enhanced by the tremendous makeup used to bring Blix and Darkness to life, and it is necessary to comment both characters' appearance at this time. Blix has heavy coats of makeup giving him a misshapen pale green nose. His nose, like each ear, is long and pointy. A moist, wavy, disheveled matting of hair covers his head and his eyebrows curve downward, meeting at the bridge of his nose. This creature is hideous inside and out. Long, sharp fingernails give him a sort of feminine quality, and his skin appears waxy and wet, as though in a perpetual cold sweat. His outfit consists of raggedy dark brown clothes and boots. There is a necklace around his throat with what appears to be some sort of gray shells. All of these elements work in tandem to present something displeasing to the eye, illustrating how villainous and evil Blix’s character is. As with Blix it is the makeup that really shapes our impression of Darkness. At this point in the film, he is simply sitting in a throne with his face and midsection exposed. The makeup is sculpted to exhibit exaggerated, high cheekbones. This creates the illusion that he is always grinning. Such a grin makes him appear sly and confident at the same time. It is as though he is aware we see him, but he knows something we don’t and it amuses him almost to the point of laughter. He has glowing fluorescent green eyes and fingernails. Black horns protrude upward from each side of his head like a bull and his skin appears dark blue. With each word he speaks his deep blue lips reveal ivory white teeth along with coal-black motives. The Lord of Darkness is the antithesis of the unicorns he seeks to extinguish.
A cut takes the audience out of the dark throne room to a shot of a beautiful field. For the first time in the film, the setting is both bright and serene. Dark shadowy shots are replaced with bright high key lighting. The background music also changes and intensifies a little. The music shifts to a more positive, optimistic tone. Everything in the frame seems to have a brighter tint where it's the lush green flower stems, golden wheat, or light blue skies. It is therefore no mistake that this is the initial appearance of Lily, played by Mia Sarah. The audience gets a long shot of her prancing in a wide, flowery field. She is wearing a white dress with gold lacing and tassels, a white hair net holding her dark brown hair in place. Her brown hair is her only symbolic flaw. Shiny pearl earrings dangle from her ears complimenting her shimmering gold necklace. In a close up shot of Lily, we see that she has glitter on her face and is glistening.
In the next shot Lily is wandering around in a small hut. There are wooden tables and chairs in the background. A quick cut shows us a wooden clock up close, which chimes and makes some other noises. The diagetic sounds of the clock and the bids chirping create a peaceful feeling in the viewer; this is a heavenly area, untainted by the likes of Blix and Darkness. But just as the audience feels safe, the clock begins to gather snow suddenly freezes. The music shifts for a moment to a sort of sad and melancholy tone. This serves as a means to foreshadow certain events that occur later in the film. Almost too quickly to absorb what we have just witnessed, the shot cuts back to Lily, now running out of the hut to find Jack, played by Tom Cruise. Jack’s clothes are ragged and brown, a bit like Blix’s attire. He has long, dark brown hair. Throughout this entire sequence the background music has a pleasing tone. The two characters engage in conversation and the camera captures this again with a shot / reverse shot technique. In one shot, the sun hits off of Lily’s necklace and the reflection is captured on Jack’s face. This seems insignificant at the time, but it is another crucial form of foreshadowing within the film. During the entire sequence, their faces fill the screen in close up shots.
Jack has taken Lily to see a pair of unicorns, the purest of all creatures. Scott uses elliptical editing once more here. The unicorns move very gracefully and majestically. They are completely white. Scott uses slow motion to further break down the movement of the unicorns and exaggerate their grace and beauty. Lily becomes enchanted by the creatures and walks toward them. In a series of quick cuts, the audience alternates between seeing Lily approach the unicorn and Blix preparing to shoot a tranquilizer dart at the unicorn. The music intensifies and picks up a faster pace as the suspense heightens. At the very moment Lily touches the unicorn, Blix’s dart penetrates the unicorn, sending it in a rage and bolting into the distance. The background music grows dark tone and the weather changes from bright and sunny to dark and cloudy. Touching the unicorn tainted the sacred creature's purity and innocence. At this point in the film, turmoil ensues and the audience is left with a sense of disappointment and hopelessness.
Scott did a wonderful job of conveying certain moods and feelings throughout the entire film. He accomplished this with makeup and costume as well as with certain techniques and skillful manipulation of lighting. By the end of the film the viewer is intended to have a sense of optimism and the feeling that the dark must exist for there to be light, but good always conquers evil, and true love is eternal.