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Legend Review

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by Chris McEneany May 30, 2011 at 12:33 AM

    Legend Review

    No Good without Evil.

    No Love without Hate.

    No Innocence without Lust.

    I am Darkness.”

    Although maligned and mocked by some, I have always had a huge fondness for Ridley Scott's visually sumptuous but emotionally hollow 80's fantasy Legend. The master craftsman, so adept at immersive world creation as witnessed in Alien, Blade Runner, 1492, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom Of Heaven, was definitely chancing his arm by taking on this twisted fable from William (Falling Angel) Hjortsberg. Inspired by folklore, myth and whimsy, and with huge dollops of the Brothers Grimm thrown in for good measure, this was a tale of Good versus Evil at its most accessible, fundamental and, indeed, literal. Arch-demon, Darkness, wants to plunge the world into eternal shadow by slaying the purest creatures that inhabit it – the unicorns – and only the stout heroism of a band of mortals, elves, faeries and even a princess can thwart him from his infernal quest by attempting to bring Light into his realm and banishing him forever.

    Coming after the great Fantasy comeback that lit up cinemas at the start of the decade – Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Conan The Barbarian, Krull and The Sword And The Sorcerer - Scott's simply told quest sought to redress the lack of popular acclaim that those earlier entries were greeted with upon their initial release. Yet Legend, for all of its dreamy visuals, gallows wit and veiled depravities, was met with exactly the same apathy. Of course, this was the story of Ridley Scott in the aftermath of Blade Runner all over again. It was another troubled production, hampered by differing cuts of the final movie (Legend has two distinct versions, both of which are on this release) and suffused with the sort of sophistication that audiences, during this period, abhorred … Legend had all the hallmarks of what we can now happily sit back and term as “Cult Credentials”. Yet, whereas Blade Runner has gone on to attain the kudos of near-divinity, and even all those earlier fantasy epics have gained growing fan-bases and an awful lot of critical and popular reappraisal, Legend has remained on the sidelines of even cult acceptance.

    Clearly it was flawed but, like its theme of innocence cast loose in a dangerous and corrupting world, Scott's fantastical evocation seems to have set itself up to be pursued and persecuted by the wolves in the woods.

    Woodland wolf-boy Jack (Tom Cruise) escorts the lovely Princess Lili (Mia Sara) to a secret glen in the heart of the forest so that she can witness something rare and beautiful … the sight of two unicorns frolicking in a stream. Unable to resist the allure of these magical creatures, Lili foolishly wanders into their midst and breaks the oldest taboo by, as a mortal, making contact with them. Unbeknownst to either Lili or Jack, whose spectral senses do seem to have let him down at a critical juncture, a trio of vile goblins have been trailing them, their mission to capture, slay and sever the horns from the last unicorns and, in so doing, plunge the world into darkness. Which will, of course, please the rather obviously monikered Darkness (Tim Curry) quite a lot. With the trap sprung, one horn is successfully removed, Lili and the remaining unicorn swiftly taken prisoner and terror and chaos reign supreme over what was once harmonious and peaceful.

    Jack is confronted by the Faerie-folk, led by the cherub-like Gump (David Bennent), who are undecided whether or not they should punish the boy for his stupidity in leading Lili to the unicorns, and contemplate his execution. In the original script, the Puckish, boy-like but ancient Gump plays his magical fiddle in an attempt to have Jack dance himself to death, but this was deemed slightly too sadistic a trait for the good guys. Jack is only saved from such a fate by confessing his true love for Lili, the one power left in the world that can still help to return it to normality. So, together with a clutch of wizened and comical dwarf-like faeries and the glowing, Tinkerbell-inspired orb of Oona (Annabelle Lanyon), the band travel through the enchanted forest and infiltrate the terrifying realm of Darkness to rescue Lili and the last unicorn and, if possible, defeat Darkness once and for all.

    Very knowingly and happily told in the style of an old fairytale, Legend was a brave endeavour in a cynical world. It is so unbelievably beautiful to look at that, together with its cherished score from Jerry Goldsmith and its simply enchanting 360-degree studio sets constructed on Pinewood's 007 stage, that the film captures a dreamlike quality at once spine-tingling and rapturous. It is a film that effortlessly has you willing to suspend your disbelief and trek into an atmospherically surreal enclave that genuinely succeeds in becoming hyper-real. The set design, itself, a vast purpose-built forest with streams, waterfalls, hills, caves, swamps and meadows so convincing that it fooled the birds, is awe-inspiring. I've always been a huge fan of the old foggy Universal moors, that cosy unreality conjured from moss-covered rubber and polystyrene that is the realm of theatrical fantasy, and a baton taken up by Hammer in the fifties and sixties. In recent years, we've had the gloriously nostalgic sets built for Sleepy Hollow, Les Pacte De Loups and The Brothers Grimm, but what Production Designer Assheton Gorton and Ridley Scott created for Legend is without equal. Depth of field is aided by sheets of mirrored plastic stretching the already considerable width and breadth of the enormous set tenfold. Fully rounded trees, rocks and hills that can be filmed from every angle, and valleys and ridges that the cast can genuinely run through and along at full pelt give the impression of bonafide tangibility and distance. The cameras can track alongside the characters for realistic stretches of time, confusing the brain into believing that what we are seeing is not at all constrained within a false structure and presided-over by legions of crew and technicians. I can't help longing to dive into the film and go exploring.

    Aye, folks, Legend is breathtaking indeed. An image, if not quite a film, that you can lose yourself within. And the fact that most of this burned-down in a terrible set-disaster only adds magic to the whole superlative construction of this myth-made-real. It was a one-off. A dream that could not be repeated. Nowadays, this would be CG rendered, but the pre-Gladiator Scott was always determined to keep as many of his effects as possible real, physical and in-camera. In a way, I like the fact that the film wasn't widely seen and, to be honest, still isn't, because this means that newcomers discover it like they have stumbled onto the quintessential secret garden … or Lili being shown the hidden glen of the unicorns, if you like.

    Darkness's demented lair is something else again. A palace of the baroque and the infernal, this opulent cathedral of gloom and despair is built from shadows and furnished with sickly desire. Scott wants to capture the avant-garde supernatural qualities of Jean Cocteau, particularly surreal and subconscious “life” that we saw in the Beast's castle in La Belle et Le Bete. Eyes and faces occupy weird vantage points, statues come to life and dance. A disused temple of exotic pillars and hidden wonders is like a more beautiful antechamber in the Mines of Moria, from Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings, and the sight of the lost and semi-mesmerised Lili flitting in slow-motion through it all is more enticing than frightening. And this, of course, is the point. We want to explore this hotbed of evil and insanity, all of us like a collective Jonathan Harker in Castle Dracula, eager to discover the secrets of the shadows and the locked rooms.

    Complementing all of this astounding production design are the exemplary makeup FX created by Rob Bottin, an element that makes Legend a delight for monster-fans. Pointy-ears, wickedly long talons and horns are all the rage in this film, but his work on the crimson leviathan of Darkness is absolutely revelatory and has since become enshrined as one of the classic creature designs. Bottin had made his name with The Howling, pinching Rick Baker's own groundbreaking techniques and pipping him at the post in the great werewolf steeplechase of 1981 that saw his man-into-wolf transformation come out before Baker's technically superior (though nowhere near as scary) version in An American Werewolf In London. His relationship with Scott was terrific. As befits a filmmaker who had been hands-on with the creature design for the vastly influential Alien, Scott was both exceptionally visionary and accommodating to Bottin's ideas, and the two have remained firm friends ever since. Indeed, from a technical standpoint, Legend is practically without flaw. The cracks in the fault-line all stem from other, perhaps more fundamental sources … as we shall see later on.

    As well as its hypnotic depiction of its milieu, the film is almost surreal in its casting.

    Not only do we have Tom Cruise, appearing here on the very eve of his being catapulted to superstardom (no thanks to Legend, however), and Mia Sara, who would, sadly, never really appear in anything else of note, but we have the fabulous Tim Curry, who is the most eloquent and articulate demon you could wish (or dread) to meet, emoting from beneath a ton of prosthetics as though performing Shakespeare as the towering Satyr-like Darkness. With his archly enunciated timbres actually electronically lowered to sphincter-tingling depths, his height raised to something over ten feet (and probably closer to fourteen, if you include those incredible horn-antlers), and his crimson body as muscular as Hellboy's, he is a seriously intimidating presence … but one that is also amazingly charismatic, as any infernal tempter should be, of course. Remarkably, when I look at his face, with that viciously flared snout and that little lip-curl of his, I am reminded of the actor Peter Wyngard, of Jason King fame, as well as the classic supernatural horrors Night Of The Eagle and The Innocents and the voice behind the mask of Klytus in Flash Gordon … as well as, believe it or not, 70's children's TV presenter Ed “Stewpot” Stewart! That distinctive and ether-melting voice, though … I'm positive this was an influence upon how Doug Bradley played the Cenobite-lord Pinhead in Clive Barker's Hellraiser, which came out a couple of years later.

    There's the weird man-child of Honeythorn Gump, played perfectly by somebody who was a weird man-child, David Bennent, who had previously been seen in Volker Schlondorff's extraordinary and highly disturbing The Tin Drum (1979) as Oskar, the warped and tantrum-prone Peter Pan-like child who has the power to coerce Germany into perpetrating Holocaust. He is very good here, possessing a hybrid persona of carefree frivolity and intense wisdom. Although a curious beast who can bring down some fearful wrath if he so desires, Gump is immensely likeable. His wayward and diminutive partners-in-crime, Screwball (Billy Barty) and Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert) are vaudeville circus performers by contrast, the sort of clowns who could so easily have wandered off the set of The Wizard Of Oz and left their Munchkin costumes at the edge of Ridley's super-forest. There is some attempt to make these two the flip-sides of the pair of goblins under the command of Blix but, although a good idea, this does not come over quite so well.

    Of course Tim Curry wasn't the only actor who had to project a performance from within a cage of makeup. Also transformed was Alice Playten who is excellent as the androgynous goblin chieftain Blix, and Robert (The Howling) Picardo as the grotesque hag-witch from the swamp, Meg Mucklebones. Playten was the one who came up with the idea that Blix should be caricatured upon Keith Richards, and this was an inspired notion that helped create a character who is both profoundly ugly and yet intensely watchable at the same time. I'll bet, though, that Richards is prouder of the whole Cap'n Jack Sparrow connection. Playten is highly theatrical and experienced with mime, so she was able to project tremendous personality and humour from beneath those slimy wrinkles, that mucus-dripping, vulture-like hooked nose and that fierce black fright-wig. Just look at the way that she/it enters Nell's frozen cottage with a pantomimic air of board-treading villainy. Playten is wonderful in a part that after so much intrigue and dastardly deed-sowing is then allowed to just … peter-out. She also dubbed the dialogue for Bennent's Gump, which you can recognise if you listen, because Bennent's German accent was just too strong. Robert Picardo, famous also for appearing sans prosthetics for Star Trek, once played the scariest werewolf of all time, the psychotic Eddie Quist in Joe Dante's 1981 shape-changing epic The Howling. Another accomplished theatrical performer, he falls into the character that he is portraying – a truly hideous semi-aquatic bog-beast – with considerable aplomb. Like Playten and Curry, he is utterly unrecognisable beneath such a monstrous guise, and the voice he supplies is the definitive witch cackle 'n' craw. I love the way that he replies with gusto “Oh, indeed I do!” when Jack enquires as to whether or not she wants to eat him, and the little suspicious second glances that she gives the forest-boy as she falls for his vanity-trick. It is a shame that we don't get to spend a bit more time in her admittedly foul company because Meg is certainly the stuff of nightmares.

    But the leads are a problem. Without any chemistry between Sara and Cruise, there is little emotional empathy for us to cling to. The characters they play just do not work together. We are completely unconvinced that they are a couple, or could ever be. But, surprisingly, this is not a major setback. The film is so visually charming and episodic that something you would have thought essential to its success is easily overlooked in the tapestry of splendour that enshrouds it. Of the two, Mia Sara, as inexperienced as young as she was, is the more accomplished. Lili is just as enigmatic a character as Jack and Sara is able to journey through some quite tasking emotions and through a series of difficult evolutions. She is a dangerous part indeed. I don't mean letting Nell's washing-line drop and having the faeries take the blame for it, of course. The film as about succumbing to temptation and, significantly, she is the victim that falls for it every time. She wants to explore, she wants to experience. She doesn't think of repercussions … just like most teenagers, boy or girl. But the clever thing, I find, is that she, herself, is temptation. Lili is forever tempting and goading Jack, pushing him into risky situations that he knows he shouldn't even be entertaining – but then he has fallen under a spell of her own, more primal conjuration. She flirts with the woods and its denizens partly out of her own allegedly Royal powers, but also partly out of a genuinely precocious desire to upset the balance of things just for the sake of it. Princess Lili is a dodgy one, all right. Look at her transformation in Darkness's company, her sudden sickened realisation of what her actions and her behaviour has led to. You can almost imagine some crusty old judge letting the fiend off because Lili had led him on! But Sara is wonderful as Darkness appears before her, wrenching himself out from a magic mirror and stomping a cloven hoof upon the floor with a swagger. Bedecked now in her infamous goth-queen garb, Sara has Lili weep with something that combines fear and apprehension. It is absolutely the depiction of the party-girl who has suddenly found herself way out of her depth. Sara nails this caught-vixen attitude perfectly. “Does the gown not … please you?” enquires the demon with a salacious smirk, and Sara's Princess just crumbles with the knowledge that she should have stayed home tonight.

    In contrast to this, Tom Cruise, who I often rate very highly, is terrible as Jack. Wide-eyed and so bewilderingly twitchy that it is almost as if he is an early CG puppet - with epilepsy – he seems to have absolutely no idea what he is doing there. Now, the blame for this personality-vacuum cannot be levelled squarely at the Cruiser. Although on the cusp of becoming a pop-culture icon, it is a cinch that his popularity had gone to his head and he, himself, believed that just by appearing in a film and flashing that grin he delivering all that was expected of him. Still only young – and that grin doesn't actually look too grand here (the teeth are wonky and the unkempt eyebrows don't do him any favours) – he could certainly provide some fine performances. See him as the brutish army cadet in the rebellious Taps, for instance. But Jack is so ill-defined and so poorly written that he has next to nothing to work with. No depth. No soul. This is the sort of complaint that critics loved to aim at the film, and Scott's overly visual handling of it. Looks come first, story way down the line. Sadly, even for me, Tom Cruise seems to be evidence that the naysayers were right about that at least. I do appreciate the fact that Cruise looks weirdly ageless in the part, even to the point when Darkness, confronting him for the first time, says “What have we here? A little boy?” and we can almost buy it. But what is it with the squirrel-like head-twitching? I get that he's feral, and his instincts are clocking all that is taking place around him all the time … but there are some moments when I feel like literally screaming at the screen for him to stop it. I defy anyone to sit through the scene when Oona materialises into her secret human form just for Jack and not feel exactly the same way, as his constant spasms and pouting go into overdrive.

    It is apparent that Cruise is not fond of his performance here either. He has been extremely reticent about his involvement with the film and never appears in any of the supplemental material or retrospectives and, rather tellingly, he is hardly ever mentioned by his fellow cast-members, the crew or his director. This sort of silence speaks volumes, doesn't it? He is definitely the weak link in the chain which, considering the great work that he is capable of, now seems a terrible disappointment.

    We can't aim anything less than praise and adoration at Jerry Goldsmith's score, though.

    Some of the music is reminiscent of The Omen trilogy, and one very notably gorgeous cue comes entirely from Psycho II, all of which was Goldsmith material, of course. The composer had originally had some reservations about working with Scott and editor Terry Rawlings again after the grief that the two had given him on Alien. But, against his better judgement, he took the job, elated to be working with the National Philharmonic Orchestra and entranced by such a flamboyant and dark-laced fantasy as Legend had to offer. Alas, his experiences with the film would prove as heart-breaking as they were infuriating. Although his relationship with Scott was better than it had been first time around – the two barely saw one another during the recording sessions for Alien and Scott giving his composer virtually no helpful input at all -Goldsmith suffered the ignominy of having his entire score chucked-out by the US distributors and replaced with a hasty one from Tangerine Dream. I'll discuss this calamitous alteration a bit more later on but, for now, we need to understand the crushing blow that this must have been for the highly acclaimed, Oscar-winning composer.

    We cannot underestimate the power of Goldsmith's score. Combining the lush symphonics of full orchestra and mighty choir with the tantalising electronic textures and effects that he had been experimenting with since before his barnstorming and unusual score for Logan's Run, Goldsmith now managed to blend such disparate ingredients into a stew that was dark, magical, lyrical and intoxicating. He would also bring in a grand operatic style to the sequence when Lili is tempted by the eerie dancing phantasm. Working with choreographer and TV talent judge, Arlene Philips, he would create pieces that are truly staggering in their poetry, power and passion. Unlike many scores of the era which incorporated vast arrays of electronica – of which Tangerine Dream's replacement score is, ironically, just such an example – Goldsmith's has become uniquely timeless and coveted for its rich variety and spellbinding melodic qualities. Of course, he had proved to be such a maestro already on Star Trek: The Motion Picture for Robert Wise, on Scott's own Alien and on Poltergeist for Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg, elements and ideas from each being advanced and developed further for Legend. He would even compose some songs for the film, with lyrics by John Bettis, whom he had worked previously with on Twilight Zone – The Movie and The Lonely Guy. These fanciful ditties (“Sing The Wee”) and sweetly swooning love odes (“My True Love's Eye”) actually work tremendously well and provide both an angelic and a folkloric foundation for this fabulous counter-culture. “My True Love's Eye” is also a magnificent adaptation of the score's main theme.

    With so many things in the film's favour, it is always frustrating to come back to its grand failures as a screenplay.

    There's a standard sort of belief that you can get away with pretty much anything in a fantasy, yet I think that Scott actually abuses this theory a little bit. The story, as broad as it is, takes a few liberties. We are never sure about the time period that the events are set in. It is presumably some alternate medieval era, yet the characters express themselves with a lot of ill-fitting modern epithets, such as “Wow!” , the odd and unlikely swear-word and referring to Darkness as “Big D”. Lili is a princess, yet we have no comprehension afforded the type of kingdom that she hails from. Able to flit about the dense forest seemingly at will and without any protection, she appears more like some woodland nymph than anyone of prestige from the world of Men. There is no-one in the forest other than our gaggle of opposed characters and no sense is afforded the likelihood of there ever being anyone other than them venturing through the place. We have Nell (Tina Martin) and her husband (seen only fast asleep in a chair), the peasants living in the cottage that Lili is so fond of visiting, yet what is their connection to her? It is too simple. And what exactly is Jack? Appearing like some feral wolf-boy, and employing some wonderful instincts and ethereal knowledge, he appears to be somebody who is poised on the borderline with Faerie, himself, yet nothing is ever made clear about his purpose, his past or his goals. Gump and the little people all know Jack, but Jack, a semi-elemental being who has secret knowledge of the unicorns, does not know them. As with Lili, he simply exists within this drama, whilst everybody else actually makes some sort of sense in being a part of it. The goblins, the little folks, the witch, the peasants, the unicorns and even that Black Bear that we see slurping honey from a bee's nest during Scott's gorgeously moody opening are all symbiotic. Even Darkness makes his own plea bargain in this way – no good without evil, no light without dark, he's inside all of us. Yet both Lili and Jack very clearly seem to arrive from outside of this set-up. They don't belong … which you can attribute all the trouble that they cause to, I suppose … but they do seem to have simply “deposited” into the story without clear purpose or design.

    And why is Darkness so limited in his powers and abilities? This guy has been dwelling in the big evil tree for aeons … you would have to wonder just why anybody, man, elf or pixie, would live within a thousand miles of such a place. For much of the time, Darkness struts about or sits and mopes, pondering aloud verses of his own exposition for the benefit of all who'll listen. In this way, he comes across as something of a Bondian super-villain, telling us all his masterplan and exposing his weaknesses. In Incredibles parlance, he's been caught monologuing! Like most movie demons who are touted as being all-powerful and ghastly, he is little more than a lonely, lovelorn and misunderstood individual. We don't even know what nasty things he actually does … there's people being cut up and cooked down in the kitchen but we don't even know if he is aware of this, let alone engaged in tucking-in. Thus, despite his appearance and the massively ominous sense of doom about him, he doesn't actually seem all that threatening. Even Jack, that “little boy”, is able to fight him with just a sword and a couple of somersaults.

    The film is all about temptation. But this is sometimes depicted with quite a heavy hand, and it is horribly clear that Lili is, by far, the most susceptible. In fact, as well as being the root cause of all the trouble in the first place, her very mischievous nature is the sort of trait that is probably going to give poor Jack a terrible headache for the rest of his life, should he and his princess actually manage to escape with their lives, that is. What I like, though, is how the little glowing faerie, Oona, is so smitten with Jack, thereby giving in to her own temptation, that she could well spell disaster for the quest when he is reluctant to entertain her desires. This presents a curious blend of emotions. We feel sorry for her, but we can't quite see her as either villain or heroine. The scene when she follows Lili through the dark halls is fraught with possibilities. She could help, but she does not. She, too, is drawn to Lili's supposed innocence, yet it is almost as though both she and the Princess are, in fact, already like sisters, albeit rivals.

    Why do we lose Blix halfway through? Surely a character this good should have been bestowed the respect of getting a decent pay-off. How was Blunder (Kiran Shah) able to pull off his deceit right under the Dark Lord's nose, as well as those of his goblin companions? What, exactly, is the secret of that demonic chair? Why is Darkness so determined that Lili sit upon it, and Lili so determined that she will not? Why does Jack not simply kill the ogre chefs-cum-dungeon-masters whilst they sleep – it would have been a helluva lot easier in the long-run. And what of those poor unfortunates getting chopped-up and cooked in the kitchen? If, as Scott claims, he was aiming for a family audience (he had already nixed some very dark material from Hjortsberg's screenplay, including a sex scene between Lili and Darkness!), does this graphic scene not go totally against such a plan?

    There is a certain sophistication about Legend, but the screenplay is woefully under-developed. It is too easy to cite that the story is a fable – it has ideas and allusions beyond such a concept, and it becomes irksome that these elements have simply been allowed to dangle. Somewhere in here, there was the potential for a masterpiece … but, once again, too many ideas being bandied-about and too many opinions having input have scuppered such an opportunity.

    And yet this Director's Cut is considerably better than the truncated US Theatrical version, and is a genre-classic by comparison.

    Although we are wont to dismiss the US theatrical cut of Legend, it does make for an interesting companion-piece. The lack of Goldsmith's music is, of course, absolutely sacrilegious, but we shouldn't be so quick to scorn the work of Tangerine Dream either. The 80's synth-gods didn't have long to compose their alternative score and what they delivered is not without merit, all things considered. Their textured, tonal layers of dense electronic sound is very much of the MTV era, but it does create an evocative mood, just the same. In fact, if anything, their score makes the film darker and more sombre with its lack of melody and lyricism, which sort of flies-in-the-face of what the US distributors were after. They, in the guise of Universal's executive idiot Sidney Jay Sheinberg (who was also responsible for botching Gilliam's Brazil!), wanted a more slushy romantic feel to appeal to the teeny-boppers on the back row, a cash-in of the Cruiser's success with Risky Business, something that this version of the film certainly pushed towards in visual and thematic terms too. For a start, the early snogging session that Lili and Jack indulge in is incontrovertibly a precursor to love-making … and this, naturally, makes the whole purity and innocence angle that the original story so requires rather a moot point. The appearance of Darkness right at the very start of this take is perhaps even less forgiveable. I mean, you've just blown the big reveal by showing the chief villain in all his horny glory before we've even met anybody else! This is a near-fatal mistake. The US cut also shows us the hacking-up of the victim in the kitchen in full which cannot help but lead you to suspect that the film you are about to see will actually be much harder than it really is. In Scott's cut, this sequence appears just after the half-way point and is also intercut with character-beats elsewhere, which dilutes the effect somewhat. Clumsy exposition and reshuffled scenes also mess the flow of the original narrative, and Lili's character is oddly diminished in tempestuousness which actually makes her less likely to be so susceptible to Darkness's insinuations.

    There are those who prefer the Theatrical Cut, but then I suppose for some people it is case of sticking with the version that they are used to. The richer, more coherent and more enjoyable interpretation is Scott's, though. Despite its many flaws, it really is a captivating experience that worms its way into you. Just view the shorter US version as an extra and you can't go far wrong. This Universal disc is region-free and the Director's Cut is not rated whilst the Theatrical Cut is rated PG.

    The packaging artwork is incredibly poor compared to what could have been used, but Legend still comes very highly recommended. Just savour that bewitching atmosphere and revel in Scott's visual banquet of the imagination.