Legend is about abstinence

Watched Legend tonight as there was an absentee from my regular Sunday night gaming group. Had not considered before, but fundamentally I think the movie is about (and works a lot more strongly when you consider it about) teen abstinence in American culture. It’s fundamentally a work on American socio-sexual mores and within that context it works properly.

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These notes are drawn from the Director’s Cut, but on reflection of this it may be entirely possible that the theatrical cut’s ’80’s synth-pop soundtrack (Tangerine Dream!) would fit the oeuvre even better. Consider:

The film opens with the thoughts of the Lord of Darkness, a resonant, mellifluous, voice who claims that to rule forever, he must destroy the unicorns of the forest, and that ‘innocence’ is the key. Unicorns, it must be remembered, are the archetypal mythological representation of virginity. Throughout the film, the Lord of Darkness is reflected both as a character (discussed later) and a theme, the dark desires that “rule the night” and “work in dreams”.

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We then immediately cut to two teenagers. Lily is an archetypal “good-girl”, a princess, dressed in white, singing sweetly. The first time we see her though, it is established that she is mischievous and prone to the pursuit of pleasure (she plays a prank on a maternal figure where she dirties sheets of all things) and relatively speaking, a lover of the physical senses (as she half-borrows half-steals food from a laden table). She is welcomed into an archetypal family home (note no king or palace is ever seen), where her mother figure discusses with her developing adolescence, and the need to find a responsible sweetheart.

We then cut to Jack. A scruffy, wild, man-boy (in no pants!), shown to have a sensitive soul as he communes with the forest creatures. He is unsophisticated, almost childlike, but he also has a kind of rough-spun “woodland (street) smarts”. Your prototypical vision of the average teen.

The pair are quickly established to be young lovers, engaged in a flirtatious game of cat and mouse. But today is a special day. Jack has something he wants to show Lily – something very special that requires that she trust him. She follows him further into the forest, where Jack offers to share with her something special and unique. He takes her to observe the unicorns.

Lily is captivated. Excited. Despite Jack’s decision to take her there, he is quickly overcome with concern and remorse. This was something sacred, and though he meant to share it with Lily, he understands that it isn’t right. Lily has no such compunction. She, over his protests, needs to go further. She goes all the way, and touches the unicorn. The beast reacts with fury, and she suffers a moment of fear and pain, but then she is happy. She has touched the beast.

Then it dies. The Lord of Darkness’ minions (freakish, hideous goblins) kill the unicorn. Symbolically, her innocence, her virginity is lost. She and Jack are parted, and the land itself changes, becoming a world of darkness and winter. The Lord of Darkness is rampant.

Lily attempts to return to the familial homestead we first saw her encounter, but the family is now frozen away from her. The consequences are too great. She is pursued by the ecstatic goblins, who despoil the house around her and from which she attempts to hide in the domestic environment with no success. The physical embodiment of her sins shadow her.

Jack awakes elsewhere and encounters his friends. Like Jack, they are man-children, Puck-ish figures caught in a perpetual adolescence (Gump is played by a pre-adolescent boy with an artificially deepened voice, the others are wizened gnomes with the childlike behaviours of children). They ask Jack about the apparent change to him and the world. Jack, embarrassed, attempts to demur but with no success. Gump, the defacto leader of Jack’s peer group, susses out what has occurred. Jack has “killed the unicorn” with Lily. Jack protests that he meant no harm by doing so, and that it was the work of a moment’s mistaken impulse. Gump informs him that despite all of this, what’s done is done.

Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. The land is cursed. Lily is spirited away by her “goblins” to the castle of the Lord of Darkness. The film is not subtle about either her transformation or his role as the personification of lust. An abstract dance sequence causes Lily,  despite her fear, to become lost in a hollow ecstasy, and her white dress is transformed into a black gown, open to the waist, matched by black lipstick and dominatrix hair. Seeing her like this, the Lord of Darkness comes forth, filled with desire.

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Darkness says that Lily’s sin of “slaying the unicorn” makes them a match. That Lily wanted the loss of her innocence, and now that the Lord of Darkness is here, they can be together. Lily is told by him to forget Jack, and to be his “forever”. They will kill the second unicorn of the pair. Darkness, as much as he is a totemic stand-in for lust, also functions as the purveyor of that in the teenage world. He is an older man, dangerous, demanding that Lily “join with him” and further despoil her innocence. He speaks initially calmly, seductively, but then flies into a temper when Lily refuses to comply. (He’s also possessed of a MASSIVE set of horns in a metaphor that would make Freud drop his cigar).

Lily feigns a desire to slaughter the other unicorn, in a manner more debased than her initial accidental involvement of the killing. Our hero, Jack, now armed with shining golden weapons of purity, follows her into the Lord of Darkness’ domain to bring her out and return the land to normal. 

What are the challenges Jack faces along the way? A hideous, predatory, older hag attempts to literally consume him, until via flattery he is able to distract her and make an escape, and a young, innocent seeming female fairy demands his romantic attentions in return for his life, by turns attempting to distract him from, and to assume the guise and role of Lily in attempt to gain from him what she desires. Both of these women, the crone and the coquette, are presented as challenges that Jack must resist to avoid being swayed from his path of “redemption”.

Jack makes his way through the Lord of Darkness’ keep, until he finds Lily and Darkness seemingly about to kill the second unicorn. Jack’s friend Gump advises him to “kill Lily, and forget her”, that the unicorn, innocence, is more important. In a pretty rampant bit of Garden of Eden paralleling, Jack is explicitly told that his purity is important, and that Lily has clearly lost her purity forever.

Despite this, Jack declares that he trusts Lily, and his faith is rewarded when she turns her back on the Lord of Darkness and tries to help the unicorn be free of him. Jack fights the Lord of Darkness, and with the help of his friends turns the purifying light of day on him, weakening him. Even as Jack moves to slay him, the Lord of Darkness torments the hero that the Lord of Darkness is inside everyone, and can never truly be banished. That Jack and Darkness are brothers “under the skin”. The Lord of Darkness then falls away into eternal night.

Despite the absence of Darkness himself, Lily remains under her spell. Her innocence is not cured simply by the removal of the seducer figure. She is still presented as “cursed”. Jack is only able to help Lily with the presentation of a ring that she earlier produced in the film and labelled as representative of her marrying. Jack finds the ring and puts it on her finger, symbolically wedding the pair.

Only through this wedding can the sin of the “killing of the unicorn” be undone. The land returns to it’s innocent presentation of a flowery spring morning. Lily, once again in a white dress, and Jack set out to face the future.

You can’t make this stuff up. I can’t imagine that it’s accidental. I say this as someone who likes Legend (in a flawed kind of way), and doesn’t agree with pre-marital abstinence as representative of purity, or that sex opens the gateway to the horny devil of irresponsible carnal lusts. That being said, I can see it as being the exact kind of message that an ’80’s fantasy film intended to have, and looking at it in that light I was surprised at how on the nose it was, and how unusual it was for a fantasy film of the era to have an explicitly “socially conscious” message. Check it out again if you care to, and see if you agree.

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