Director’s cuts occupy a strange place in film history. They are the last great remnant of the auteur-driven 1970s, a time where battles between directorial visions and studio meddling was at its apex. Not ironically, one of the first major director’s cuts was that of Michael Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate, which along with Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, essentially snuffed out the more idiosyncratic side of New Hollywood. But in 1982, the full cut of Heaven’s Gate was aired on cable, which was the first movie in a critical reevaluation that culminated in the film’s re-release at the Venice Film Festival in 2012, thus vindicating the vision of those involved.
So what the hell does this have to do with Ridley Scott? Well, if there is one director who has benefited the most from directorial do-overs, however frustrating the process, it’s Scott. Blade Runner had a famously troubled post-production life, resulting in five official cuts of the film being available, culminating with the Final Cut in 2002. A chunkier, better-received version of his 2005 historical epic Kingdom of Heaven was released theatrically later that year (on one screen, with no studio back-up, two days before Christmas). Even The Counselor got longer on home video, though that is more endemic of studios wanting a reason to call a home-video release “exclusive” rather than perfecting an artistic vision (see also: the 2003 box-set release of Alien).
Legend similarly exists in three cuts, the most recent of which is the 2002 Director’s Cut (the one preferred by Sir Ridley, natch). I am familiar with the two other cuts, the U.S. theatrical cut and the slightly-longer, slightly-superior European theatrical cut. The story is basically the same across the board: woodland elf Jack (Tom Cruise) leads the world’s oddest RPG party on a two-pronged mission. They have to retrieve a unicorn’s horn to prevent the world from plunging into oblivion, and save Princess Lily (Mia Sara) from the clutches of the very appropriately-named Lord Darkness (Tim Curry), who will use the unicorn horn to free himself from the shackles of Hell.
If this sounds like dorky high-fantasy fluff, that’s because it is. Legend is the stuff of a cheesy Dungeons and Dragons campaign, a feeling exacerbated in the U.S. cut by having the whole mess scored by Tangerine Dream. If that wasn’t enough, the U.S. cut ends with a song called “Loved by the Sun,” performed by Yes frontman/real-life elf Jon Anderson. The European cut fares better, not only because it adds footage to patch up some narrative holes and fix some pacing issues, but because it reinstates Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score. The film is worth watching, though, for the sumptuous photography, set design, and make-up work, which gives a sense of weight and presence to the film’s fairy-tale vistas. But the MVP is ultimately Tim Curry: Lord Darkness is worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great screen devils, and Curry’s chops serve as an anchor in a chronically messy film. Even still, it’s a testament to how a few tweaks can improve a cinematic experience, however minor or major they appear to be.