Legends of the Fall (United States, 1994)
Legends of the Fall is the sort of epic melodrama that only Hollywood can do this well. It's a spectacle more than a show, with soaring moments of triumph and tragedy. Words like "restraint" and "subtle" are meaningless in this context. The latest offering from Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, is the kind of movie that doesn't require much effort to surrender to and enjoy.
At the center of Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff's script are the three Ludlow brothers: Alfred (Aidan Quinn), the oldest and most straightlaced; Tristan (Brad Pitt), the middle child with a special affinity for nature; and Samuel (Henry Thomas), the youngest and most idealistic. The family's patriarch is Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), an officer who left the U.S. army when he disagreed with the treatment of the Indians. The four men, along with an assortment of friends, live in the Montana Rockies, away from the trappings -- if not the presence -- of civilization.
It would be difficult to find any more affectionate and caring brothers than Alfred, Tristan, and Samuel -- until one woman turns all three lives upside down. Hailing from Boston, Susannah (Julia Ormond) is engaged to Samuel. However, the impending marriage can't prevent both of his brothers from falling for her, and she for at least one of them.
America's entrance into World War One -- and the consequential bloody price -- concludes the introductory portion of the film and unwraps the real meat of the drama. Beyond this point, tangled passions rise in a tide of betrayal and jealousy. Few crimes, whether of the heart or the body, are left unavenged. There are deaths -- some expected and some sudden -- and births. Lost opportunities give rise to mournful reflections on what might have been. And, at the end of it all, exists one final catharsis.
There is nothing deep about Legends of the Fall. Its few themes (such as the innate corruption of government) are kept in the background, giving prominence to characterization and storyline. Needless to say, this is an extravagant production, with sumptuous visuals (credit cinematographer John Toll) and a rich score (by James Horner). In look and feel, it is much like Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans.
Brad Pitt, a modern-day James Dean, brings a wealth of melancholy to his role of Tristan, the fulcrum for at least three of the film's major tragedies. The character's comings and goings represent the openings and closings of chapters. Even when Tristan isn't on screen, the movie is invariably about him. It takes little guessing to realize that his love affair with Susannah is central to everything that transpires.
Supporting Pitt is a fine cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, and newcomer Julia Ormond, whose role here offers a taste of things to come (she's in a lot of upcoming films, including a remake of Sabrina and the latest Camelot retelling with Sean Connery and Richard Gere). However, all of these actors, regardless of how respected, must (and do) surrender center stage to Pitt when he's on hand. The spotlight is his.
Manipulation is a part of any melodrama, and Legends of the Fall is no exception. In this case, however, the entertainment offered far outweighs any momentary recognition that the director is tweaking our emotions. A film maker who can pull this off once -- not to mention twice (here, as in Glory) -- deserves both respect and admiration.
It seems that there are perennial attempts at this sort of grand-scale motion picture, each with ambitions as big as the mountains that form the backdrop. Because it's so easy to overdo melodrama, successes are rare. Thankfully, there are few missteps in Legends of the Fall. You don't have to be a critic, or even have a critical perspective, to be entertained by this film.
Legends of the Fall (United States, 1994)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond, Anthony Hopkins, Henry Thomas, Karina Lombard, Gordon Tootoosis
Screenplay: Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff based on the novella by Jim Harrison
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: James Horner
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures