Legends of the Fall (1994)
“After the Fall from Innocence the Legend begins.”
Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn
Synopsis: Epic tale of three brothers and their father living in the remote wilderness of 1900s USA and how their lives are affected by nature, history, war, and love.
If you ever entertained doubts as you sat down to view The Legends of the Fall that you were about to watch a movie on an epic scale, the sweeping musical score would dispel them in an instant. Add to that the breath-taking landscape against which most of its story unfolds and the adulation of the camera for Brad Pitt’s long-haired, angst-ridden hero and there can be no doubt that what we have here is an old-fashioned romantic melodrama which, while not approaching the scale of Gone With the Wind, at least belongs to the same sub-genre.
The plot of Legends of the Fall centres around the three Ludlow brothers and the spirited young woman for whom they all fall. The brothers are Alfred (Aidan Quinn — The 5th Quarter), the oldest and most dependable, who, as he laments in the later stages of the movie, always plays by the rules; Tristan (Pitt — Killing Them Softly, World War Z), the free spirit who spent most of his childhood in the company of the Ludlow’s pet Native American, One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), and who is therefore one of those spiritual types at one with nature — and any of its beasts that he kills or corrals. Tristan has long, flowing locks which even the British Army can’t persuade him to cut, and the brooding nature of a Montanan Heathcliffe. The youngest brother is Samuel (Henry Thomas), a naÃ¯ve and idealistic virgin who, one fateful day, returns from Harvard with his fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond – Albatross). It’s clear from the moment they first meet her that both of Samuel’s older brothers are taken with Susannah, but it is Tristan to whom she responds, although any impropriety on the couples’ part is halted when Alfred happens upon them as they tentatively embrace.
The brothers live on a ranch in Montana with their father, William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins — When Eight Bells Toll, The Elephant Man), a former officer in the US cavalry who gave up his commission when he grew disgusted of its treatment of the Native Americans, and he’s enraged when Samuel announces his intention of enlisting to fight in the Great War in Europe, although there’s nothing he can do to stop him. Alfred and Tristran also enlist, but despite their best efforts — and the unlikeliness of them all being in the same unit — they’re unable to prevent Samuel from becoming a fatality of the war. Wracked by guilt at failing to rescue his younger brother, Tristran returns from the war with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and only deepens his guilt by beginning an affair with his dead brother’s former fiancee, a dalliance which also causes a rift with Alfred, whose proposal Susannah had rejected prior to Tristan’s return.
It’s this emotional minefield that drives both the characters of Legends of the Fall and the film’s narrative and, to be honest, writers Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff make it difficult to like any of the protagonists. Tristan comes across as unstable and self-centred and is a man who, even before his post-war psychological condition overwhelmed him, would have seduced his brother’s fiancee had Alfred not stumbled upon them. The fact that events conspired to prevent them from doing anything morally wrong until after Samuel’s death lends their affair a convenient legitimacy which might muddy the waters a little, but both Tristan and Susannah emerge as flawed and selfish characters.
With Susannah, that moral vacuity and selfishness is crystallised by later events, and yet the film tries to paint her as this tragic figure driven to extreme measures by her love for a man to whom it appears she was little more than a pleasant diversion. Meanwhile Alfred, who abandons the ranch following his rejection by Susannah to pursue a career in politics, is revealed as a hypocrite through the criminal ties between members of his campaign team and the local prohibition racket.
Despite the overwhelming feeling that these lot all deserve one another, and that at least by becoming enmeshed in an emotional thicket from which none of them are able to free themselves they leave the rest of the world alone, The Legends of the Fall treats them all with sympathy, and prompts its audience’s emotions with blatant musical cues of lush strings swelling and soaring at key moments. It’s a cheap trick, but it’s one that has endured since those Gone with the Wind days, and despite all this emotional manipulation and its contrived, soap-opera trappings, Legends of the Fall is undeniably entertaining. Although the movie looks like some sort of promotional campaign for the youngish Brad Pitt, it’s Anthony Hopkins who comes away with the acting honours, even though in the scenes after his character has been affected by a stroke he looks like he’s trying to pull off a mad impression of Popeye the Sailor.
Legends of the Fall isn’t a great movie by any measure — but it is the kind of movie that leaves you feeling a little guilty for liking it so much.
(Reviewed 15th March 2014)