Movies: Legends of the Fall

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Movies: Legends of the Fall
By Michael Paterniti

As a minor literary movement unto himself, writer Jim Harrison has invented a cult of brazen heroes who live for the roar of fanged animals in wild places. To date, film versions of his fiction (Wolf, Revenge) have been uneven at best. But in the new celluloid translation of his novella Legends of the Fall, fans will recognize a bright-edged, violent dreamscape, in which Harrison's feral protagonists do battle with everything suffocating and twee in our society.

Roughly following the lines of the novella, director Edward Zwick (About Last Night, Glory) brings us the saga of the Ludlows, three brothers who've grown up on a Montana ranch under the benevolent eye of their father (Anthony Hopkins) and his Cheyenne friend One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis). Soon the boys are called away to World War I; the youngest is killed, and the older brothers, trusty Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and unruly Tristan (Brad Pitt), return to break the news to his fiancée, Susannah (Julia Ormond). Taken by her bewitching beauty, however, both plummet into dizzying, tumid heat. Tristan prevails and marries Susannah but, overpowered by grief for his dead brother and feverish for open spaces, abruptly splits -- leaving Alfred, a senator in the making, to win Susannah's heart.

Cloying with such weighty issues as betrayal, suicide, and murder, Legends of the Fall strives to be as epic as the novella on which it's based. But despite the sweeping landscapes of mountain and meadow, the actors -- with the possible exceptions of Ormond and Quinn -- turn in surprisingly perfunctory performances. Each tic, smirk, and spasm is reminiscent of other, better work by these actors. This is especially true of Hopkins, who devolves into a frothing, gimpy caricature of a patriarch, and Pitt, who indulges in an engrossing act of narcissism that utterly fails to elevate Tristan to his proper place as progenitor of the American wild man.

In the name of this wildness, the director, too, may have gone overboard, particularly with the absurdist ending that has Tristan bellying up to an animatronic bear in a slow-motion waltz to the death. Also, the decision to have One Stab narrate the film -- in the novella, an omniscient voice tells the story -- undermines its allegorical nuances, while calling attention to Hollywood's recurring peccadillo of oversimplification. For years, American Indians were portrayed as nothing more than bloodthirsty killers, but now moviemakers seem to have done an about-face, imbuing them with a kind of noble, all-knowing spirituality. As stereotypes inevitably do, this new one leads to parody, punctuated here by One Stab's impulsively frequent death-dances and meant-to-be-wise utterances.

Nevertheless, the sheer breadth and beauty of the film, as well as the narrative lifelines that unite these characters in their loves and losses, succeed in creating a richly rendered canvas. And it at least does half-justice to the work of Jim Harrison. Just as his fiction often depicts nature as a rough kingdom with no pat answers to questions of mortality, the greatest strength of the film is that it too conveys this haunting paradox: The deepest solace of nature is, finally, its sharpest claw.

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