Legends of the Fall (1994)


A visually beautiful epic masterpiece, Legends of the Fall has no true redeeming value, a central character that is completely self-centered and unrepentant, and a conclusion that justifies murder for revenge. Even through the dynamic and often tragic story, the viewer cannot help but be caught up in the sorrow of the Ludlow family. The year is 1914 and Europe is engaged in a full-scale world war against Germany, whose boarders are increasing as they launch attacks against smaller and unguarded territories. America remains untouched by this development and the frontier is still home to Indian philosophies and ways of life. Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) lives on a ranch in the northwest, raising his three rambunctious boys on his own since his wife packed and left for Boston, never to return.


The elder, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), has always looked out for his brothers. More of a thinker than a man of action, he's resolved, laid back, and "follows all the rules -- man's, and God's." The youngest, Samuel (Henry Thomas), is eager to go to war, since he speaks German fluently and has a proper education. But it's Tristan (Brad Pitt) who remains his father's favorite. Half-raised by Indians and fearless to the point of insanity, the golden-haired rough rider never shies away from a mad bear, wild mustang, or pretty face. When Samuel returns from Boston and a long stay with his mother, he brings with him Susannah (Julia Ormond), his bride-to-be. Her quiet charm and natural sweetness rapidly win over the hearts of all three brothers, Alfred in particular. But when a misunderstanding finds her in Tristan's arms, he immediately breaks off all brotherly ties.


The boys go against their father's wishes and enlist in the military. While fighting the Germans, Stephen offers to go on a scouting mission. With Alfred laid up with a broken leg in the infirmary, Tristan is forced to go after him. But he's too late. Stephen is killed. Alfred is sent home. Susannah is devastated. Tristan goes mad with his grief and is discharged from the army, but refuses to return to the ranch. Instead he sends back his brother's heart to be buried on the hilltop, and wanders the world. In the meantime, Susannah is forced to stay with her would-be-father-in-law due to the heavy winter snows. Alfred has taken this time to slowly grow to love her, and asks for her love in response. Then Tristan returns and his windfall interest in the young woman will create a terrible landslide of events to eventually bring the Ludlow family to civil war, and then reunite them only after tragedy has fallen.


As one might expect, the film is less than cheerful viewing. There's a melancholy tone which runs throughout and concludes in what was apparently a hopeful attempt to lift the audience's spirits and reassure them Tristan's ultimate end was a happy one. I'm not quite sure who the scriptwriter wanted me to root for, since Alfred is the only truly worthwhile character in the film and, as always, they treat him with indifference. He has morals, something Tristan is without. For the most part he's a good man and because of that, the writers shove him into the background and make a spoiled brat the central figure in the story. Tristan is never very likable. He uses profane language, treats women as playthings, makes utterly self-serving decisions that lead ultimately to the pain and death of all those he loves. After seducing Susannah, he selfishly goes away for several years to "find himself," smoking opium, never writing her letters, and returning only to marry the Indian girl who has loved him since childhood.


Legends of the Fall is complex and yet simple, since it primarily hinges on a love triangle between three brothers. Which wouldn't be bad if the whole thing wasn't so dreadfully morbid and dark. As if the death of Stephen wasn't enough, we must also deal with dropping cattle prices, one older character having a stroke, several murders, a suicide (for no apparent reason other than unhappiness at an inability to have children), and a final scene that involves the cover-up of three newly-killed government agents. "I followed all the rules, Man's and God's," Alfred says at one point. "And followed none of them. And they all loved you more. Samuel, Father, and my... even my own wife." Despite all this, it somehow manages to be entertaining. I held no compassion for Tristan even throughout his struggles, but found the film profoundly moving. I don't think I've ever cried so often through a screenplay.


Even overlooking the moral inconsistencies and wrong choices of the primary characters, the film is not without its flaws. Language is profane. Tristan encourages his younger brother to consummate his love before marriage (using the f-word three times), teasing him about being a virgin. Stephen, in defense, denies they're going to "wait" and letter remarks on his sorrow for not having slept with her before leaving America through letters. One of Tristan's favorite phrases is GD, something he repeats numerous times throughout the film. I lost count around eight. In one particularly disturbing sequence after his brother's death, Tristan screams, "G---d--- you, God!" several times. Two governmental agents exclaim "Jesus!" once or twice. There's also the repeat use of "screw the government" several times in a scene, with the accompanying middle finger. The violence is never gory, but does involve blood coming out of people's mouths. Stephen coughs up great quantities of it before dying. His brother then cuts out his heart (implied, but not seen) and sends it home to his father. (We see him unwrapping the heart and placing it into a tin bucket.) In a rage, he scalps German soldiers. Later in his wanderings we see skinned, slaughtered animals hanging from trees, and a man cutting out a dead zebra's heart (including a close-up). Many people are shot and killed, explosions go off, poison gas is dumped, and a man is impaled on a garden rake. When government agents come to arrest Tristan for murder, the family kill them all in a combined effort.


There's also cleverly obscured nudity, a rather lengthy and graphic love scene, and references to seduction. In his opium-induced state, Tristan is shown draped in sleeping prostitutes. After being married, he curls up with his wife a few times, both of them undressed. (I didn't notice any overt nudity, but there might have been brief glimpses of it. Legends of the Fall has no redeeming value aside from the gorgeous production design and stellar acting from all involved. It's an ultimately sad epic that embraces family above all else. Eventually the brothers are reunited and some happiness returns to their lives, but the actions of individuals are notoriously selfish. It's hard to choose someone to root for because they're all human... and grievously flawed. I cannot say I wasn't touched by many of the scenes, but it's a film that won't appeal on a wide scale. You can fast-forward the sexual content, but the other problems -- namely foul language -- still remain. Unless melancholy is your cup of tea, I'd advise you to steer clear.


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