Monday, November 22, 2010

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Susannah: Forever turned out to be too long.
~from Legends of the Fall (1994)
I ignored Legends of the Fall when it first came out, not only because of the bad reviews it received, but because it seemed like a crock of political correctness. I refused to watch it. Fifteen years later, I stumbled onto the film one evening on cable television and decided to see if it was as bad as I had always thought. To my surprise, I was swept away by the landscape, the score and the story, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy. According to critic James Berardinelli:
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.
Few critics appreciated the craftsmanship of the film when it first debuted, but as a reviewer for Variety expressed it:
Zwick imbues an easy, poetic quality to the story that mostly sidesteps the precious. While emotionally intense, it's neither hurried nor charged with false drama. It's also one of the most handsome of...films, with sterling work by cameraman John Toll and production designer Lilly Kilvert....
An ensemble piece, the actors are near perfect in the service of the material. Pitt is effortlessly charismatic, but Quinn has the film's biggest challenge -- delineating the slow dissolution and corruption of decency. He is the reflection and reverse of his father, who after all sinks into madness. 
The only aspect of Legends that I find unrealistic is how Tristan and Susannah appear to be openly living together at the Ludlow ranch during the course of their passionate affair. The liaison is not limited to secret encounters for everyone appears to know what is going on and accepts it, except for Alfred, of course, who departs in disgust. Although Colonel Ludlow is a bit of a free spirit and a renegade, he seems to be straitlaced in his morals, possessing a strict code of honor. How could he allow Tristan to carry on with Susannah in a way which would make her, according to the mores of the era, a "fallen woman"? Unless the Colonel's fondness for his favorite son causes him to look the other way, which is a strong possibility.

In spite of being used and abandoned by Tristan, Susannah is able to become a respected congressman's wife, without a breath of scandal, which is a little improbable given the way things were, even in Montana. As it is Susannah is never able to forget her intense relationship with Tristan, and therefore is kept from entering into nuptial joy and harmony with her husband, Alfred. Guilt and despair overwhelm her after the horrific but accidental killing of Tristan's young wife; she shears her head before she dies as a sort of final and unholy penance.

One Stab, the old Cree chief who lives on the Ludlow ranch, says of Tristan: "He was a rock they broke themselves against however much he tried to protect them." The same can be said of Susannah. The fact that the Ludlow brothers are deserted by their mother makes Susannah's coming an emotionally devastating lightening bolt. Each falls in love with her but none can be the man she needs. Samuel, her first fiancé, is so eager to run off to war; he finds taking on the Germans less daunting than the prospect of trying to please his passionate bride. Tristan reciprocates Susannah's amour fou but deserts her out of misplaced guilt over Samuel's death. Alfred is unable to win Susannah's love although he gives her the place in society for which she is best suited. In her heart, however, she wants to be with Tristan on the ranch, roping cattle and having his babies. It is a dream she is unable to relinquish.

One Stab: Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends.


Theresa Bruno said...

Beautiful! Thank you!

Julygirl said...

I also avoided seeing it because I thought the title sappy. Finally gave in borrowed it from Blockbuster. It completely won me over and is one of my favorites.... powerful and complex characters, irony, pathos, the 'whole nine yards'.

Julygirl said...

...and speaking of legends of the fall, today is the anniversary date of the murder of a President, November 22, 1963.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Theresa!

Yes, Julygirl, I thought it sappy, too, back in the 90's but it has since won me over as well!

elena maria vidal said...

Oh that's right! RIP JFK!

May said...

As for the open cohabitation etc., perhaps the film-makers just inserted this anachronism to cater to contemporary mores. It's a pity. But I'm glad you found the movie a pleasant surprise, on the whole.

elena maria vidal said...

That could be; I haven't read the novella.

P. said...

First time I saw this movie, some years ago, I cryed and cryed - well, I have this problem with movies.