“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.” ~ One Stab
“Forever turned out to be too long.” ~ Susannah
“Indians were the issue in those days. I can assure you, gentlemen, there is nothing so grotesque as the meeting of a child with a bullet, or an entire village slaughtered while sleeping. That was the government’s resolution of that particular issue and I have seen nothing in its behaviour since then that would persuade me that it has gained either in wisdom, common sense, or humanity.” ~ Colonel Ludlow
“I followed all the rules... man’s and God’s. And you.... you followed none of them. And they all loved you more. Samuel, Father, and my... even my own wife.” ~ Alfred
“You know, when Samuel died... when Samuel died, I cursed God. Did I damn everyone around me as well as myself?” ~ Tristan
In late 1994, director Edward Zwick (Glory) brought the sweeping epic Legends Of The Fall to the big screen. Based on a novella by the writer Jim Harrison, the story follows a family in the American West over years in the early Twentieth century, depicting their conflicts, relationships, and story against the sweep of history. It’s a brooding tale of madness, love, loyalty, family, and the sprawling landscape of home, and it ended up making a very big star out of its lead.
The story is narrated by One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), a Cree warrior at the end of his life, telling visitors about the Ludlow family he’s been tied to and their tale, years earlier, in the era between the First World War and the 1930s. We meet Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), a former U.S. Army officer who left the military out of disgust in the wake of the Indian Wars. He’s established a home in the wilds of Montana for his wife and sons- though his wife soon becomes a distant presence, unable to adapt to the rigours of the mountains. His sons grow up, the eldest being the responsible Alfred (Aidan Quinn), followed by the wild hearted Tristan (Brad Pitt), and the youngest being Samuel (Henry Thomas), who is watched over carefully by his brothers. Their ranch is also home to One Stab, as well as a ranch hand, Decker (Paul Desmond) and his wife, Pet (Tantoo Cardinal) and their young daughter Isabel Two (Sekwan Auger).
Samuel returns home from college with a fiancée, Susannah (Julia Ormond). She makes quite an impression on both of his brothers and even his father, brightening up the ranch and shaking up their lives. Samuel’s ideals, however, in the face of the building war in Europe, bring the brothers to a turning point. He wishes to go off to war against the Germans. Tristan and Alfred resolve to follow him- more or less out of the same impulse to protect him from harm. This being a film about the darkness of the heart and struggles between brothers, nothing good can come from that decision.
Harrison’s novel was published back in 1979, and explores the dynamics of family against the backdrop of history. The themes of the story play strongly throughout the script, written by Susan Shilliday and William Wittliff. While it might well have been marketed as an epic romance at the time, the story really is about the dynamic of family, and the complicated relationships between a father and two of his sons. Themes of loyalty, love, revenge, the darkness of the mind, the madness of war, and ultimately reconciliation play out during the film. I like the narrative style- much of the story is narrated by One Stab, whose voice comes across so strongly, but there is also narrative in the form of letters from one character to another, speaking across time.
Edward Zwick was an ideal candidate to direct the film. He had previously directed the Civil War epic Glory, and its sweeping battle sequences are reflected here in the World War One sequences in the trenches, the sheer horror of battle. Zwick handles that well- something he would repeat later in Courage Under Fire, for instance, but he also has a fine grasp of working with actors and bringing out the best in them, which happens with this film as well.
Filming was done on location in Alberta and British Columbia primarily, filling in nicely for Montana- and even for the trenches of France- and the jaw dropping beautiful landscape is captured in just the right way. I particularly like the way he cross cuts several characters late in the film in a sequence involving revenge, carried out by two of those characters. The cinematography by John Toll won the Oscar that year- and deservedly so. The score, by James Horner, is one of my favourites, a mix of darkness and serenity, perfectly fitting the mood of the film.
The cast was well chosen. That includes small parts for antagonists. Kenneth Welsh, the Canadian actor who’s been in countless television and film roles, often as a villain, plays the corrupt local sheriff Tynert, clearly taking orders from criminals and not really bothering to hide it. The criminals in question are the O’Banion brothers, John (Robert Wisden) and James (John Novak). Both actors are known for playing not terribly likable characters, and that applies here. Their characters are Irish immigrants, presenting themselves as somewhat respectable on the surface, but they are in fact bootleggers and gangsters, capable of ruthlessness and brutality, and as the film goes along, they make for unpleasant company. The O’Banions might be seen as the dark reflection of the Ludlows, sharing the same family loyalty, but no scruples.
Paul Desmond appears throughout the film as the ranch hand Decker. He’s well established among the family, but we don’t know that much about his background- aside from the fact that he’s on the run from the law. He’s content to hide out in the mountains of Montana making a reasonably honest living, and comes across as a strong support for Colonel Ludlow. Tantoo Cardinal plays his wife Pet, the Native woman and eventual mother-in-law to Tristan, giving her warmth and a sense of strength in her performance.
One character gets divided into two actresses. Sekwan Auger is the young Isabel Two, named after Colonel Ludlow’s wife, and daughter of Decker and Pet. As a child, she comes across as outspoken, mischievous, and sure of herself. Isabel is certain that one day she’ll marry Tristan- and in fact that does happen. The character is later played by Karina Lombard as a young woman, and though the marketing of the film seems to push the Tristan-Susannah relationship to the forefront, the more believable couple is Tristan and Isabel. They seem better suited to each other, both people of the West and the wild. Isabel seems to quiet the inner storms of Tristan, and as an adult has a personality that seems self assured and at peace.
Julia Ormond gets a big role as Susannah, who we first meet when she steps off a train. She’s seemingly cheerful, though we get a hint of things to come in a preceding letter from Isabel Ludlow to her husband- that Susannah’s suffered losses and seems fragile. It’s a complicated role, one that Ormond plays well. We can certainly see why the brothers would each in turn feel drawn to her, and even why the Colonel would be pleased by her presence in a home that hasn’t had a “civilized woman” in a long while. She relates to each brother- and by extension each love interest- differently. There’s the idealistic romance she shares with Samuel, the deep passion she finds with Tristan in the wake of grief, and the more responsible- yet unhappy- marriage she has with Alfred. The character is fragile, becoming all the more so as the film goes on, and the actress plays to that, giving Susannah a growing anxiety and frayed edges in her personality.
Gordon Tootoosis has a terrific role as the Cree warrior turned faithful friend One Stab, something of a second father to Tristan, and a loyal friend to Colonel Ludlow. He’s a man of the land, strongly influential in Tristan’s upbringing particularly. The character understands English- though he wouldn’t lower himself to speak it- and his voice comes across strongly throughout as he narrates the story. One Stab is a man of great personal strength and dignity, given a lot of depth as the story unfolds, and it’s a wonderfully memorable character for the actor to play.
Henry Thomas was first known as a child actor in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Years later he got this part, and it’s a good one. Though the character dies relatively early in the film, Samuel’s fate is the driving force for everyone else through the rest of the movie. Samuel is idealistic, smart, but also naive and not all that sure of himself. He sees the growing storm of war across the ocean as a cause worth fighting for, not regarding the warnings of his father, who has seen the madness of war. He learns too late just how terrible war can be, and that naive quality of the character has to give way to the realization that he was wrong. The audience can see why Tristan and Alfred are so protective of him, so loyal to him- and so with his passing, a huge wedge comes between the two surviving brothers.
Anthony Hopkins gets a great role in a career filled with great roles as Colonel Ludlow. One Stab’s narration makes mention of a curious phrase- the Colonel wanted to lose the madness over the mountains. Disgusted by what he sees as the dishonour of the military towards Indians, he walked away from his army career and sought sanctuary. The character is educated and refined in his own way when we first meet him, a man accustomed to being in charge and running his family that way. And yet he also loves them fiercely. His grief over Samuel perhaps feeds into the way he responds to his surviving sons- a strong estrangement with Alfred on the one hand, while excusing Tristan’s moods and long absence on the other. As the film goes on and the character suffers physical ailments that leave him a broken shell of the man he was, the Colonel still has that fierce quality lingering below the surface, and where things end, in reconciliation, gives the role great poignancy.
Aidan Quinn gets the toughest role of the cast as the eldest brother Alfred. He is a man of principle and ambition, sharing some of Samuel’s idealism about the war, and yet it seems when he decides to go overseas and be part of the Great War, it’s less because of idealism and more out of wanting to keep Samuel safe. Alfred believes in the law- and yet associates with men whose criminal enterprises are just beneath the surface. His ambitions lead him into a place of responsibility- and further away from his family, the estrangement with Tristan and Colonel Ludlow taking different shapes. The wounds seem to run deepest between Alfred and Tristan, in part because of the death of Samuel and in part because of Susannah, who’s been loved by both of them. Quinn gives the character a mix of authority, inherent decency, and brooding moods- and ultimately brings him full circle. It’s an excellent performance.
This was one of Brad Pitt’s breakout roles- along with Interview With A Vampire, A River Runs Through It, and a small but memorable role in Thelma And Louise. In this case, Legends Of The Fall firmly established him as a romantic leading man. Tristan is wild and rebellious, untamed in personality, seemingly restless and wandering even before the War. He comes across as charming and enjoying getting into trouble, but at the same time as strongly loyal to his family and the life he’s been brought up in, and as someone who internalizes a lot. Fighting in the War changes him profoundly- the death of Samuel in such a way is soul shattering for Tristan, and we can pretty much see him as a soldier suffering from the effects of PTSD for the rest of his days. That explains a lot about where Tristan goes as the film carries on- whether that’s on long journeys seeking to quiet the storm inside, or giving into the madness within him. And that madness is certainly there- Tristan descends into the darkness more than once, broods with great regularity, and comes across as broken in many ways (you just know he’s going off the deep end when he stops shaving). The way he relates to the two women in his life is an interesting one- the passion he shares with Susannah is nonetheless fraught with melodrama and doomed from the start, while the marriage he has with Isabel (doomed though it is by a trick of fate), comes across as much more grounded and healthier. Pitt brings out a lot in the character, and makes it an exceptionally compelling performance by the end of the film.
Legends Of The Fall is a wonderfully filmed epic that tells an intimate tale about family against the backdrop of history. Strong characterization in the script is reflected in the memorable performances of the cast. The cinematography and scenery is breathtakingly captured, and the era of the early 20th century certainly feels authentic throughout. While the film is violent at times, and deals with dark themes like revenge, death, insanity, and family conflict, its ultimate resolution is uplifting, and satisfying.