Legends of the Fall is less a film than an extended series of circumstances that require that Brad Pitt take off his shirt.
Indeed, Edward Zwick’s overblown mock-epic reimagines Jim Harrison’s grimly fatalistic novella as the sort of Fabio-emblazoned tome available for purchase in supermarket checkout lines. The result is a bathetic, miniseries-caliber big-screen romance that has little to recommend it—except, of course, the aforementioned phenomenon.
It’s not particularly surprising that the filmmakers have downsized Harrison’s tale: Director Zwick, co-producer Marshall Herskowitz, and co-screenwriter Susan Shilliday (who penned the script with Bill Witliff) are, respectively, the creators and former story editor of thirtysomething. (Zwick also helmed the ’70s TV dramedy Family and, with Herskowitz, continues to produce for the small screen—the pair’s current project is ABC’s teen soap opera My So-Called Life.)
It would be unfair to argue that a background in television automatically dooms anyone’s cinematic efforts, but it’s probably no coincidence that Legends‘ inadequacies are those typical of TV programming. And daytime TV at that. The filmmakers, for instance, were not content with the original story’s love triangle; here, it’s a love square. Either way, interpreting Harrison’s work (which is essentially about the inexorability of fate) as a love story is akin to interpreting Oedipus Rex as a comedy. Of course, provided Oedipus is played shirtless by Brad Pitt, it might work.
In Legends, Pitt plays Tristan, the middle son of disenchanted former U.S. Cavalry officer William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), who is raising his three sons on a ranch at the base of the Montana Rockies in the early 1900s. Strait-laced oldest son Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and precocious youngest son Samuel (Henry Thomas) are second in their father’s affections to the reckless Tristan, who is untroubled by the constraints of convention and has a lawless quality that the authority-hating old man admires. Needless to say, women admire it too—a fact that has unfortunate results when Samuel brings his young fiancée Susannah (Julia Ormond) home to meet the family—the baggage-laden Ludlow automobile making its way through a roadless field is one of many shots that savor the lush Canadian locations that stand in for turn-of-the-century Montana.
The forbidden romance is thwarted when, at Samuel’s urging, the three brothers leave for Canada, there to enlist and fight on England’s behalf in WWI. Wartime melodrama quickly ensues. On a strikingly unrealistic-looking battlefield-and-foxhole set, the trio experience the horror of war and lousy special effects. And Tristan, charged with keeping his younger brother from harm, inevitably fails. In due time, the injured Alfred returns to Montana, and Tristan, whose wild, inconsolable grief over Samuel’s death has earned him a psychiatric discharge, follows.
Tristan’s return occasions the consummation of his relationship with Susannah, as well the scene that’s at the heart of movies like this: the soft-focus every-possible-position sex montage. Tristan makes an honest woman of her, but soon thereafter leaves the ranch and embarks on a program of soul-searching (which, in his case, requires world travel, big-game hunting, and sailing the rugged seas) that lasts for many years. Inscrutable, fearless, and intensely physical, Tristan is the personification of Harrison’s archaic and impossibly romantic notion of unfettered “manliness” (the kind that is more often found in the novels of, say, Sir Walter Scott than in contemporary works). As it happens, Tristan’s surrogate father is a Cree Indian warrior, One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), by whom the young man is tutored in the ways of noble savagery.
Legends is rife with cues—most of which are unspeakably dunderheaded—that Tristan is the embodiment of the male myth. For example, he uses historically suspect words like “asshole,” gives his younger brother lusty advice about “fucking,” and tames wild horses in the corral while the rest of the family is engaged in effete pastimes like playing lawn tennis and, even worse, reading. He also has longer hair than everyone else, which is evidently meant to establish that he’s an elemental kind of guy. Further proof: He uses the same technique to quiet wild horses and agitated women. There are plenty of the latter, since Legends‘ passive female population has little to do except react to Tristan’s actions. They do provide some inadvertent humor, though: The audience at my screening, for instance, laughed uproariously at the scene in which Tristan encounters his ranch foreman’s sultry daughter (Karina Lombard, the notorious beach vixen from The Firm) for the first time.
In Harrison’s book, isolation is the effect of extreme manliness. But in this soap-operatic adaptation, it is irresistibility.