Legends of the Fall (1994): Oscar Winning Romantic Melodrama, Interview with Director Edward Zwick and Star Brad Pitt (Family Melodrama, Father and Sons, Three Siblings)

It’s rare these days to see a film like Legends of the Fall, a sweeping, epic panorama that is breathtaking visually as well as emotionally.

In its scope, vision, and theme the new TriStar picture bears resemblance to such classic American epics as George Stevens’ Giant or Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, both made in 1955.

Edward Zwick’s romantic saga centers on one family through the ages: a strong father, his three very different sons, and the beautiful young woman who enters into the family and irrevocably changes each of its members’ lives.

The versatile Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins plays Col. William Ludlow, a U.S. Cavalry officer who was devoted to his career until he could no longer tolerate the government’s treatment of the Western tribes. Determined to raise a family far from the madness of civilization, Ludlow builds a ranch in the remote foothills of the Montana Rocky Mountains. When the story begins, his wife, who can’t adjust to the wild life in the West, goes back East and Ludlow remains with his three boys.

Alfred (Aidan Quinn), the eldest brother, seems dutiful and reserved, but he has a will of his own. Samuel (Henry Thomas), the beloved youngest brother, is the epitome of turn-of-the-century naivet and idealism. The film’s hero is Tristan (Brad Pitt), as the middle brother, an eccentric, wild, untamable spirit, who has grown to manhood under the watchful eye of One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), the Colonel’s Old Cree scout, from whom he learned the skills of a warrior. “He was a rock they broke themselves against,” says One Stab about Tristan, a mythic, unpredictable man.

Growing up, the three brothers are inseparable, though they don’t know yet the passionate and violent paths their lives will take. Through the courage and horror of World War I and the lost years that followed, theirs is a story writ large, of love and loss, hope and betrayal.

Zwick has wanted to make Legends of the Fall ever since he read Jim Harrison’s celebrated novella in the l970s. “Reading it was a very moving experience,” Zwick recalls, “one that has held its power over me all these years of trying to turn it into a film.” For Zwick, “it is a big, dark, beautiful and generous family chronicle, at once a great story and also a kind of philosophical meditation on the dignity of man.”

Zwick remembers fondly the exciting feeling in reading such novels–and seeing movies based on them. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he says, “fate is neither fair nor predictable. That’s what I felt in Harrison’s overwhelming saga.”

Brad Pitt, who has recently emerged as one of the most charismatic and appealing actors working today, in such films as Columbia’s A River Runs Through It and most recently Interview With the Vampire, was an immediate choice to play the high-spirited Tristan.

“Jim Harrison is one of my favorite writers,” says the handsome Pitt, “I read the book some years ago and talked to Zwick about the film long before it was made.” Pitt sees some similarities–and differences–between Legends of the Fall and Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. “Both are classic American stories,” he says, “but River was written from a memory point of view, whereas Legends feels more contemporary, more immediate.”

“Films are very exhausting to make,” says Pitt, “so you had better pick something that means something to you. This one certainly did.” Pitt thinks the film represents “a very true account of living and dying and the journey along the way. It made sense to me.”

Author Jim Harrison describes Tristan as “a force of nature.” Filmmaker Zwick concurs: “It’s one thing to write that and quite another to actually find someone to portray it. When one seeks to create an epic hero like Tristan, it’s as much about the wounds that he endures as it is about his triumphs.”

According to the director, who has worked with some of the best actors in the American cinema (Denzel Washington in Glory), “Brad had a very strong, intuitive understanding of his character. I think there is a great deal of Tristan within Brad. I know he has challenged himself to explore some of the darker aspects of his character as well as the more romantic qualities.

Playing opposite Pitt is Aidan Quinn, who recently appeared in Columbia’s epic remake, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “Families are the worst things in the world–and the best,” says Quinn, who’s cast as the reserved brother, Alfred. “Alfred’s tragedy is that he has a hard time getting approval from his father and that he is obsessed by the one woman who is not within his power to have. That’s probably what drives him to become an officer in the War and later a powerful Congressman.”

Says Zwick: “As brothers, Alfred and Tristan become rivals, vying not only for their father’s blessing, but also for a woman’s favor. It is a complex sibling love that binds them, and Aidan Quinn is every bit as formidable, every bit as attractive, every bit as strong as Brad. Their chemistry is what makes the movie combust.”

The youngest, naive brother, Samuel, is played by Henry Thomas, still best known for his memorable role in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Thomas, who decided to become an actor when he was five years old, hopes these movies will provide a smooth transition for adult role. “It’s more difficult,” he says, “if you continue to be identified as a child-actor. For a while, I was bitter about it, but no more.”

Thomas, who’s proud of his work in this film, was intrigued by the high-power cast that Zwick amassed. He believes that Legends of the Fall has a broad appeal, because it’s an epic but not a fantasy. The situations are real and the characters are human–people can relate to them emotionally.”

At the center of the brothers’ rivalry is Susannah, played by rising British star, Julia Ormond, whose next movie will be a remake of Sabrina. When the refined and spirited Susannah arrives at the ranch from back East, she immediately takes to the rigors of ranch life and charms each of the Ludlow men. “She begins to shed layers of so-called civilized society,” says the beautiful Ormond, “and as the layers come off, she gets closer to herself, including some darker aspects of herself.”

“Susannah is fascinated with Tristan,” Ormond says about the intriguing woman she plays, “because he’s chosen a different way than Samuel or Alfred. With Tristan, there are no social expectations: he will allow her to be totally free and accept her for what she is. Of all the characters, they are the passionate ones, the ones who are driven to get the most of out of life.” “People constantly battle to achieve a wholeness,” Ormond explains, “We never achieve it; we momentarily get there, then lose it again.”

For British Anthony Hopkins, who plays the family’s old patriarch, Legends of the Fall allowed him to fulfill a lifelong yearning to ride the American range, to do a Western. “I was a big John Ford fan,” says the actor with a smile, “There’s something very romantic about the West, its heroes and great spectacles.”

The movie represents a radical change of pace for the celebrated actor who played a serial killer in the international mega hit, The Silence of the Lamb (Best Actor Oscar), or restrained Brits in Sony Classics’ Howards End or Columbia’s The Remains of the Day, both of which won him well-deserved Oscar nominations. “Col. Ludlow is a wise man,” says Hopkins, “He has learned through hard and bitter experience as a military man about the slaughter of innocents. He comes here looking for serenity and peace of mind for his family.”

An avid student of history, Zwick was delighted that the preparation for Legends of the Fall gave him the chance to indulge “in the kind of academic exploration I always loved before becoming a filmmaker.”

“The past always informs the present,” Zwick says, stressing the historical context of Legends of the Fall: “This story depicts the end of an inward, self-contained America, before the country was changed forever by WWI and the Industrial Revolution.”

Oscar Nominations: 3

Cinematography: John Toll

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Lilly Kilvert; Dorree Cooper

Sound: Paul Massey, David Campbell, Christopher David, Douglas Ganton

Oscar Awards: 1

Cinematography

Oscar Context:

The British film, The Madness of King George won the Art Direction Oscar, and the actioner Speed got the Best Sound Award.

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