Legends of the Fall

Legends of the Fall, directed by Edward Zwick, is an attempt at grand, epic old-fashioned cinema. It's very rare these days to see a sweeping, panoramic film that is visually as well as emotionally satisfying.

In its scope and ambition, though not in foolish self-consciousness and effect, Legends of the Fall bears resemblance to such classic American epics as George Stevens' Giant, based on Edna Ferber's sprawling novel, or Elia Kazan's version of Steinbeck's East of Eden, both made in the mid-l950s. Which is to say that Legends of the Fall is a throwback to the kind of cinema that prevailed four decades ago.

Zwick's romantic saga centers on one family through the ages: a strong father, his three very different sons (each representing a type), 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, he builds a ranch in the remote foothills of the Montana Rockies.

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 idealism. The film's hero is Tristan (Brad Pitt), 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 tough warrior.

The movie is narrated by Old Cree, creating the same solemn impact–and emotional distance–that impaired Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It. “He was a rock they broke themselves against,” says One Stab solemnly about the mythic character of Tristan, an unknowable, unpredictable man.

Incidentally, A River Runs Through It was also shot in Montana, and also centered on two brothers, with Brad Pitt playing the “bad,” irresponsible brother. The two pictures share some thematic similarities in common, though their strategy and style are very different.

At the center of the brothers' rivalry in Legends of the Fall is Susannah, played by British rising star, Julia Ormond. The movie takes liberties from the Jim Harrison famous novella in structuring the narrative around the tension created by Susannah; in the book, she is just one character.

Zwick is a conventional Hollywood director, a craftsman who goes for big emotions and feelings–remember his compromised film Glory, in which the only good thing was Denzel Washington's performance.

Unlike Little Women (which also opens this week), in which characters evolve naturally and emotional conflicts erupt in an unforced manner, the emotional intensity in Legends of the Fall is atrociously excessive–the whole film is charged with pretentious biblical allegories and fraudulent melodramatics. Legends of the Fall is too earnest, highly predictable, and not very entertaining.