You wouldn't think a frontier family saga that includes sibling rivalry, tragic deaths, illicit longings and searing revenge would make for a pretty picture. In Legends of the Fall, it does. Literally. So does a stroke victim stricken with body paralysis, shock-white hair and profound malaise. This is not a compliment. Nor is my citing what's made into an even more picturesque moment: when a heart is cut out of a felled soldier so that it can be brought home for burial. With dusky lighting and ritual face paint, the scene is more campfire than machismo. The most egregious fault of Legends of the Fall -- though not its only one by a long shot -- is that it looks too good.
Much of this is calculated: with a cast that includes rakish hunk Brad Pitt, sensitive hunk Aidan Quinn and gentlemanly hunk Anthony Hopkins, how could it not be? But though these beautiful people are also beautiful actors, director Edward Zwick underuses them. About all he asks them to do is stare contemplatively and pose in cowboy chaps or turn-of-the-century finery. To their credit, the actors do more than the little that's asked of them, but when a director makes every shot a cross between glitzy fashion spreads and glossy Life magazine photos, they're fighting a losing battle.
This gloss is surprising, given that one of the pleasures of Zwick's earlier Glory was the emotional immediacy he brought to the muck and mire of the Civil War. There's no such grit in Legends of the Fall. Nothing is at stake here, though everything should be.
The film's center of gravity is Tristan (Pitt), a wild-card son of a retired Army colonel, Ludlow (Hopkins). Tristan has two brothers, sensitive Alfred (Quinn) and inexperienced Samuel (Henry Thomas). Some quick exposition explains that Ludlow has a wife, but while she loves her family, she couldn't take the rigors of homestead life (even though the log-cabin estate is so stylish it would make Ralph Lauren proud) and so returned to the city. One day a visitor arrives, Samuel's fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond). Susannah is as pretty as the men are handsome (and Ormond is as graceful as they are intense). Tristan in particular notices this, galloping up to her with cowboy swagger; Susannah, presaging problems to come, smiles back.
When World War I breaks out, the brothers are quick to sign up, even though their father, angry at the government for breaking its various pacts with Native Americans, would prefer them not to. Regardless, the boys go off to war, and though young Samuel dies, you'll feel little sorrow: the exploding bombs resemble fireworks, and cinematographer John Toll overexposes the surrounding's colors to such a point that the effect is distancing and oddly soothing. When Tristan cradles his brother Samuel's body, they're posed so artfully that you'll want to take out your camera.
Following the war, both Alfred and Tristan get involved with Susannah in plot developments that drive the family apart, and take the movie into wild melodrama. Tristan, for instance, is so distraught at not saving Samuel that he leaves home to become a hunter in the South Seas, allowing for shots of Pitt with attractively scraggy beard and tanned chest. Susannah -- who has married Alfred even though they both know she pines for Tristan -- says breathily to Tristan upon his return, "I still sometimes dream that I'm the mother of your children," which allows for requisite shots of Ormond with attractively flowing hair and heaving bosom.
The problem isn't just that image-obsessed Zwick undercuts a teary gravesite visit by locating the cemetery under snowcapped mountains that overlook shimmering ravines while wild grass undulates under golden sunlight. The problem is that he's heavy-handed everywhere. When Tristan and Alfred nearly come to blows over Susannah, a clock is heard tolling. And as if we didn't already know that a spiritual link existed between Tristan and Susannah, Zwick crosscuts a scene of Tristan slicing out at the world with a knife with Susannah slicing off her luxuriant hair with a similar knife. Every plot machination is telegraphed way in advance.
There are too many plot machinations to begin with, and too much time paid to too many characters. What results is a watering-down of the central story, which should have been Tristan's. In fact, so much information about so many characters needs to be imparted that a good portion of the movie is given over to the reading of letters -- letters from colonel to and from wife, wife to and from sons, sons to and from Susannah, Susannah to nobody but the audience, since many of her letters were never mailed. Such a tactic summarizes rather than dramatizes; while it may fill us in, it also displaces us. For a movie with epic aspirations, Legends of the Fall has little sweep.
Legends of the Fall. Directed by Edward Zwick. With Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond.
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