Novelist Jim Harrison’s fascination with the primal forces that influence civilized behavior found its apotheosis in his novella Legends of the Fall. The sweeping, melodramatic saga is a complex tale with elements both ideal and problematic for the big screen. The Edward Zwick version is intelligent, emotional and largely succeeds in its transference.
The story, set during the early 20th century, focuses on the three sons of retired cavalry officer William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), a renegade with a moral stripe. As the spring thaw of 1913 arrives, the youngest son, Samuel (Henry Thomas), returns from an Eastern school with his fiancee, Susannah Finncannon (Julia Ormond). His older brothers have taken over key areas of the ranch business. Alfred (Aidan Quinn) is a sort of operating manager and Tristan (Brad Pitt) is the barely housebroken head wrangler.
The distant thunder of the European World War beckons the idealistic Samuel to the call of duty in spite of his father’s dissent, and he dies on the battlefield. Reunited in Montana, Tristan and Susannah become lovers.
As densely plotted as Legends of the Fall is, it’s to the credit of the performers and craftsmen that the film escapes the abyss of melodrama and sentimentality. Zwick imbues the story with an easy, poetic quality that mostly sidesteps the precious. The actors, working as an ensemble, are near perfect in the service of the material.
1994: Best Cinematography.
Nominations: Best Art Direction, Sound