Primed as the first major release of 1995 (it gets a late-year Oscar qualifying opening), “Legends” should benefit from year-end attention and its positioning as an awards contender. In a period largely bereft of epic fare, it fills a major void deftly. Its combination of an attractive cast and panoramic settings adds up to upbeat commercial prospects. 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, Ludlow left the military at issue with government treatment of plains Indians. He settled in the Montana foothills, much to the chagrin of his blue-blooded wife, who retreated one autumn never to return.
The ranch household prefigures the modern nuclear family: In this instance a single parent who creates a family by enlisting a seasoned native scout (Gordon Tootoosis), a native woman (Tantoo Cardinal) and her white ex-criminal mate (Paul Desmond) and young daughter. The boys evolve decently, if dif-
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ferently, in this environment.
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. Alfred (Aidan Quinn) is a sort of operating manager and Tristan (Brad Pitt) is the barely housebroken head wrangler. What all three share is a seemingly resolute fraternal bond.
What Harrison detailed, and Zwick and screen adapters Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff ably chronicle, are the forces from within and outside which erode the bedrock of the family unit. It’s a story steeped in tragedy, relieved only by relationships that evolve to a higher plateau.
The distant thunder of the European World War beckons the idealistic Samuel to the call of duty in spite of his father’s dissent. Alfred and Tristan go along more as protectors than philosophic comrades. But despite their watchful gaze, Samuel dies on the battlefield, signaling the strife to come.
Reunited in Montana, Tristan and Susannah become lovers. But he is tormented by his failure to save Samuel, and departs for parts unknown, allowing Alfred to confess his true feelings to the young woman. When she cannot reciprocate, he too departs, for a new life in cattle futures in Helena.
The densely plotted nature of “Legends of the Fall” teeters on the hoary. It’s to the credit of the performers and craftsmen that the film escapes the abyss of mel-odrama and sentimentality.
Zwick imbues an easy, poetic quality to the story that mostly sidesteps the precious. While emotionally intense, it’s neither hurried nor charged with false drama. It’s also one of the most handsome of recent films, with sterling work by cameraman John Toll and production designer Lilly Kilvert. It falters a beat in the obvious emphasis of James Horner’s musical score.
An ensemble piece, the actors are near perfect in the service of the material. Pitt is effortlessly charismatic, but Quinn has the film’s biggest challenge — delineating the slow dissolution and corruption of decency. He is the reflection and reverse of his father, who after all sinks into madness.
A visceral, thoughtful and emotionally exhausting saga, “Legends of the Fall” recalls sprawling dramas of the 1950s such as “Giant.” The genre has evolved with the times, but remains a comforting and satisfying style of entertainment.