In the autumn of 1994, I saw Legends of the Fall on its original theatrical run. I looked forward to this film for two reasons: Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, and Anthony Hopkins, whom I am yet to see give a bad performance in anything (and given his volume of work, that’s saying something). I drove 45 miles to a “decent” movie theater, as I did for most all movies in those days, as my local theater was only worthy of bad porn. I braced myself for what I was sure was going to be one of the best films of that year, as I sat in the dark and marveled at the panoramas of the Montana countryside, so beautifully photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. I fell a little in love with beautiful Julia Ormond, who so sadly vanished from the American movie scene for so many years after this film was released. And then I left the theater greatly disappointed.
Why, you ask? Because the hero and central focus of the movie, Brad Pitt’s Tristan, is a JACKASS!! A completely spoiled rotten, irresponsible, unethical, self-centered JACKASS!! Have I made it clear enough that he was an utter and total JACKASS!!?? I hope that I have. Allow me to explain.
Hopkins portrays a grizzled old veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1870s, bitter at the Indian policy his government ordered him to enforce. He ranches cattle now, a few years shy of World War I, and has three sons on this ranch, along with several Native American hangers-on. His wife has long left him, but his youngest and oldest sons have their mother’s disposition. Only the middle son, Pitt’s Tristan, is his father’s child. After the youngest child, played by E.T.’s Henry Thomas, brings a European fiancee’ (Ormond) home, he leaves for the war in Europe, where he promptly dies. This leaves the other two brothers to fight for their dead brother’s fiancee’s hand. Got it?
I had thought that now, twenty years later, I might would see this film again and find something I had missed the first time and see it in a new light. After a Braves game a week or so ago, insomnia sets in, so I spent an evening flipping around Netflix and stumbled across it amongst the suggestions the service so all-knowingly provides. Never let it be said that wisdom will overpower insomnia, as I did the dumb thing and cued up the movie, and alas, two hours and fifteen minutes later, I find that I’m going to have a very long day at work the next day, and that my take on this flick hasn’t changed.
Just as I remembered, almost all of the parts here are wonderful, except for one very essential property: a worthwhile hero. The plot comes from a novella of the same name, written by author Jim Harrison, whose work has been compared favorably to Faulkner’s and Hemmingway’s. Of course, I’ve not read the source material, so I cannot speak as to how faithfully Zwick and his screenwriters adapted Tristan’s actions for the big screen. I can (and will) speak of the film, and will state that the movie is not horrible at all, because it has several good things going for it. The locations are lushly photographed, the costumes and sets are perfectly detailed, and all of the performances are terrific, even Pitt’s. Here’s an example of how one can assemble the perfect cast, the perfect director and the perfect crew in the perfect setting and begin to make a can’t-miss film, only to end up with something less than perfect. It is not the performance of Pitt’s character that lessens this film; it is the character itself.
Legends of the Fall has the feel of a grand American Epic, in the fashion of Red River and The Big Country (both of which are amongst my favorite Westerns of all time). The story winds through the years after World War I and the Prohibition era, with the characters aging and changing as they advance in years and alter their outlook on the world. In that sense, it is an epic. However, in the course of the epic events happening in these characters’ world, we’re presented a case study of a family that is dysfunctional in epic proportions, and the obvious hero of the entire story is so self-centered, immature and asinine in his choices and behavior that I can feel no sympathy for him, only for the folks whom his choices affect, often disastrously so.
Leaving a woman who loves him alone with HIS family for years while he wanders the Earth in “search of himself” (and not even having the decency to drop her off in Europe with HER family while he’s headed that way) is just one of numerous instances where this odd son puts those closest to him through absolute Hell. I’m reluctant to go into much more detail, because as I much as I may loathe this particular character, he is the protagonist of the film and describing his actions in detail would give away too much of the story. But shouldn’t a protagonist be likable, or least bearable? It must suffice to say that while I understand a tragic figure can make for good drama, a selfish, stupid one just makes for a tragically wasted film.