‘Legends of the Fall” is the kind of sprawling period family epic that makes for juicy TV miniseries and if it weren’t for its big-name cast, that’s probably what it would have been.
But with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn as headliners, it’s not only on the big screen, but here in time for Academy Award consideration. In fact, it’s far more deserving of a soap opera award.
For all its scenic photography and distinguished performers, the screen adaptation of Jim Harrison’s novella is embarrassingly overwrought and melodramatic. Even as you’re reaching for the Kleenex you’re wishing director and producer Edward Zwick might have found a subtler way to follow the Ludlow family from crisis to crisis.
Hopkins plays Col. William Ludlow, who retires from military service in disgust at the government’s duplicitous treatment of American Indians. With his faithful Cree sidekick One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis) in tow, Ludlow settles on a remote Montana ranch and fathers three sons by a wife who eventually abandons the wilderness for the comforts of the civilization Ludlow despises.
Ludlow loves all three of his boys, but he is especially attached to the middle son, Tristan (Pitt), the most independent of the three and the one most at home in the wilderness (when he kills, has no problem wrenching the heart from his prey). While the three boys are close, the oldest son, Alfred (Quinn), gets no credit for playing by the rules and resents it; the youngest, Samuel (“E.T.” kid Henry Thomas, all grown up), is the idealistic, beloved baby of the family.
Samuel changes the course of the brothers’ lives irrevocably when he returns from college with his fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond); both his brothers are smitten instantly by this beautiful, spirited woman, and she clearly feels more than a sisterly attraction to Tristan. However, nothing untoward happens until Samuel announces that he has enlisted in the Canadian army to fight in World War I.
The boys’ father is enraged - this is precisely the sort of thing he had moved to Montana to avoid. But first Alfred and then Tristan wind up enlisting as well, mainly to protect Samuel for Susannah’s sake. Despite Tristan’s best efforts, Samuel is killed in battle, Alfred begs Susannah to marry him and she rejects him in favor of an uncertain future with a guilt-ridden Tristan.
The resulting rift between Alfred and Tristan persists and deepens, eventually injuring just about all their loved ones including Susannah, their father and the daughter (Karina Lombard) of a ranch hand (Paul Desmond) and his American Indian wife (Tantoo Cardinal).
The film performances are for the most part heartfelt and lovingly captured in lots of lingering close-ups; Pitt clearly identifies with the wild, free spirit he lobbied to play long before he became famous, and Hopkins lends Ludlow the imposing presence his patriarchal figure calls for, even in the wake of a debilitating stroke.
Newcomer Ormond is simply exquisite in a weepy role, and Quinn manages to make Alfred something more than a completely insensitive jerk. Lombard is stuck with a woefully sketchy character, however.
But none of the people here feel fully realized. Even the framing of the tale as a flashback by One Stab feels cornball instead of mystical, the quality for which Zwick appeared to be aiming. Harrison, after all, was interested in myths and archetypes; unfortunately, most of the book arrives on screen as a collection of stock situations and stereotypes.
MEMO: This is a sidebar that appeared with the story: “Legends of the Fall” is playing at East Sprague, Newport and Showboat cinemas. Directed by Edward Zwick and starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond. Rated R