Saturday, March 22, 2014

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Director: Edward Zwick                                      Writer: Susan Shilliday & William Wittliff
Film Score: James Horner                                  Cinematography: John Toll
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond

As bad as the acting is in this film, I still enjoyed the story. And I can’t say the acting was intrinsically bad. I have a feeling that it was the direction rather than the actors themselves. Though Edward Zwick has been known for some exceptional modern epics like Glory, The Last Samurai and Defiance, it really felt to me like Legends of the Fall was a lesser effort, despite the obvious effort that went into the production. The film was based on the novella by Jim Harrison, a third person story that is spare in its details and leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination, and which was filled in amply by screenwriters Susan Shilliday and William Wittliff. What the novella perhaps does better, is give much more insight into the characters thoughts rather than relying simply on what they say or the rather ponderous first-person dialogue of the narrator in the film.

The story concerns Anthony Hopkins, an American army colonel who had emigrated from Cornwall in England. During the Indian wars he became so disenchanted with his American experience that he moved out to the remote wilds of Montana with his wife, Christina Pickles, and Native American companion Gordon Tootoosis to build a ranch. The couple have three sons who grow up in the wilderness, the eldest Aidan Quinn, the middle child Brad Pitt, and the youngest Henry Thomas. After Pickles decides she can’t stand the hard winters, she moves back East and Thomas is the only one who goes to visit her. On one trip he falls in love with Julia Ormond, who has no family and is more likely captivated by his tales of the wilderness than anything intrinsic in him. She agrees to marry him and when he brings her home two things happen instantly, Quinn falls in love with her and she falls in love with Pitt.

Meanwhile Thomas, clearly out of his league with Ormond, is so bent on defending democracy when World War One breaks out that he never marries her and in essence forces his other two brothers to go along with him in order to protect him. The hell of The Great War, as it was for nearly all who fought in it, was nothing like what they imagined it to be and it not only forces them to lose the innocence they grew up with out in the West, but tears them apart as brothers. When seen in this way their competition for Ormond is merely the visual representation of the struggle they all suffer with, to break free of the childhood bonds that kept them together in the past and become their own people as adults. Brad Pitt is the most strongly effected, and his story is really the centerpiece of the film. He grew up being tutored by Tootoosis and is mercifully free of the prejudice of the white man. But he is a changed man after the war, and what he saw and did there haunts him until he has to leave everything behind, including Ormond.

First off, it’s not a bad film. But there are things about it that don’t allow it to rise to the level of greatness. The fight that the young Pitt has with a bear is too contrived and lacking in suspense to be believed. And while the emotion in the adult Pitt seems genuine, there is no feeling for his struggle in the way that the first person narrative of something like Dances with Wolves lets us into the though process of Kevin Costner. Likewise, the other characters parade across the screen emoting, but are unable to engage the audience with only Tootoosis to provide a minimum of narration. As a result Hopkins seems too distant, Quinn too petulant, Thomas too simple, and Pitt too perfect to allow any investment in them as characters. Ormand is perhaps the best of the bunch because she tells the men how she feels, but she’s not enough to carry the picture by herself. Legends of the Fall is a good story, with some genuine surprises along with the predictable twists, but it’s not the masterpiece it could have been in different hands.

No comments:

Post a Comment