Everything about “Legends of the Fall” shouts epic filmmaking and it is not an altogether unpleasant sound.
Bursting with big country Montana landscapes, big music, big emotions, even big hair, this is highly romanticized, old-fashioned sentimental filmmaking of a type we haven’t seen in a while, the kind of movie where ringlets turn white overnight and no one rides in quietly on a single horse when leading a galloping herd is an option.
Slow moving and at times foolish, too conscious of its ambitions as an epic for its own good, “Legends” does present an easy target. But director Edward Zwick has infused it with so much sheer watchability, it believes so earnestly in its high-gloss doings, that it’s difficult to pull the trigger.
Although it retains the name of the Jim Harrison novella, as admired a piece of American writing as the last 20 years has produced, the most telling thing about “Legends” is how little it has to do with its nominal source material.
For while the Harrison novella is primarily concerned with men, their loneliness and their relationship to each other, the movie has smoothly turned this on its head, both feminizing and Hollywoodizing the narrative by recasting it as a story about three men competing for the same woman.
Expanding some things, condensing others, tossing out a lot of material and adding a heap of invention, screenwriters Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff have, in a way that is almost engaging in its audacity, turned the masculine Harrison into a latter-day Edna Ferber, the patron saint of panoramic Western romances.
In fact, what “Legends” will remind veteran moviegoers of most is the 1956 George Stevens-directed version of Ferber’s “Giant,” with Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond standing in nicely for James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.
Pitt, Quinn and Henry Thomas play the Ludlow brothers--the wild Tristan, the stodgy Alfred and young idealist Samuel--all sons of a rugged colonel (Anthony Hopkins, as usual making the most of a small role) who retires to a remote corner of Montana when he can no longer stomach U.S. Cavalry policy.
With their mother in permanent retreat back East, the boys grow up under the watchful eye of a venerable Cree named One Stab whose tribal affiliation was probably changed from Cheyenne to accommodate Gordon Tootoosis, the Cree actor who has the role.
One Stab is also responsible for much of the film’s voice-over narration, delivered in classic venerable Native American sage fashion. It is One Stab who gets to recite “Legends’ ” topic sentences: “Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and live by what they hear. Such people become crazy. Or they become legends.”
On the eve of World War I, Samuel gets the plot in gear by returning home from Harvard with his fiancee, the beautiful Susannah Fincannon (Julia Ormond). While Alfred and the Colonel dutifully meet the couple at the train station, the ponytailed Tristan, a major hunk who has been outdoors forever doing god knows what, rides up glistening with dirt and sweat.
As soon as Susannah eyes him and archly comments, “So this is Tristan, and does he speak English?” it doesn’t take a Native American sage to realize that trouble will soon be brewing between these previously inseparable sons. All too soon One Stab will be moved to wax aphoristically and say, “You cannot blame the water that freezes in the rock and splits it apart.”
Susannah, only lightly sketched in the novella and described by Harrison as “a frail, lovely girl” is turned by the film into a robust natural woman who is soon roping and riding with the gang. Ormond, whose previous credits include the odd mixture of “Nostradamus,” HBO’s “Stalin” and Peter Greenaway’s “The Baby of Macon,” is the film’s major surprise. An energetic actress, she brings vigor, charm and reality to a part that might have been no more than decorative.
Brad Pitt’s trademark virility is not a surprise, though it is a relief to see him looking so alive after the gloom, doom and pale makeup of “Interview With the Vampire.” An instinctive actor who must emotionally feel a role to be successfully in it, Pitt is perfectly cast in a traditional heartthrob way as the spirited masculine animal whose idea of fun is waking up hibernating bears and seeing what happens, and the screen is more alive whenever he is on it.
What happens to these three brothers, all of whom covet Susannah in their own way, is what “Legends” uncovers, and what a story filled with tears, curses, passion, suffering and any other larger-than-life emotion you can imagine it turns out to be.
Director Zwick orchestrates everything with welcome gusto, and though the result is not as meaningful as it would have you believe, it is undeniably pleasant to have this kind of production to kick around.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and for some sexuality and language. Times guidelines: It includes several acts of violence, including the ripping out of a heart, and a few chaste scenes of lovemaking.
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‘Legends of the Fall’
Brad Pitt: Tristan
Anthony Hopkins: Ludlow
Aidan Quinn: Alfred
Julia Ormond: Susannah
Henry Thomas: Samuel
Karina Lombard: Isabelle Two
Gordon Tootoosis: One Stab
A Bedford Falls/Pangaea production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Edward Zwick. Producers Edward Zwick, Bill Wittliff, Marshall Herskovitz. Executive producer Patrick Crowley. Screenplay by Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff, based on the novella by Jim Harrison. Cinematographer John Toll. Editor Steven Rosenblum. Costumes Deborah Scott. Music James Horner. Production design Lilly Kilvert. Art directors Rick Roberts, Andrew Precht. Set decorator Dorree Cooper. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.