"Legends of the Fall" is soap opera for men.
It's about legends in the mind of dreamy city boys who couldn't find the sky without a map that points up. It's full of junk, fundamentally a romantic yearning for the lost power of well-born white men (which it disguises by cloaking itself in political correctness) and other absurdist romantic conceits: poetic killers, loyal women with cheekbones like the Arch of Triumph, subservient but virtuous and wise Indians, handsome clothes straight out of those pretentious Ralph Lauren spreads in Vanity Fair, and that rarest of all birds, the good death.
That's the one I like the best, the good-death bit. At the end of the film, one of the heroes dies a good death at the hands of a teed-off grizzly bear. Of course, to get a good death out of the spasm of violence that is an animal's attack, one must smear a pabulum of sentimentality on the lens. Hazy focus, muted colors, ringing music are a must. Otherwise the reality that it's the most violent, painful and degrading death available in nature might become evident. Anyone calling it "good" doesn't know what he's talking about, which is generally true of the film.
Set between roughly 1914 and 1930, "Legends of the Fall" follows a tribe of men on a big ranch: a father and his three sons, each of whom has a single defining characteristic. One is called Hoss, the other Adam, and the third Little Joe. Oh, no, all right: one is called Cain, the other Abel, and the third Little Cain. Oh, for the last time, all right: they are Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Tristan (Brad Pitt) and Samuel (Henry Thomas, once "E.T.'s" best buddy).
To make things really irritating, the story is narrated in bogus Native-Americanspeak to give it a dimension of poetic drivel that's quite enough, thank you. One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis) recalls the intertwined gyres of the Ludlow boys, particularly Tristan, who "hears his own inner voice with great clearness and lives by what he hears."
The three are the progeny of old Colonel Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), an ex-Indian fighter turned peacenik. Just a little bit ahead of his time, he hated the Indian wars he had to fight and the exploitation of the Indians, but that didn't stop him from acquiring a huge spread on former Indian territory and hiring no ++ end of stoop Native American labor to perform the skunk jobs on the place.
It's a kind of demi-Eden in which each boy is free to pursue his star until . . . the woman shows up. Played by the beautiful Julia Ormond, Susannah arrives as the fiance of young idealistic Harvard student Samuel, but her presence is so erotically galvanizing that she totally miswires the family circuits. Both wild and outdoorsy Tristan and grimly ambitious Alfred take one look and begin to yearn secretly, but nobly.
The apple cart is truly upset when young Samuel insists on racing off to defend Western Civilization against the Hun by joining the Canadian army and getting into the Big Show. Of course, the other two are too darn noble to make time with Susannah while he's gone, so they go off too, sworn to protect him.
War being war, such pledges don't prove easy to keep: Samuel ends up hung out on the wire for German machine-gun practice (the World War I sequences are the film's most harrowing, as director Edward Zwick learned his battlefield maneuvers on "Glory"). Alfred, a staff officer, blames Tristan, a scout, for letting it happen to advance Tristan's cause with Julia.
This sets guilt-wracked Tristan out on a lost odyssey in which he gives himself over to masculinity's darker pleasures, roaming the seas as a trader and professional hunter, honing his killer skills (which first were expressed in his vengeance on the Germans back in the trenches), whoring, drinking, and growing his blond hair really long, thereby generally exiling himself from the community of the well-born.
The self-hatred that courses through Tristan has an odd commonality with Pitt's work in the equally picturesque and solemn "A River Runs Through It." In both, he's the younger brother with a penchant toward self- destruction and a gift for violence who suffers by turning his best side to the camera. It was unconvincing there as it is here.
When Tristan returns, he finds that Alfred has married Julia and taken her to the hated "city" (Missoula, one presumes, though it's unnamed), where he's become a congressman and fallen in with a mob of Irish gangsters who run the town. By the way, for a movie that claims to be so politically correct, it has no qualms about ascribing the worst kind of stereotyping to the ethnic Irish, who are universally slandered as rapacious gangsters.
By this time, Hopkins has exiled Alfred from his affections and so mourns the loss of Tristan that he's had a stroke that turns him into Charles Laughton as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Really, watching Hopkins chew the fat, the scenery and most of the crew's doughnuts is the one thoroughly amusing pleasure "Legends of the Fall" yields as it plays out the Susannah-Tristan-Alfred love triangle, building to an inept and unconvincingly staged gunbattle, in which the Ludlows finally have it out with the Irish boys of the city.
What "Legends of the Fall" lacks is any spirit of rigor. It buys into -- indeed, is selling -- the oldest of guff: the idea that the violence of banal men is beautiful and righteous. It honors male anger. I'm tempted to contrast it with the as yet unopened "Cobb," which examines Tyrus Raymond Cobb's burning furies.
"Cobb" is rigorous and honest and understands the price of male anger, and how it isolates and degrades its holder even as it may propel him toward greatness. "Legends of the Fall" worships the red shift of men gone nuts on vengeance. It romanticizes gunplay. It's a big movie that's so small on the inside it's not there.
"Legends of the Fall"
Starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn
Directed by Edward Zwick
Released by Tri-Star