Although I don't enjoy picking movies for lists of favorites, if I ordered the appearance of my movie reviews by the relative ranking of my favorite films, this article would have appeared much earlier. I enjoy both westerns and antiwar films. This film combines both those genres and blends in romantic drama with the form of a family saga set in a key formative era for America: the early 20th century. In addition, this movie presents one of the most consistently anti-state attitudes I have encountered in any film regarded as reasonably mainstream.
The movie opens with an interview of a very old American Indian man: One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis). One Stab tells the story of the Ludlows, focusing most on Tristan (Brad Pitt) the middle of three brothers born to Col. William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Isabel (Christina Pickles). However, he also gives background on Col. Ludlow, who attempted to save the Dakota Indians from slaughter. Col. Ludlow's efforts won him both One Stab's loyalty and a thorough disdain for government, which carries through the entire story. He took his family and settled in Montana “to lose the madness over the mountains.”
One Stab describes the oldest son Alfred (Aidan Quinn) as “old even for his years” and the youngest, Samuel (Henry Thomas), as a “treasure” which the others watched over. The boys' mother hated the harsh winters, “She said she was afraid of the bears.” Isabel left one winter and did not return leaving the boys with the Colonel and One Stab. Tristan, who no longer spoke of his mother, went seeking one of those bears (Bart the Bear) and had a dangerous encounter which left a huge impression on him, one that One Stab believed joined Tristan to the bear.
Isabel wrote many letters to those left in Montana. Those letters and others by the major characters provide a clever mechanism for telling the story from multiple narrative viewpoints. Most story segments get their introduction as a letter read by the character doing the writing. In one such instance Isabel writes to the Colonel of Samuel and his meeting Susannah Fincannon (Julia Ormond) “at a Harvard Tea.” Susannah and Samuel plan to wed. In anticipation of this, she comes to Montana to meet the rest of Samuel's family.
In addition to Susannah, Samuel brings news of events in Europe and the first world war. Samuel expresses eagerness to fight the Germans, who he believes have brought a special barbarism to the world. As the Colonel and his sons talk of world events, Susannah meets the others living at the remote ranch: Pet (Tantoo Cardinal), her husband Decker (Paul Desmond) and their daughter Isabel Two (played by Sekwan Auger as a child, and Karina Lombard later as an adult). When Susannah and Isabel Two pick vegetables in the garden they exchange these words: “You're going to marry Samuel.” “That's right.” “I'm going to marry Tristan.” “Then we'll be sisters.”
All seems composed, familial and happy, but “the madness over the mountains” intrudes in the form of war, and Samuel's determination to fight “naked aggression.” Samuel decides to travel to Canada and enlist there. Alfred says he will go with him. Tristan also goes to watch over Samuel. So with the stage previously set for bliss, now tragic prospects take center stage.
I have read reviews which describe this movie's story as a “love triangle,” although at times three sides seem insufficient for the complexity of its relationships. I've also read claims the movie concerns insanity. I believe those summaries woefully inadequate to capture the many aspects of this excellent film. In addition to the outstanding storyline, inventive narration and excellent acting, the musical score contains truly haunting melodies and the cinematography won an Oscar.
Although the story centers on Tristan, the other characters also provide very moving viewpoints. I rank the Colonel as one of my favorite characters in all of film. After seeing Anthony Hopkins play the part, I find it difficult to think anyone else could match his performance. Brad Pitt and especially Aidan Quinn also deserve mention for their fine portrayals. Although Julia Ormond plays the female lead, I found Karina Lombard and her character more to my liking, but everyone who enjoys this film will have their favorites.
I can't think of a film released for general audiences which shows more effectively how both war and prohibition can take free happy lives and pervert them. Yet the film concludes in a generally positive way. Although One Stab might believe “the spirit of the bear” creates the trouble in the lives of the people at the Ludlow ranch, I take a point of view much more akin to the Colonel's. Considering that war and prohibition provide the background for tragic misadventure, and both war and prohibition come directly from the state through force and violence, I believe the state plays “the serpent” in this story of “the fall.” No matter whether one agrees with my assessment, with One Stab, or has another totally different interpretation, I believe those who read this review and watch the film will find a treasure to which they will return many times. I give Legends of the Fall my highest recommendation.