Film review: Legends of the Fall

Hunky Pitt is out of his range, but Hopkins and Quinn put on a fine show.

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 17 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

Brad Pitt is the hunk of the moment, and "Legends of the Fall" will only further cement his big-screen, romantic leading-man status. And he is satisfying as the internalized, rebellious Tristan (look for that name to be given to more than a few babies over the next few years). Even if the character seems only a slight twist on the similar role he played in "A River Runs Through It." (He even becomes a bootlegger!)

But being a hunk isn't the same as being an actor, and while Pitt seems more at ease here than he was in "Interview With the Vampire," there's little question that his range is overtaxed.

And it doesn't help that "Legends of the Fall" is really just an epic-scale soap opera with a Western sensibility. Think of this as "Bonanza," with a more brooding brood.

The film begins with a prelude that introduces the patriarch of the clan, Col. William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), who becomes embittered by the way his country treats American Indians. Disenchanted, he retires from the military and moves to Montana with his three sons — the wild Tristan, the stoic Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and the young, naive Samuel (Henry Thomas — yes, "E.T.'s" Elliott, all grown up!).

The central plot has Samuel bringing home his fiancee, Susannah (Julia Ormond), which, of course, sets jealousies in motion as both Alfred and Tristan fall in love with her. (Wasn't that an occasional "Bonanza" plot, as well?)

Before Samuel and Susannah can marry, however, World War I breaks out in Europe, and Samuel expresses his desire to go to Canada and enlist — wants to go and fight the good fight, though it is against his father's wishes. So, Alfred and Tristan join up, too, to look after Samuel.

Without giving too much away, let's just say that the competition for Susannah's hand only heats up after the war, as Alfred struggles with inner turmoil, desiring to do the right thing, and Tristan becomes an outcast, traveling around the world and tasting exotic forbidden fruits before returning home.

"Legends of the Fall" is big, bombastic and in the hands of director Edward Zwick ("Glory"), a bit much. In fact, it seems at times like little more than an overblown television miniseries.

But audiences probably won't mind, thanks to the expanse of the production and the bigness of the stars, which fully utilize the power of the big screen.

Zwick takes full advantage of his lavish locations (Calgary, Alberta, and Vancouver, British Columbia), manages to capture the period very well and knows how to manipulate an audience.

As for the cast, Hopkins is great as Pa Cartwright . . . er, that is, Col. Ludlow, even after his character suffers a stroke and he is forced to retire to the background. (It is also unfortunate that his post-stroke expression and mannerisms bring to mind "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a role Hopkins played in a 1982 TV movie.) And Quinn proves once again that he is a talent to be reckoned with, perhaps one of the best underrated actors in modern movies.

Pitt isn't bad, relying heavily on his natural charisma, but there's a coldness to him that occasionally seems at odds with the fire Tristan should possess. Ormond is terrific in the film's first half, when her character is developed as a riled-up, independent woman of ideas. In the second half, however, she seems little more than a device to motivate the male characters. (There are also some wonderful supporting players, most notably Gordon Tootoosis, Tantoo Cardinal and Paul Desmond as Col. Ludlow's ranchhands.)

There is nothing new here, and the film certainly could have used more humor. But the story is told in rich, bold colors — and very broad strokes — all of which adds up to a fairly entertaining evening at the movies. Even if it qualifies more as guilty pleasure than great cinema.

"Legends of the Fall" is rated R for considerable violence, some gore, profanity, vulgarity and sex and nudity.

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