Among the culturally uncool things I love is the widely mocked 1994 movie Legends of the Fall. It gets a 57 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which constitutes a “splat,” with reviewers calling it melodramatic, silly, bloated, and a soap-opera romance. But 87 percent of the general audience (and a few film critics too) enjoyed it. I’m with them, and here’s why:
The movie is sweeping and grand and epic in a way that completely takes you out of your world. The viewer is sucked into the world of the Ludlow family and its three brothers, Alfred, Tristan, and Samuel, living in early-twentieth-century Montana. It follows the brothers from their simple, innocent childhood in the spectacular wilderness of the American West into adulthood where chaos enters their lives. Samuel becomes engaged to the lovely Susannah, who arrives from the East. Then the brothers go off to fight in World War I, where Samuel meets his end. Drama and complication pile up after this point, as Susannah and the boys’ father (played by Anthony Hopkins) navigate grief and their changed relationships with one another. Susannah’s situation is especially odd since she is the recipient of much romantic attention from the surviving two brothers and is living as something of an interloper on this ranch in Montana. Of course there’s more, but the plot, on its surface, revolves around the various love triangles that ensue. Notice, I say “on its surface,” because, truly, there is so much more to this movie.
First, we should address the elephant in the room, and that is that some might accuse the movie of being a tad cheap in its naked appeal to our senses. The story is backdropped against the spectacular beauty of the Montana landscape. And the intimate family dramas take place within the Ludlow family’s spectacular log house. Of course the actors are all extremely good looking too. Susannah is played by Julia Ormond, whose impossibly lovely bone structure and smooth skin are framed by luscious, soft curls. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt is at his zenith. He is the world’s manliest man who ever manned. It’s ludicrous. So, yes, the movie has a lot of eye candy for everyone.
But as I said, it’s got so much more than that. I love the movie for its moments of subtlety—yes, I say that Legends of the Fall has moments of subtlety. In between the melodrama and soaring music are quieter moments.There are characters and elements of the plot and visuals that all allude to things outside of the story: to history, to loss, to time, to nostalgia.
For example, we are constantly reminded of the recent “Indian Wars,” evoking not only that specific military history but also the history of the American West before it was “settled.” We think of the people who lived in Montana—and the West in general—before the American government seized it. Not only are we reminded of this tangentially in references to the US military’s campaigns but in the voice that runs through the story. You see, the narrator of the story is One Stab, a friend of the family and an elder from the Cree nation. The boys’ father is a retired military man who worked with, and ultimately fought against, the American government during the Indian Wars. We hear of his disgust and horror at what his country had done. Presumably he befriended One Stab during this time in his life? In any case, that entire history and world kind of overshadows the story, which is interesting and poignant. You could say the same thing, to a lesser degree, about other historical events: World War I and Prohibition, most notably.
There’s also that element that is perhaps most made fun of in the movie, which is how it’s so epic and over the top and messy. There is so much awful stuff that happens to this poor family in the short 133 minutes of viewing time. But to me, that mess is the whole point of the story. It’s a story about entropy, about how life is messy and complicated. It shows how things have a tendency to spiral out of control. Messiness builds on itself. As partner to that idea, the movie seems to be, at its core, about memory, about the passage of time, about the ghosts of what might have been.
What might the West have been like had the US not cruelly seized the land for itself? Would it have been possible for the country to have had a less tragic history? And what about the tragedy of this family, which is but one family touched by the events of its time? What might have happened had the boys not gone off to fight in World War I? What might have happened had Samuel survived? What might have happened if Susannah had never come West?
The imagery in the movie consistently reminds us of the eponymous “fall” from grace: the emptiness at the dinner table when the boys are off at war; the overgrown tennis court and sagging net where we earlier watched the happy, virile brothers trying to impress Susannah; the constant changing of the seasons; the physical decline of Anthony Hopkins’s character; the expanding number of headstones in the family cemetery. Time is an essential character in this movie; it marches on, and as bad things happen to the characters, we are reminded of how much has changed since the story began. It’s something we can all relate to on some level I think.
When I first saw this movie, in the fall of 1994, I had just started high school. I was in a new school district with kids that had known each other since kindergarten. Though I was used to being an outsider, it was still hard. My mom was in graduate school and was struggling to find her way too, after years as a stay-at-home mom. We were both die-hard introverts who relished our down time together on the weekends. We hated Sunday nights, which heralded the return of the school week and its inherent anxieties. So my mom started a Sunday movie night tradition. We’d finish our homework and head out to the movie theater, staving off the inevitable Sunday-night blues.
My mom and I shared a love of sweeping, epic movies. We shared a fascination with American history, especially the history of the West. We swooned over rugged Western landscapes, and we liked beautiful things. So off we went one evening to Hickory Point Cinema to see this movie that looked like it might tick off some of those boxes. Lo! Legends of the Fall was made for us. It was especially right for us at that moment, when we both needed something to take us outside of ourselves and remind us of something bigger. We needed its soaring emotion and melodrama and beauty. You hear about couples having “their song”? Well, for me and my mom—until the day she died—this was our movie. It spoke our language.
I’ve written about this before, but what gets me now when I watch Legends of the Fall (after I get over the distraction that is peak Brad Pitt) is not only the story, which I still defend, but how it is something of a time capsule. I am reminded of watching the movie with my mom at the movie theater in 1994, I remember the gazillions of times I watched it with my mom over the next twenty-two years, I remember forcing it on my friends in college and on my husband who was not the audience for this type of film at all but has come to appreciate the movie too. I love this aspect of art. I love how it grips us on its own merits at the start but then takes on a life of its own as it works in dialogue with our own lives. Art (whether that’s a movie or music or a sculpture or a building) is never ever static. And the best art becomes a part of your own story.
As One Stab says, “It is hard to tell of happiness. Time goes by and we feel safe too soon.” Ouf.