[box cover]

Legends of the Fall: Deluxe Edition

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Julia Ormond

Written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff
From the novel by Jim Harrison

Directed by Edward Zwick


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Review by D.K. Holm                    


Legends of the Fall opened in early 1995, and this writer — then a reviewer for a local weekly — saw it at an advance critics' screening with several others who scammed tickets from a radio station. Everybody crammed themselves into a small auditorium and viewed the picture just before it embarked on its journey to earn $66 million in America for TriStar, and make a matinee idol out of Brad Pitt in the process. I have not seen or even thought about the film much since then, despite its popularity, because at the time I was also bothered by its sexual, or rather romantic politics. I was also way too much under the influence of a colleague who was an outspoken Brad Pitt-hater.

Sadly, this fellow reviewer, now dead, was the epitome of what people imagine movie reviewers to be like: the caricature of the overweight, balding, mean-spirited grudge collector. Ultimately, what this individual suffered from most was the sin of envy. Dubbing the actor, "His Bradness," for this man Pitt became a bête noire. The actor, at least on the screen, represented everything the reviewer was not — cute, slim, successful with women, rich, popular. Thus he had to be a bad actor, a pernicious influence on the art of commercial cinema, a barometer of how far we have fallen, and how easily deluded American women can be. This guy wouldn't shut up about it.

The worst thing about this kind of view is that at the end of the day it doesn't have anything to do with the movie. It also prevents the reviewer from seeing the film clearly. Now, five years later, I can say that Legends of the Fall is a little more interesting than I gave it credit for being at the time. While not wholeheartedly embracing it (the film isn't exactly L.A. Confidential), I can see that what it does, it does well.

It's true that the film was designed by director Edward Zwick and screenwriters Susan Shilliday (I Dreamed of Africa) and William D. Wittliff (A Perfect Storm), from Jim Harrison's novella, to create a romantic icon out of Pitt, or at least his character Tristan Ludlow. Ludlow is the middle, and favorite, son of retired officer William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins). The men now live on a ranch in Montana, their mother having fled back to the East. Tristan is the "wild" one, the golden child who can do no wrong no matter how reckless he may be. A cross between James Dean and Marlon Brando from the '50s, we are invited to admire Tristan as the free spirit we all want to be (if we are guys) and love him (if we are girls), regardless of the virtues of his brothers. They consist of the eldest, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), the serious, responsible one who ends up in politics, and the youngest, Samuel (Henry Thomas), the idealistic but finally rather conventional intellectual who buys into the propaganda that leads the United States into World War I. This happens under the protest of their father, who has seen enough of war (and the first time I saw the movie I kind of sided with the kid; now I see the father's position as the wiser, more politically astute one). Samuel enlists, and then drags his two overly protective brothers along with him. But he leaves behind his fiancé, Susannah (Julia Ormond). When she appears on the scene, dragged back from college by Samuel, the two other boys fall in love with her instantly. And then she instantly falls in love with Tristan (as everybody does).

I'd forgotten just how much stuff there is in Legends of the Fall. The narrative ranges from the southwestern Indian wars, to Montana pastoral, to the trenches of World War I, to Prohibition. There were even further scenes, but Zwick took them out (three of them are on this disc, with commentary). I'm not the biggest fan of Zwick's work. His films are usually watchable, but I find that in the end there's something shallow, sentimental, and manipulative about his work. I found Glory terribly overrated, and I was mystified by the popularity of Legends of the Fall at the time. Now I see what was attractive about it. This film was one of the few movies at the time that successfully captured the look, feel, and scope of a big, old-fashioned Hollywood epic. With its tale torn from the pages of 20th century headlines, and its story of impossible love set against a backdrop of a international turmoil, the film harks back to the way movies used to be. In his own way, Zwick is just as sentimental and backward-looking as Steven Spielberg, but with a different genre of film. If Spielberg wants to be Hitchcock or Capra, Zwick wants to be George Stevens.

Revisting my first my viewing of Legends of the Fall again, I also was irritated that the responsible brother would be held up as an ineffectual pathetic tool in contrast to the Indian-oriented, live-on-the-land, anti-intellectual Tristan. Tristan seemed to be a drumming, chanting, Robert Bly-follower come to life — he's the kind of guy who in reality would be bullying kids at school. In fact, throughout the first half of the movie, the usual form of communication among the brothers is a slug to the arms, in a somewhat transparent effort to make these older men come across as kids. On the other hand, there is a spark of life, and a respect for the world within Tristan (and his character was rendered a little less complex by the cut scenes). Pitt actually does a pretty good job of embodying Tristan (and Pitt doesn't have strong Hollywood record, particularly if accents are demanded). The rest of the cast is quite good as well. Hopkins is an admirable old coot, and Julia Ormond, in only her second movie, is dazzling — today one wonders why her career didn't take off (later articles about her suggested that she hated the whole star-making machine and preferred the idea of producing or directing). The subsidiary cast is excellent throughout, including Paul Desmond as a ranch-hand, Sekwan Auger as the young version of Tristan's future wife, and Gordon Tootoosis as Tristan's mentor and the film's primary storyteller.

*          *          *

Legends of the Fall makes its third appearance on DVD in a new "Deluxe Edition," which offers a new anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), sorely missing on the previous "Special Edition," where the film showed various problems, including marks and dust on the source print and shimmering and pixilation in the transfer. Here, the image is cleaner and far more presentable.

Most features are sourced the previous DVD release, including the commentary by Zwick and Pitt. This was the second Pitt commentary I'd heard, and he is actually always pretty good, both funny and informative (my deceased colleague must be turning in his lonely grave). There was a time when directors such as Hawks and Ford and Hitchcock would be loath to reveal a single little thing they thought about while making a movie. With the advent of commentaries on laser and now DVD, Hollywood is shifting its posture on this matter. Directors today seem eager to talk, analyze, reveal intentions. Zwick not only discusses the logistical burden of this film, but he is very good, along with Pitt, at examining the characters' motivations, and what the filmmakers' intentions were. In addition, there is a very informative commentary by production designer Lilly Kilvert and cinematographer John Toll, who won an Oscar for his work on this film. Three deleted scenes with director's commentary appear. It's a long movie, and Zwick explains carefully why he deleted them. A production-design featurette shows how a street in Vancouver, B.C. was turned into a Montana town (4 min.). Also here is a brief, indifferent "making-of "featurette (6 min.), while an isolated score is on board with its own scene-selection menu. Theatrical trailers have been replaced with trailers for other Sony titles on DVD. Enclosed on the paperboard slipcase is a full-color "scrapbook" with additional cast and crew info.

— D. K. Holm



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