Legends of the Fall (1994)

A defense of Legends of the Fall? Really? Is this really what the world needs? Shouldn’t this space be used for something more worthwhile, like an examination of Renée Zellweger’s face? Is a treatise on Battlefield Earth up next? Lest there be any doubt: Legends of the Fall is a deeply, deeply flawed movie full of stiff writing, stiff acting, and a healthy dose of that cringeworthy unexplainable badness reserved for a particular class of film (though, no, not as bad as Battlefield Earth). It’s unbearably soapy, it’s long, and we’re expected to take ridiculously sappy scenes like this with utter seriousness:

Ah, man hugs. Can we ignore stuff like this? Should we? Maybe not. But still, somehow, inexplicably, in spite of stiff writing, stiff acting, unbearable soapiness, absurd sequences like the one above – in spite of all that, Legends of the Fall is one of the most epic standalone sagas ever filmed.

Edward Zwick has reached for epic heights with a few of his films – Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond and Defiance being the ones that come to mind – and made a name for himself as a “big” filmmaker by handling emotional, intimate character moments inside these large-scale, big-budget blockbusters. Legends of the Fall comes from a novella by Jim Harrison (who also wrote another 1994 film, Wolf, with Jack Nicholson) which is basically 97% description and 3% dialogue, all of it embedded inside the aforementioned descriptions, causing the novella to resemble a journal more than a piece of fiction. Some of it is beautifully written, sure, but it’s probably easy to see why the film version is chock-full of poor writing; Zwick’s movie captures the overall tone of Harrison’s story, but seems to have no idea what to do about the dialogue.

An “epic” is arguably harder to describe than any other genre – if Legends of the Fall were an action movie, we could say the dialogue sucked – but the action was great! If it were a space odyssey: the dialogue sucked – but great special effects! As is, I can’t just convince you straight away that Legends is indeed epic. What the hell is an epic? We might slide Ben-Hur, Titanic, Lawrence of Arabia, The Return of the King, and 2001: A Space Odyssey into this category, but in terms of story and setting and character and tone these films have very little to do with one another. Yes, these movies were all expensive, but that’s not what links them here – as usual, Roger Ebert illustrates my point more succinctly:

What you realize watching Lawrence of Arabia is that the word epic refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God didn’t cost as much as the catering in Pearl Harbor, but it is an epic, and Pearl Harbor is not.

The ideas and the vision in Legends of the Fall simply can’t be described any other way: this is a story that spans generations, depicts entire lives as they rise and fall, shows brotherhoods, loves, vendettas, redemptions, sacrifices. There is a mid-film war sequence that puts entire war films to shame in scope and vision. The three Ludlow brothers grow over the course of the three-hour runtime from young boys with dreams of everything to young men with dreams of glory and success; they attempt that glory, some do succeed while others fail, and they go on; they marry and watch their father pass, they reunite, they age. Legends of the Fall is filmed epically – out in “Big Sky Country” – but again, it’s the sheer unmatched ambitiousness that makes the film so gigantic.

Tristan Ludlow is a young role for Brad Pitt, so he’s largely the smoldering starey silent manly man throughout Legends (which, admittedly, befits Tristan). It’s Aidan Quinn who has the toughest role as eldest Ludlow brother Alfred, spurned by his lover, unfavored by his father (until that man hug in the clip above), and holder of some of the only dialogue in the film that isn’t completely worthless. Another point of defense for Legends is that these characters are memorable, despite the laughable way they sometimes talk and act. They’re well drawn, and they exist inside the epic scope of the film in a mostly-comfortable way. Ultimately, it always feels as if the next scene with these brothers will be the best one – these characters have as much potential as the ideas and vision of Legends, and need only be utilized well to make fantastic drama.

Since it will almost certainly happen someday, since nothing is safe from the endless parade of remakes and reboots, since even f*cking Battlefield Earth will probably get remade, let it be known that you heard it here first: given everything we’ve just educed about epic storytelling, Legends of the Fall would make a hell of a television show. The ideas are suitably massive, and the characters and dialogue stretched out over the course of seasons would give enough time to live in each of these distinct moments (childhood, young adulthood and leaving home, wartime, return after war, marriage, old age) and really watch the Ludlow brothers relate to one another and to the world around them. The quality of television these days is such that Zwick’s “big camera” could be replicated as well, and that Legends the TV show could be every bit as epic as Legends the film. To boot, it could actually have some solid writing.

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