Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Dir. Edward Zwick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond 

The grandeur of Montana demands cinematic epics. Legends of the Fall is another epic. Thankfully it is 30 minutes shorter than The Horse Whisperer. Unfortunately it feels like it is at least 60 minutes longer… 

The Ludlows ranch in wild Montana. The Colonel (Anthony Hopkin) resigned his commission in protest at the American government’s treatment of the natives and settled in this out of the way location to avoid “the madness beyond the mountains”. His wife cannot stand the wildness and she leaves, but not before she has given birth to three sons. Helped by Cree warrior One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis) the Colonel raises the three as a tight-knit family: responsible Alfred (Aidan Quinn), wild Tristan (Brad Pitt) and studious Samuel (Henry Thomas). 

And then Samuel returns from university with a fiancée, Susannah (Julia Ormond). One might almost think she is the first woman the Ludlow boys have ever seen before. They all fall in love with her. And then they all go off to war – against their father’s wishes they head for Canada so that they can sign up and fight in the trenches in France. The battle is not as heroic as they hoped it would be. Alfred gets wounded. Samuel is gassed and killed despite Tristan’s attempts to safeguard him. So Tristan cuts out his heart, daubs himself in his brother’s blood, and goes all Rambo, sneaking about behind the enemy lines and scalping Germans. As you do. This is meant to show how sorrowful and guilty he feels about his brother’s death; I think it shows that he is a borderline sociopath who takes a delight in war-crimes, but each to their own.  

Brad resolved to pay the extra for Gillette in future

Meanwhile back in Montana Alfred develops a yearning for Susannah, which she rebuffs. Susannah develops a yearning for Tristan. He doesn’t rebuff it. Alfred leaves in a huff. And then Tristan leaves too. He takes a gap year (or six) in south-east Asia, sleeping around, taking drugs and generally acting like a hippy (apart from the hunting and killing of rare animals). 

If the film had ended at the point when Tristan deserted Susannah the film would have been salvageable (although it would still have felt like a long film). It doesn’t end there however. There’s Tristan sailing off around the world, there is Alfred becoming a Congressman, there is Tristan coming home, there are bootleggers and gangsters on the mean streets of Helena, there is Tristan going all Rambo again… And I’m sat there watching the clock asking myself when it is going to end The longer it went on the more frustrated I became with the film. And all the while there a Titanic-esque Irish-ish soundtrack, swelling dramatically, desperately trying to get me to emotionally engage with the drama, and I’m sitting there bored senseless. Who am I meant to be cheering for? I think we’re all meant to be following Tristan. Tristan the borderline psychopath, who screwed his dead brother’s fiancé and then deserted her so that he could go off to slaughter wildlife and sleep with tribeswomen. And still everyone loves him. Susannah says that she will wait for him forever, his father suffers a stroke when Tristan is bad mouthed and then is delighted when he returns, his mother comes back to Montana so that his bride can wear her wedding dress – presumably she did not do the same when Alfred got married. At one point Alfred turns to Tristan and says “I followed all of the rules, man’s and God’s. And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more. Samuel, father… and even my own wife.” And I just don’t understand why everyone loves him, and why the audience are expected to. Really, we should be sympathising with Alfred. After all, he follows his heart, he is loyal, and he realises his ambitions. But we don’t really sympathise with him either: he is warped by jealousy. When Samuel dies Colonel Ludlow comments that “He was the best of us.” He was. Samuel is a nice guy. Everyone else is a shit. And I won’t forgive them for making me spend an evening watching them.

What have I learnt about Montana?
Once again we see the vast open plains, the meadows and the rivers and the forests, all backed by the majestic mountains. And we understand why there weren’t any Native Americans in The Horse Whisperer: the US government had turfed them all off their land in the late 19th century. Children were slaughtered, settlements burned. Those who remained had to face prejudice – we see a bartender who doesn’t serve Indians, and we see a family with a “half breed” daughter resigned to the fact that she will never get an education. But the Native Americans seem to be a people who are relics of the past and who have been hunted off the land – much as they themselves strive to hunt grizzly bears off the land too. 

We can understand a bit about the mind-set of those who settle in Montana. The Colonel builds a life here to escape “the madness beyond the mountains”. He has a distrust of government and believes that his family should be self-sufficient with minimal interference. His dislike of government causes him to blow up when Alfred reveals that he is going to stand for Congress. He encourages Tristan to become a bootlegger during Prohibition for the simplest of reasons: “Screw ‘em!” The border with Canada seems quite porous. The Ludlows cross over easily, and go off to fight in the army of a foreign nation, without any come-backs from the US authorities.  

Helena, Montana, is the local centre and is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Even here there were Irish mobsters with the police force in their pockets, growing fat off Prohibition. 

Can we go there?
The Ludlow’s ranch is located somewhere near the headwaters of the Missouri River. The nearest town is Helena, the state capital but only the fifth largest city in Montana.

But, just to show how porous that northern border is, it was shot on location in Canada. The great Montana plains are actually located in Indian territory – the land of the Stoney Nation west of Calgary and east of Banff National Park. The ranch (now gone) was built 16km west of Morley. The trenches of WWI France were also filmed locally, near Bearspaw. Helena was created in Vancouver: Maple Leaf Square in Gastown, and Powell Street in Japantown. Only Brad Pitt got to go abroad – his travels may have looked like New Guinea and Java, but they were actually Ocho Rios in Jamaica. 

Overall Rating: 1/5

No comments:

Post a Comment