There is a Dickensian quality to this film's raw depiction of such grand themes as love, adventure, sibling rivalry, loss, and death. To savor and enjoy this film, give free rein to your emotions.
You should also know that the destiny of one of the characters is shaped by his battle with a bear in the wilderness. In some Native American traditions, bears are sacred animals with incredible transformative powers. Those they touch are never the same again but become restless and wild.
The story, which is set during the early years of the 20th century, revolves around a Montana family. Colonel William Ludlow abandons his career in the U.S. cavalry on account of the government's unjust and violent treatment of the Plains Indians. When his wife leaves him for a more civilized life in the East, he raises his three sons Alfred, Tristan, and Samuel with the help of several retainers and his friend One Stab, a Cree warrior who served with him in the cavalry. This wise Native American passes on his wisdom to Tristan, Ludlow's favorite son. This boy is the one who miraculously survives a battle with a bear.
In 1913, Samuel Ludlow returns from school in the East and introduces his fiancee Susannah to the family. Alfred, the oldest brother, falls in love with her at first sight, but she seems drawn to Tristan.
Despite his father's disapproval, Samuel volunteers to serve in the European World War. His brothers go along to look after him. When Samuel dies, Alfred blames Tristan for negligence. The relationship between these two is shattered when Susannah chooses Tristan as her lover. But unable to handle his guilt and grief, this gypsy in buckskin leaves her behind for the open road.
Legends of the Fall is set against the rugged landscape of the West where passions and prejudices tangle. Producer and director Edward Zwick emphasizes the vast appetites of these characters whose emotions engender conflict in both private and public arenas. Brad Pitt rides tall in the saddle as the enigmatic and volatile Tristan. Julia Ormond is suitably vivacious and conflicted as Susannah. Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn register well as a combative father and his eldest son.
In an interview following the release of his novella Legends of the Fall, Jim Harrison said, "I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments and take a chance on being corny than die a smartass." Director Zwick would concur. The film unfolds in the same spirit and lays down the same challenge.