The Hero’s Journey in “Legends of the Fall”

“Legends of the Fall” is an epic Western saga about a beautiful woman from back East, and the three sons of a Montana rancher who loved her and fought for her, told against the backdrop of World War I. The movie stars Anthony Hopkins as Col. Ludlow, whose distaste for the U.S. Cavalry’s treatment of the Indians has led him to carve out an empire of his own in Montana. His wife, having borne him three sons, has repaired to the comforts of the East, leaving the Colonel to see them grow to manhood. There’s Alfred (Aidan Quinn), the oldest and most responsible. Tristan (Brad Pitt), the middle son, whose idea of entertainment is to awaken hibernating bears and cut out their still-beating hearts. And there’s Samuel (Henry Thomas), the youngest.

The movie opens with portentous narration by One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), the Indian who is the Colonel’s most trusted friend. One Stab talks in the same kind of slightly hoarse, slightly musical profundity used by many Indians in the movies. Just as all airline pilots are said to have speech patterns influenced by Chuck Yeager, so many movie Indians seem to model their vocal style on the late Chief Dan George. We have a feeling One Stab’s narration will not be able to entirely avoid the words of the movie’s title, and we are correct.

Soon Samuel returns from the east with Susannah, a young woman who is his fiancee. She is played by Julia Ormond. She is strong, capable, beautiful and high-spirited, able to ride, rope and shoot.

The Colonel hates war and the Army, and wants his boys to settle down in Montana and run the ranch. But Samuel is much disturbed. He is a virgin who seeks advice from his brothers, and perhaps feels uncertain about his prowess. Maybe that, along with patriotism, is involved in his decision to go to Canada and enlist when World War I breaks out. The Colonel is outraged, but the other two sons enlist, too, and we are asked to decide which is the more unlikely: That all three would end up on the same battlefield, or that Tristan would not be required by the British to cut his flowing blond locks.

In one way or another Susannah figures in the lives of all three of the sons, against a background of the changing West, as cities grow and prohibition benefits a thriving criminal class. The Colonel meanwhile grows older and more infirm, in one of those strange Anthony Hopkins performances that steals every scene with its air of brooding, motionless menace.

“Legends of the Fall” is enormously entertaining, a throwback to the days when Hollywood didn’t apologize for passionate stories involving three brothers whose fates are intertwined with that of a legendary woman, as they’re all outlined against the Big Sky.