Sony // 1995 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // August 6th, 2003
The men of the Ludlow family. A woman's grace brought them together. Then her passion tore them apart.
A sweeping family epic set against the stunning vistas of Alberta and British Columbia (masquerading as Montana), Legends of the Fall deserves every inch of the 1994 Best Cinematography Oscar given to John Toll (Braveheart, The Thin Red Line). Sadly, while the film takes full advantage of the scenery, a ponderous script squanders the equally impressive cast and the triple-dip Superbit edition of Legends of the Fall tries our patience.
Disgusted by his government and his own work for it, Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) makes his home in the rugged wilderness of early 1900s Montana with the assistance of his devoted servants One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis) and Decker (Pau Desmond). Circumstances leave Col. Ludlow to raise his three sons, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Tristan (Brad Pitt), and Samuel (Henry Thomas), as best he can, though they become as independent and willful as their parents.
Into this quiet life comes dynamite in the person of Susannah Fincannon (Julia Ormond), betrothed to Samuel. She turns the heads of all the Ludlow men, who are pleasantly discomfited at the change in their world. There is little time to enjoy her company, as the drums of World War I are heard even in this remote corner of the West. Over the vehement and personal objections of Col. Ludlow, his boys take up arms with the Canadian Army for King and Country against the Kaiser and his Huns.
As war often does, it pierces the Ludlow family with terrible tragedy. The loss tears at the tightly woven family, pitting brother against brother, and son against father, for years and decades to come.
True, the grace and charm of Susannah unified the men of the Ludlow family in admiration and desire, but it was Samuel's sense of duty, Alfred's jealousy, and Tristan's lust that blew the family apart. Susannah was merely the loveliest catalyst ever known to chemistry to spark such combustion. Ah, well, so much for marketing blurbs!
Legends of the Fall is a grand, sprawling melodrama in which the landscape is as much a force in shaping the lives of the characters as it is a ruggedly handsome backdrop. Without the demands and isolation of the harsh Montana lifestyle, one cannot imagine that the emotional stew of their lives would have bubbled to such piquant heights. At the same time, a well-chosen cast invigorates the characters with a spark of grace and consummate acting skill.
Everyone's favorite fava bean aficionado, Anthony Hopkins (The Remains of the Day, Titus, Red Dragon), conveys the fierce, principled independence of the Ludlow patriarch as much what he does not say, do, or show as the reverse, and Aidan Quinn (Stakeout, Benedict Arnold) convincingly reveals the burden of pain and responsibility of the eldest Ludlow son. The ever graceful Julia Ormond (First Knight, Smilla's Sense of Snow) has a more constrained role than that of her male colleagues, but layers her performance with depth and heart.
On a small personal note, I was happy to see Christina Pickles (Romeo + Juliet) pop up as the estranged Ludlow matriarch. I lived to watch St. Elsewhere during my formative years, and remember her Helen Rosenthal quite fondly.
The promise of the ingredients of Legends of the Fall is ultimately unfulfilled by the execution in the hands of director/producer Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, Glory, Shakespeare in Love). I watched Legends of the Fall with a friend and my wife, and barely halfway through the film, we spoke with one voice: when would this be over? I quipped, "when everyone is dead!" Sadly, I was not too far off.
Legends of the Fall comes off as uninterested in its destination as it meanders through the Ludlow family soap opera, leaving the audience to wonder whether the trip was worth the effort. The ponderous build-up but evident purpose of the first act loses its momentum in an unfocused wallow through the aftermath of the Ludlow family tragedy. Though the film runs just a dozen minutes over two hours, the lack of any urgency or purpose to the storytelling makes it seem much longer and numbs our emotional receptors. If we don't have any sense of purpose or destination, it makes it much harder to care about the journey. Don't just tell the story, let us inside it! This is the flaw at the heart of Legends of the Fall.
For a disc that proclaims itself as a Superbit title that "sets a new benchmark in high resolution DVD picture and sound, creating the ultimate in home entertainment," I would have expected the video transfer to be as near to perfection as human hands can achieve. By the usual standards of DVD authoring, Legends of the Fall (Superbit) is excellent. The picturesque geography of the West and Julia Ormond's radiance are presented in their full glory, with a crisp, clean picture, well saturated colors, and the banishment of digital artifacting (unless some slipped past me when I wasn't looking!).
However, when expecting perfection, the presence of even slight but persistent blips and flecks and such becomes keenly evident. Just to pick another example, during the scene where Tristan is grief-stricken at the graveside (at about 54:46), I noticed several fine but clear scratches in varying positions. Come now, Columbia, this "sets a new benchmark"? Were I in charge of Columbia TriStar, for each title to be released under the Superbit banner I would spend the necessary funds to have the video restored to a state so clean you could eat off of it. If Columbia were to do so, and be seen to make Superbit a premier manner of DVD authoring, then the marketing hype will be more reality and less puffery.
The audio track for this cinematographer's dream is also well done. However, as my predecessor noted, the original film was presented in Dolby Surround and therefore these admittedly fine tracks are remixes. Purists are likely to remain offended, but the rest of us are unlikely to notice. The audio stretches its surround and subwoofer legs occasionally, during the World War I battle sequences and with the James Horner (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Glory) score, but more often contents itself to a more modest but pleasing sound. My only real audio complaint is that music is supposed to complement the story, as a spice enhances the main dish. With Legends of the Fall, the music is omnipresent and never shuts up, to the point it becomes a weakness rather than a strength. As any interrogator can tell you, silence is a powerful weapon when used strategically, which is a lesson Edward Zwick forgot here.
Brad Pitt (Interview with the Vampire, Se7en, Fight Club) has the looks and manner well suited to the free spirited Tristan, but comes up short in the emotive department. A vacant face and flowing locks are not a substitute for looking thoughtful or conveying a true sense of emotion, even if a few fluttering hearts in the audience might confuse the two.
This is my first encounter with a Superbit title, but color me unimpressed. I'm all for high standards for quality in video and audio, but the Superbit line strikes me more as marketing than a substantive advance. While I agree that in general having more space available for video and audio bandwidth is a good idea, I think the skill of the compressionist and the authoring process is probably a much more significant factor. I say that not with any particular knowledge of the technical issues, but only as a DVD collector who has seen quite a number of stunning discs in the audio/video department that do not throw the extras baby out with the bandwidth bathwater.
Even if there is a technical superiority of the Superbit moniker, I question why such a title could not include extras on a second disc. Two disc sets are quite common these days, and I bet that people who want the best possible audio/video presentation just might want a side helping of extras for their collection.
Given the current $12 price premium of the Superbit edition versus the Special Edition of Legends of the Fall, I would be wary of spending the extra cash unless you are personally convinced of the Superbit mystique or have seen the Special Edition and feel the Superbit presentation is superior. Esteemed former Chief Justice Sean McGinnis had high praise for the Special Edition, so Superbit buyers beware!
Legends of the Fall: Superbit Collection is a visual treat, but guilty of inducing a bad case of makes-me-want-to-fast-forward-itis. Columbia is guilty of needless triple-dip marketing, at least until they get around to releasing Legends of the Fall: Superbit Special Edition Collection.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R