THE NATURE OF AN EPIC:
The art of filmmaking is very much akin to observing details of a particular way of life under a microscope . I would like to call it a miniaturized life script condensed to an adequate running time within which a plot unfolds in all its glory. An inner world with all its attendant highs and lows is miraculously transported to the screen and finer points are furnished with enough gravitas to affect us and enter our conscience . LEGENDS OF THE FALL is suitably designed as an epic of stirring proportions and it succeeds.
This brings me to the eternal question, ‘ what is an epic?’ I will not try to regurgitate a dictionary meaning here. For me as in this film and other examples, an epic journey is one that telescopes some higher, transcendental undertaking for an individual. It sounds like a strictly cinematic term and human modesty makes us refrain from using it spuriously. But from The Grapes of Wrath’s Joad family referencing Dust Bowl California and the Great Depression era sea of humanity to Scarlett O’ Hara defending her pride and individuality through a tumultuous Civil War inferno in Gone With The Wind, this book to film transformation is a distillation of historical facts and those figures who find one token of a larger universal struggle in the protagonists. Our lives, in the throb of struggles and personal becoming political, in the passage through time, space and events lead to tales, legends and folklore and a manifesto of what came before the present opened its eyes. Epic, to me, is that journey magnified cinematically and in literature, with every nuance of situations beyond our control and which lead to ultimately transforming us. If you look at it, this carefully reconstructed imagery on screen is nothing short of mankind’s eternal quest for survival and some semblance of truth. Be it in BEN HUR or THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Or MOTHER INDIA. The human spirit is what makes the bulk of the term epic. LEGENDS OF THE FALL is all about that. A miniaturized portrait, running two hours and twelve minutes, of humble lives captured in a grand sweep. Stakes are high and what makes it to the screen is fully realized by the team.
COLONEL WILLIAM LUDLOW :
After his touchstone as the nightmarish, enigmatic and irresistible Dr. Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Sir Anthony Hopkins is grace personified as Colonel William Ludlow here. His expertise at conveying a lot without uttering platitudes is wholly his own method. He’s fought many wars in the American army but his principles have never allowed him to adopt the white supremacy upon which independent America was founded. That is, by discrediting and exterminating original inhabitants of the land.
Colonel Ludlow is no upholder of false bravado, the kind of stereotype of an army officer we see so often in real life and on screens. He’s avuncular and has raised three able sons as a single father, away from the politicking and sloganeering of mainstream Americana ; the incorruptibility of his ways is the final frontier for the virtues of the Ludlow clan and lineage . Settling in a ranch in the beauteous expanse of Montana, he never warms up to the government even as his own eldest Alfred decides to run for Senate later on in the story and his fight for rights of Native Americans is so genuine, he settles in within the community with the leader One Stab and the biracial family of Decker ( Paul Desmond). It was the popular opposition to the natives that drove Colonel to realize hollow entrails of governance and turn his back on his compatriots who had, in turn, stripped the land of the people who were its only true custodians and cultural prefects and preserved it for centuries . Again, I did not find any trace of that usual ‘ white rescuer’ in him or his sons as they assimilate and deeply revere the land and its pristine traditions, especially Tristan (Pitt). It’s this natural adaptability to the place we call home that struck me. He opposes war as nothing but a sham and even as he loses his faculties of speech and overlooks seismic transitions in the family, he follows his credo of labour and honesty.
He is one well rounded, fascinating individual. One of my favourites. An anchor and father figure to emulate. Hopkins hits all the right notes of an authority who revels in the freedom of others’ choices and is a true guardian with experience to boot. He safeguards all that is right and truthful. His commitment to the cause of Montana’s prime citizens reminded me of Marlon Brando who went to the extent of not accepting his 1973 Oscar win for The Godfather owing to the discrimination meted out to the now marginalized Native Americans. A representative of the community instead went to the podium to give a socially relevant speech. That’s the intertextuality good filmmaking invites.
MONTANA AND JOHN TOLL’S CINEMATOGRAPHY:
The Indian state of Kerala, with its natural beauty, backwaters and breathtaking hills, is officially cited as God’s own country. Montana, the state the film is set in, reminded me of that. I did my research about this beautiful expanse of land, blessed by the majesty of Rocky Mountains as a distinctive landmark , I had heard so much about and found it bears honorifics like BIG SKY COUNTRY, THE TREASURE STATE, LAND OF THE SHINING MOUNTAINS and also THE LAST BEST PLACE within North American canon. In the film, the ranch land the Ludlow clan occupies along with One Stab and Decker’s family is a constant source of wonder and purity. The mountains, open fields of verdure and crystal clear water made me yearn for the serenity of a place, that our so called civilized populace may term as away from the madding crowd. Even remote. This is the beloved sanctuary around which the three boys are reared by their father and it maintains its unspoilt, unbending, all encompassing halo even as fates overturn. It’s like a grand symbol of the unified soul of this family. The scenery then is justifiably caressed and captured with the same punctilious touch by cinematographer John Toll who, as I had guessed, won a deserving Oscar for it.
As you know, cinematography goes beyond the lighting and composition of the frames captured on sophisticated camera lenses that the masters wield to get that perfect shot. It is also about the angles, tilts, positioning that opens scenes and advances movements of the scenario in just collaboration with the director. John Toll keeps the concentrated indoors and soft lighting intact along with the natural arc of Montana and never attenuates his craft for according it with a grand sweep for duty’s sake. His deft touch is responsible for much of its epic leanings but the personages at the forefront never lose out in the scheme of things. Another fact : the film was shot in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada and both these places fall to the north of Montana. So everything falls into place here beautifully justifying the location and the manner it glows on screen.
ORIGINAL NATIVE AMERICAN FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE VOICE:
Exotic and mystical should not be the words to define Native Americans. What they represent is a natural constitution of centuries, of traditions, rituals of the land that was their own until the white man’s burden decided their cultural affinity to a storied legacy needed to be ethnically cleansed.
LEGENDS OF THE FALL is different because it has One Stab narrating in first person. He’s at the front and center and speaks his language, rears Tristan into the free soul he is and is the spiritual and omnipotent guide to the land and the family, in fact the plot at large. His voice is the heart of the film and his wisdom and experience brings in that element of humility central to understanding this closely knit unit. The narrative voice in an epic is paramount and that is why he occupies centre stage even as he has minimal dialogues. That does not rule him out as just a mystical presence. That’s how tribes aligned with customs of generations and subsisting on treasures of the natural world are and there’s no need for cultural appropriation. Living with signifiers of your past and fabric of one’s ethnic and individual continuum is something to be admired and should be just as it is.
A corollary to this is Decker, who is a white American but has married Pet, a native woman and daughter Isabel bears a shared cultural heritage that lets them all bloom and evolve. One instance of discrimination faced by One Stab is a mirror to tensions that have not exactly abated in the present age. But positive examples of fraternity are a leaf taken from real life and that is the hallmark of this script. One Stab assimilates with others but maintains the watershed of his ancestors and it hardly affects his progress in the world. That’s something to admire in an era calling for diverse enfranchisements.
GORDON TOOTOOSIS as One Stab, TANTOO CARDINAL as Pet, SEKWAN AUGER as Isabel younger and KARINA LOMBARD as ISABEL OLDER are actors of a native extraction and their heritage is beautifully incorporated into the narrative as they shine with their quintessential presence. Native actors are marginal entities still in a whitewashed Hollywood but characterisations like these adhere to the original template upon which a country was founded; a template they have lost unfortunately to changes by a dominant force . We need more mainstream opportunities for these talents. Hyphenated titles should not be the be all of a personality but here discussing about a shared history is central. Without these voices, the film would not be half as effective.
UNITY IN COMMUNITY: All the above points seem to be subsumed by the unity in this spirit of community heralded here so this is a no brainer. Once you watch the film, you get a clear picture.
Disorder and brotherhood run side by side in the tale. However, all efforts for an universal brotherhood come to fruition as the principle is to hold on to strength of bonds and honour the efficacy of the land on which these were forged.
THE JOY OF THE ACTING ENSEMBLE:
I have mentioned the principal performers that drive this screenplay. They are all excellent in their individual right. The senior prefects who are pitch perfect. Of course KARINA LOMBARD who plays Isabel older is somebody I have definitely heard of as a child of 90s. She was a popular model of the era and a simultaneous actress. She has an impressive screen presence and this is not solely because of her looks. A performance is more than that as we all know.
Julia Ormond was instantly recognizable to me as in her flush of innocence, she was quietly effective as the woman betrothed to Samuel out of a goodwill and compulsion to settle down after being orphaned and overcome by his good nature but conflicted for all those years by a deep attraction and love for Tristan. You know the suffering is too deep seated when the outer exterior comes crumbling down and a person starts shedding tears in public. Susannah played by Julia does that and the restraint in her performance is exquisite. I recognized her from her turn in Mad Men as Marie Calvet. She wins our hearts by her economy of expressions, silences and the tragedy of her arc.
Aidan Quinn, looking like a light eyed facsimile of Frank Sinatra, is wonderful too as the gentleman eldest brother who has his share of unattainable love to spare.
The biggest joy was in watching our very own Eliot from E. T hit home as the youngest brother Samuel.
One look at that adorable face and after racking my brain, I knew it was none other than Henry Thomas.
All in all, they leave their marks while Brad Pitt, in a breakout role, endears as the one not quite ready to give up his gallivanting soul and proximity with nature and toying with the struggle of an idea of life and the immensity of love larger than him or anyone else around. You see the rough edges especially as he sobs in the initial first hour but then he has the charisma and irresistible charm that has made us laud him over the years. He is the cynosure of all eyes here. Like a horse in flight. It’s an acting ensemble that stays with you.
JAMES HORNER’S MUSIC SCORE :
To top it all is the beautifully rousing musical score by James Horner of Titanic fame. I’ll leave it at that as from the beginning till end, the instrumental companionship to these images is most gloriously mounted.
PRESENCE IN ABSENCE BETWEEN COLONEL AND ISABEL LUDLOW :
The veteran couple is separated physically as the irony of human nature in Isabel( Christina Pickles) made her abandon the Montana expanse that is a haven to others but for her too far away from activities of city life and social circles and too cold in winters . But she is not villianized or judged for it. Her choice is respected and the warm bond between her and her husband is sustained through epistolary correspondences. It’s a complex graph not expanded but in the brief touches of faraway links to a marital union gives us an idea of the maturity and understanding they mutually have for each other. An inner world of possibility opens up as we wonder about the various reasons for their separation. But love and bonhomie are never lost. It reminded me of the relationship shared between two iconic Indian figures – poet Gulzar and actor Rakhi. Both husband and wife separated barely few months after marriage but their mutual presence in absence and respect for each other never invited acrimony of any sort for two essentially refined beings. Again, intertextuality furnishes finer points in this instance.
These points together string themselves to make LEGENDS OF THE FALL an experience to cherish. Its ultimate positivity brims over and we respond to that. There are reasons to love this dramatic presentation by Zwick and his cast.
In the end, I acknowledge the team as follows :
Production designers : LILLY KILVERT / DORREE COOPER.
Editor : STEVEN ROSENBLUM.
Costume Designer : DEBORAH SCOTT.