“Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness, and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy… or they become legends.” So goes the opening narration for Legends Of The Fall, Ed Zwick’s 1994 film adaptation of the novella by Jim Harrison. It’s meant to set up the mythical status of Tristan Ludlow (Brad Pitt), the kind of handsome, roaming man who’s frequently been at the heart of such pioneer narratives, whose inconstancy is written off as part of his charm. Tristan’s indomitable spirit made him a legend in the story’s timeline, but he’s hardly the only character intent on charting their own path. His romance with Susannah Fincannon, which blazed for years, was doomed not because the two were opposites, but because they had so much in common, including a disregard for convention.
A progressive with a vaguely drawn Transatlantic pedigree, the beguiling Susannah (an equally beguiling Julia Ormond) proved more destabilizing to the Ludlow family than the turn of the century or even a world war. She’s introduced as the fiancée of the youngest Ludlow, Samuel (Henry Thomas), but everyone from the Colonel (Anthony Hopkins) to eldest (and most put-upon) son Alfred (Aidan Quinn) is stunned by her beauty. Despite having One Stab’s (Gordon Tootoosis) voice-over handy, Zwick wisely opts to capture the effect Susannah has on these rugged Montana men via their expressions. The Colonel does a subtle double take, and Alfred just gawks as Samuel beams with pride. Even Tristan stares at Susannah for so long that you half-expect his eyes to bulge out, like a wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon.
While the brothers (and their dad) are all shamelessly checking out Miss Fincannon, she’s also taking in the sights—namely, Tristan. As he rides up for the first time, the smile briefly drops from her face. Her nostrils flare ever so slightly, and then she’s grinning and laughing like a schoolgirl. Not over her fiancé, who’s kind and educated (if a bit green), but the golden-haired, bona fide cowboy who can’t be bothered to pretend he doesn’t find her attractive. And this eye-fucking represents the soon-to-be couple at their most restrained.
Despite its wartime and frontier-story trappings, Legends Of The Fall is unadulterated melodrama, with its shifting love triangles and Oscar-nominated score from James Horner. It was the kind of mid-budget, adult-oriented fare that’s fallen out of fashion since the rise of the tentpole picture, that nonetheless took in over $160 million in global ticket sales. That was well before the lavishly produced historical romance of Titanic set a new box office benchmark, but Zwick’s film also found success by centering on the doomed romance between a blond ne’er-do-well and a curly-haired, well-to-do beauty, set against the turn of the century. Both Susannah and Titanic’s Rose (Kate Winslet) jump into their brief relationships with their eyes wide open, the better to marvel at the beautiful bodies of their respective lovers.
But while Titanic is the more accomplished film, Legends Of The Fall is an equally steamy affair. The sparks that fly between Pitt and Ormond, both rising stars at the time, are enough to burn down the verdant wilderness that surrounds them. There’s more to the attraction than the physical—there’s also the recognition that they accept each other as they are (one-time future in-laws and all). That’s actually part of Susannah’s appeal to the Ludlow brothers as a group, that she’s prepared to meet them on their terms. Their genteel mother, Isabel (Christina Pickles), returned to the East Coast when they were all just boys, unable to tough out another Montana winter. But Susannah learns to ride horses, shoot guns, and rope cattle as well as she plays the piano or arranges flowers. There’s nothing she won’t try—not even ending up romantically entangled, at various points in time, with all three brothers.
Susannah’s not the legend spoken of in voice-over, but nearly 27 years later, it’s her passion, so gamely conveyed by Ormond, that burns brightest—and not just a zest for life, but unabashed lust. Zwick and Ormond smartly build on Susannah’s initial attraction. One morning, from the vantage point of her bedroom, she spies on Tristan as he breaks in a spirited mare. She watches entranced as he strokes the horse’s neck, Tristan glistening in sweat, before she gives a tiny gulp. Just days later, Samuel’s surprise announcement that he’s enlisting in the Army almost leads to her first kiss with Tristan. Months after Samuel’s tragic death, Susannah is still living on the Ludlow ranch when she senses Tristan’s arrival before he rides over the horizon. She stands in the doorway, a stricken look giving way to nail-biting desire. She’s oblivious to Alfred (caught up in his own pining), who catches her with her fingers pressed firmly against her mouth. It’s the most naked her longing has been up until this point, but Susannah doesn’t apologize or even look all that embarrassed. She just takes a breath, shrugs, then walks away, leaving Alfred to internally fume.
Ormond gives an exceptionally moving performance as a young woman caught up in a changing country and an all-consuming love. She brings different dimensions to Susannah’s grief over the loss of Samuel and her grief over the loss of Tristan. But it’s her unwavering commitment that makes the performance: Ormond throws herself fully into the rapture of falling head over heels in love, and the agony of making up the deficit in a suddenly loveless relationship. But before hitting those peaks and valleys, she first establishes Susannah’s desire as just as elemental as the roving Tristan’s.
Female sexuality was hardly hidden in 1990s cinema, and ogling Brad Pitt is, for many, now a decades-long tradition. But Susannah’s desire and Ormond’s portrayal of it are still refreshing nearly three decades later. Unlike Tristan, Susannah isn’t the rock that others collide with, leaving a lasting impact if not outright destroying them. Instead, she’s the water that can’t be contained, seeping into a family’s foundation and shattering it. And it all starts not with Pitt setting his sights on Ormond, but with Ormond giving Pitt a look that could make even a Hollywood heartthrob blush, denoting a desire potent enough to undo several lives.