By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 13, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

The muzziness of Legends of the Fall begins with the title. What does it mean? Perhaps it refers to autumn, since the story, based on a novella by he-man romanticizer Jim Harrison, is told through the eyes of an old Cree scout who remembers time in terms of seasons. Perhaps it refers to the human tendency to fall from grace, since this Everyboy fantasy is part classic oater, part Mythology 101. Maybe it alludes to the hell that breaks loose when three brothers — Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Tristan (Brad Pitt), and Samuel (Henry Thomas) — love the same woman (Julia Ormond).

Whatever Legends thinks it means, we’re not getting it from director — and earnest believer — Edward Zwick (Glory). The chief myth belongs to Tristan, the middle son of Col. William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), a U.S. Cavalry officer living in bitter retirement in the foothills of the Montana Rockies at the turn of the century. Tristan doesn’t say much — a soulful, Sundance Kid-like squint is more his language — but you know he feels a great deal because he can wrestle bears, break wild horses, and, when he feels like it, grow a big beard. Wild! Pitt, never an energized actor (his Louis in Interview With the Vampire is the most passive of bloodsuckers), confuses smoldering indolence with motivated intensity, although I’m willing to give him the benefit of one doubt: Here he’s never furnished with any clues as to why he’s supposed to feel the way he does. Meanwhile, as the rigid, ambitious Alfred, Quinn (whose oatmealy voice, so jarring in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, should never be attached to any character born before 1950) steps gingerly around the ranch like he’s avoiding horse droppings; Thomas appears to be visiting from Dead Poets Society; Ormond bends her fingers to her pretty mouth when perturbed, in a caricature of distractedness; and Hopkins plays a Howards End gentleman with a rifle — until after he has a stroke, after which he scrunches up his face and becomes a slurring Popeye.

Under such labored circumstances, James Horner’s music must work overtime. It swoops and broods and promises you that something elemental about manliness is being conveyed. Watch Legends as you might an airplane movie for which you haven’t rented headphones, however, and this puffed-up Western set in Big Sky country becomes a small-screen horseopera. C-

Legends of the Fall

  • Movie
  • R
  • 133 minutes
  • Edward Zwick