Sick of betrayals the United States government perpetrated on the Native Americans, Colonel William Ludlow leaves the army and moves to a remote part of Montana. Along with One Stab, a Cree friend, he builds a ranch and raises his family. Accompanying them are hired hand and former outlaw Decker, Decker's Cree wife Pet, and daughter Isabel Two. Ludlow has three sons: Alfred, the eldest, is responsible and cautious; Tristan, the Colonel's favorite son, is wild and well-versed in American Indian traditions; Samuel, the youngest, is educated but naive and constantly watched over by his brothers.
Ludlow's wife Isabel does not adapt to the harsh Montana winters and moves to the East Coast; Tristan vows never to speak of her again. At age 12, Tristan touches a sleeping grizzly bear. The bear awakens and injures him, but he stabs at the bear's paw and cuts off a claw.
Years later, Samuel returns from Harvard University with his fiancée, Susannah. Susannah talks with Isabel Two and learns of her fondness for Tristan. Susannah finds Tristan captivating but loves Samuel. Before they can marry, Samuel announces his intention to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force and aid Britain in the fight against Germany. Much to their father's displeasure, Alfred also joins. Although Tristan does not want to join, he does so to protect his brothers.
During World War I, the brothers find themselves in the 10th Battalion, CEF. Alfred, commissioned as an officer, leads a charge into no man's land. The attack results in heavy casualties and Alfred is wounded. While visiting Alfred in the field hospital, Tristan learns that Samuel has volunteered for a dangerous reconnaissance mission. He rushes off to protect his brother but arrives too late. A devastated Tristan holds Samuel until he dies, then cuts out his brother's heart and sends it home to be buried at the ranch. Tristan single-handedly raids the German lines. He returns to camp with the scalps of German soldiers hanging around his neck, horrifying his fellow soldiers. He is discharged but does not go home. Alfred returns to Montana and proposes to Susannah, but she declines.
Tristan returns home, where Susannah finds him weeping over Samuel's grave. She comforts him, and they become lovers. A jealous Alfred confronts Tristan and leaves to make his name in Helena. Tristan is plagued with guilt over Samuel's death and feels responsible for driving Alfred away; he leaves Montana for several years. Susannah waits for him, only to receive a letter telling her to marry someone else. Alfred comforts Susannah. Ludlow finds them together, which leads to a falling out between him and Alfred. Ludlow later suffers a stroke. He does not speak for years and the ranch deteriorates. Susannah marries Alfred, now a congressman. Alfred's business and politics cause him to get involved with the O'Banion brothers, bootleggers and gangsters.
Tristan returns during Prohibition, bringing life back to the ranch and his father. He falls in love with Isabel Two and they marry. They have two children, the elder being a boy named Samuel. Tristan becomes involved in small-scale rum-running, finding himself at odds with the O'Banion brothers. Isabel is accidentally killed by a police officer working for the O'Banions. In a fit of grief, Tristan beats the officer nearly to death and is jailed. Susannah visits Tristan, still having feelings for him, but he refuses her advances. After his release, Tristan and Decker kill those responsible for Isabel's death, including one of the O'Banion brothers.
Realizing she cannot live without Tristan, Susannah commits suicide. The remaining O'Banion brother, along with the corrupt sheriff and another police officer, comes after Tristan for revenge. At the ranch, Ludlow and Alfred kill the attackers. Alfred reconciles with his father and brother. The family realizes that Tristan is likely to be blamed for the deaths, which prompts Tristan to ask Alfred to take care of his children. However, One Stab's narration explains that later during the night they bury the bodies and dump the car in the Missouri River. One narrates that he always believed Tristan would die as a young man, but he instead lives to watch his children and grandchildren grow. One Stab narrates that it was the people he loved and wanted to protect most that died young. The last scene takes place in 1963. Tristan, now an old man living in the North Country investigates an animal carcass as he is confronted by a grizzly bear. He draws his knife and fights it. As they struggle, the image freeze-frames as One Stab narrates; "It was a good death".Brad Pitt as Tristan Ludlow
Keegan MacIntosh as Young Tristan Ludlow
Anthony Hopkins as Col. William Ludlow
Aidan Quinn as Alfred Ludlow
Julia Ormond as Susannah Fincannon-Ludlow
Henry Thomas as Samuel Ludlow
Karina Lombard as Isabel "Isabel II" Decker/Isabel Decker Ludlow
Sekwan Auger as Young Isabel II Decker
Gordon Tootoosis as One Stab
Christina Pickles as Isabel Ludlow
Paul Desmond as Roscoe Decker
Tantoo Cardinal as Pet Decker
Robert Wisden as John T. O'Banion
John Novak as James O'Banion
Kenneth Welsh as Sheriff Tynert
Bart the Bear as the Bear
Legends of the Fall was primarily filmed on location in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. Principal photography began in mid-September 1993. The World War I battlefield scenes took two weeks to film and were shot near Morley, Alberta, with hundreds of locals and a few Canadian Forces soldiers recruited as extras. The Ghost River Wilderness Area in Alberta served as the filming location for the Ludlow ranch; additional outdoor scenes, as well as the funeral and cemetery scenes, were shot at the Bow River near Banff National Park. A historic harbour area in Vancouver called Gastown was augmented with period building facades for the Helena, Montana street scenes. Hotel scenes were shot at the Hotel Europe at 43 Powell Street in Vancouver. Additional scenes were shot at Maple Leaf Square in Gastown, Vancouver, and Ocho Rios in Saint Ann, Jamaica. Filming wrapped up around January 1994.
The film opened in limited release on December 23, 1994, and expanded to a wide release on January 13, 1995. During its first weekend in wide release, which was a four-day weekend due to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the film reached number one at the domestic box office after grossing $14 million. After its initial run, the film brought in a final box office total of $160,638,883. Against its $30 million budget, the film was a financial success.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 56% of 54 film critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 5.8 out of 10. Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 45 based on 23 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews". IMBD gave the film a score of 7.5/10 based on reviews from critics, indicating generally positive reviews.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described the film as "pretty good ... with full-blooded performances and heartfelt melodrama". Peter Travers of Rolling Stone particularly praised Pitt's performance saying, "Though the admirable Quinn has the toughest role, Pitt carries the picture. The blue-eyed boy who seemed a bit lost in Interview with the Vampire proves himself a bona fide movie star, stealing every scene he's in." Comparatively, Chris Hicks of Deseret News noted, "Pitt is the hunk of the moment, and Legends of the Fall will only further cement his big-screen, romantic leading-man status. And he is satisfying as the internalized, rebellious Tristan (look for that name to be given to more than a few babies over the next few years). Even if the character seems only a slight twist on the similar role he played in A River Runs Through It. (He even becomes a bootlegger!)"
On the other hand, Rita Kempley of The Washington Post stated that the film's "yarn doesn't so much sweep as sprawl across the screen in all its panoramic idiocy". Janet Maslin of The New York Times commented, "Before it turns exhaustingly hollow, this film shows the potential for bringing Mr. Harrison's tough, brooding tale to life. And the actors may have captured the spirit of the story, but that's impossible to know." She concluded, "These are performances that lost too much in the editing room, smothered by music and overshadowed by a picture-postcard vision of the American West."
The film was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (John Toll), Best Art Direction (Lilly Kilvert, Dorree Cooper), and Best Sound (Paul Massey, David E. Campbell, Chris David and Douglas Ganton), and won the category for Best Cinematography. In addition, the film was nominated for the Golden Globes for Best Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Drama (Brad Pitt), Best Director (Edward Zwick), and Best Original Score (James Horner).
Legends of the Fall was first released on DVD on April 29, 1997, and once again on October 17, 2000. The film was later released on Blu-ray on February 8, 2011, with bonus content that includes two audio commentaries, deleted scenes with optional commentary and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.