Legends of the Fall


About a year and a half ago I re-watched it when I ended up in a conversation with a bunch of guys about whether Tristan was really the “hero” of the film. One guy had been reading Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge, and was confused by Eldredge’s praise of Tristan. The guy saw Tristan as...

Legends of the Fall

Rated R

Dir. Edward Zwick                    TriStar Pictures

Brad Pitt, Julia Ormond, Aidan Quinn, Anthony Hopkins, Henry Thomas

A sweeping epic tale of three Montana brothers and their love for the same woman, set against the backdrop of World War I and the early 1920s.

(this movie has themes of intense mental health issues such as depression and suicide, could be triggering)

Opening Thoughts

I think I first watched Legends of the Fall back around the time it came out in 1994, I have a hazy memory of watching it with several friends in college in one of our dorm rooms. When I reflect about watching it then and what I took away from it, all I really remember standing out to me at that point was the lush landscapes (I’m SUCH a mountain girl!) and that I couldn’t understand why Susannah was so obsessed with Tristan. I thought he acted like a crazy person and seemed completely unlike any guy I’d want to date. Oh, and that it was the first movie I’d see Henry Thomas in since E.T., and it was fascinating to see him all “grown up”. 

About a year and a half ago I re-watched it when I ended up in a conversation with a bunch of guys about whether Tristan was really the “hero” of the film. One guy had been reading Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge, and was confused by Eldredge’s praise of Tristan. The guy saw Tristan as selfish and destructive of those around him, and asked if that was something women were really attracted to more than morals (like Tristan’s brother Alfred). After viewing the movie again, I chimed in that I didn’t feel a real attraction to any of the brothers in the movie, not straight-laced Alfred, innocent baby Samuel, or psycho Tristan (at the time I misunderstood his grief and trauma). Still loved those mountain vistas though, and I wanted to live on the Ludlow ranch.

The movie came back into my attention a few months ago. Since my mother died in June, I had been trying to get away by myself on the weekends, and take day trips up to the White Mountain National Forest. The area is beautiful and quiet, both of which I needed, and I was able to meet God there and let Him speak  and minister to my heart a great deal. I listen to a lot of audio books when I drive, and John Eldredge’s new book Resilient was one of them. (I love listening to John’s narration, his voice is like an old friend.) I finished it and started using the accompanying Pause app (here on Google Play, here in the App store), and I HIGHLY recommend both the book and the app. (I cannot share enough about what a help and support both the book and the app were for me after my mother’s death, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog.) After I finished Resilient, I listened to the audio book for Wild at Heart, which I had only read bits and pieces of before. In the book, he mentions the movie and highlights the character of Tristan, so I thought I’d give it another go. I was surprised at the way I saw certain things differently, and the different kinds of love displayed between the characters.

Keep reading to find out what God showed me in Legends of the Fall…

Paul McDonald and Bryan Byrd discuss the 1994 movie Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. They discuss the power of a father’s love, how forgiveness brings freedom, and how we are called to live in the borderland between this world and the other.

Join us as we discuss God’s truth in this movie!

Check it Out Here!

Spoilers For Legends of the Fall Below!

In the early 1900’s, the Ludlow family settle on the plains of Montana when the patriarch, Colonel William Ludlow, leaves the army after vehemently disagreeing with Native American relocations. His wife Isabel departs the family after her sons are born to live back east, as she does not enjoy the rustic prairie life. She and her husband live amicably apart, and communicate often via letters.

Their three sons, Alfred, Tristan, and Samuel grow up into fine, strong young men. Samuel, the youngest, returns from college with a fiancee, Susannah. Susannah, an orphan, is immediately embraced by the Ludlows, their hired hands One-Stab and Decker, and Decker’s wife Pet and his young daughter, Isabel Two. Samuel and Susannah enjoy spending time with his family and experiencing life on the ranch, until the approach of World War I separates the two of them. Samuel and his brothers go off to war in Europe, and Samuel is killed. Tristan, who had promised Susannah to protect Samuel, is so wracked with guilt he cannot return home. Alfred takes the opportunity to pursue Susannah but she gently spurns him. 

After some time, Tristan returns and he and Susannah fall in love. However, Tristan is still haunted by Samuel’s death and general trauma from the war, and leaves again. He tells Susannah not to wait for him, but she insists she will “wait forever” for him. Tristan is gone even longer this time, and Alfred is able to convince Susannah to marry him, but has a falling out with his father, and he and Susannah leave the ranch.

When Tristan returns again, he finds Alfred and Susannah married and living in Helena, and seeks solace at the ranch with his father. He falls in love with a now-grown Isabel Two, and they eventually have two children, Samuel and Isabel Three. Tristan, with his father’s encouragement, begins bootlegging to make money. When he clashes one too many times with some of Alfred’s business colleagues, the O’Banion brothers, Isabel Two is tragically caught in the crossfire and killed. Alfred, now a congressman, intervenes to save his brother’s life, but Tristan is still sentenced to a month in jail. 

While in jail, Tristan is visited by a heartbroken Susannah, who declares that she never loved Alfred and is glad that Isabel Two is dead. She offers herself to Tristan, who rebuffs her advances. With any hope of a relationship with Tristan crushed, Susannah goes home and takes her own life.

When he gets out of jail, Tristan and Decker find and murder the men responsible for Isabel Two’s death. The O’Banion’s gang converge on the ranch to finish off the rest of the family, but Tristan and Colonel Ludlow confront the men. Colonel Ludlow is about to be gunned down when he is saved by Alfred, who has had a change of heart. Tristan realizes he will be blamed for the men’s deaths, and that he must go on the run as a wanted man. Alfred promises to care for Tristan’s children in his absence. 


This is a tragic film that showcases a lot of different kinds of relationships – father/son relationships, mother/son relationships, those between brothers, between a husband and wife, and between friends. And I never get tired of the cinematography…which was actually shot in British Columbia, not Montana, although I’ve heard it’s nice there, too 🙂

So What Did God Show Me?

-In the men’s devotional, Wild at Heart, and its companion book for women, Captivating, John Eldredge and his wife Stasi share their belief that both men and women have in their hearts three core desires. The core desires of men encompass a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. For women, the desires are to be romanced, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to unveil beauty all their own. Each of these desires, placed there by God, show how men and women, and the desires of each, fit together perfectly. I found these versions of these desires running throughout the characters in the movie, and for the purposes of this blog, decided to focus on them and how they affected the main characters’ relationships with each other.

-The oldest brother Alfred’s battle is his struggle to constantly try to do the “right” thing. While the middle brother Tristan was their father’s favorite, Alfred remained close to their mother, but he is very aware of his father’s favor towards Tristan, and is jealous of it. Alfred fights for his father’s approval, and for Susannah’s love. His adventure is to make a name for himself apart from his father’s legacy, and to prove himself. He is not a wild man like Tristan, who can make his living on the plains, his talent is in the world of business and politics, which only drives an even bigger wedge between himself and his father, as his father doesn’t trust the government. And his beauty to rescue is of course Susannah, whom he attempts to save from Tristan’s rejection. From the first moment he sees her, Alfred is instantly taken with Susannah, and acts polite and appropriately, hoping she will be attracted to that. He even tries several times to put down Tristan in Susannah’s presence. But all of Alfred’s “right” choices and striving to live a successful life, in the end, bring him no joy. As he says in the movie, “I followed all the rules, man’s and God’s, and you (Tristan) followed none of them…and they all loved you more.” Ironically, only at the end, when he “breaks the rules” by shooting a corrupt official who is attempting to kill his father and Tristan, is he redeemed. He wins his father’s love and Tristan’s respect. Knowing that he must leave the ranch, Tristan asks Alfred to watch over his children, to “watch over Samuel”, as they both once watched over their brother “like a treasure”.

-The youngest brother Samuel’s battle is an actual one: to fight in WWI. He believes it will make him more attractive in Susannah’s eyes, as he admires her for her social justice reforms. Samuel’s adventure is also in the war, as he envisions himself fighting for truth and justice, and coming home a hero crowned with honor and glory. His beauty to rescue is also Susannah, as he “rescues” her from her orphan experience by bringing her into his family. Tragically, he does not survive to share a life with Susannah.

-Tristan, the middle brother, battles mostly with himself. Tristan is almost never at rest. He attacks a sleeping bear, gets drunk, chases wild horses, and follows his brothers to a war he doesn’t really believe in. When he is unable to protect Samuel from being killed, Tristan suffers from what appears to be post traumatic stress disorder compounded with grief, which leaves him in pain most of the time, and at a loss at how to deal with it. He never really gets over his mother leaving, or Samuel’s death, or Alfred’s disapproval, or his father’s stroke, or Isabel Two’s murder. He doesn’t feel worthy of Susannah’s love, and doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. He sees everything he touches ruined, and several people he loves die. At one point in the movie he even asks his father if he “is damned, and has damned all those around him”. Tristan seeks adventures in travel to faraway places, and while he ultimately cannot rescue his beauty Isabel Two, he does avenge her death in the end.

-Susannah is a breath of fresh air to the Ludlows, she is indeed a woman to be romanced. The Colonel himself describes her in a letter to his wife as “intoxicating”. The men have lived for so long with only Decker’s wife Pet and her daughter Isabel Two as the only women around, is it any wonder that all three of the sons fall in love with her? Susannah takes part in a great adventure as she adapts to ranch life. She has bountiful amounts of beauty to unveil, both in her appearance and her personality. She is most free at the Ludlow Ranch, once she marries Alfred she seems like a fragile, caged bird, or a cold statue. At the ranch her hair flows free, and she rides, and ropes cattle. She is active and a part of the family and the life at the ranch. Even her clothes are of natural fibers and colors. Once she becomes Alfred’s wife we see her only attending parties and picking flowers, she wears clothes that are less natural. Alfred cares for her, but she is not romanced. There is no adventure, and her beauty is on display, not sought. Because her core desires went ignored and unmet, she eventually is driven to suicide. Ultimately, Susannah was so caught up in her depression, grief, and pain that she couldn’t handle it anymore and chose the only way she could come up with to end her pain.

-Isabel Two, Tristan’s wife, has her own beauty to unveil, which, unlike Susannah’s, is revealed in a much slower burn; for most of the movie Isabel is shown as a child. Isabel’s love for Tristan is straight out of 1 Corinthians 13: she is patient (as she waits for Tristan to return her love), she is kind. Unlike Susannah, she is not jealous. She is not proud or boastful or rude. Isabel does not demand her own way (or for Tristan to change his). She is not irritable and keeps no record of Tristan’s wrongs (but accepts him for who he is). She does not rejoice about injustice. Isabel never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. 

Because of her quality of love, Isabel is able to take part in her own adventure, being romanced and sharing a (short) life and family with Tristan. She is truly Tristan’s “ezer”: his lifesaver. Their marriage is blessed by two children, in contrast to Susannah and Alfred, who have none. I wondered as I watched the movie, if Susannah in some ways sees Tristan and Isabel Two’s children as “stolen” from her, as she stated earlier she would have named their own children Samuel and Isabel (Three). Unfortunately, like Samuel, Isabel Two’s life and love are cut short.

(I am not a licensed therapist or any kind of mental health practitioner, and I can’t give you any advice on your mental health issues you may have except to seek help from a professional. I encourage you to get help, especially if you feel like hurting yourself.)

Closing Thoughts

The story of the Ludlow family is a tragic one, full of misplaced intentions and tangled affections. But I was fascinated by the desires each of the characters had, and how they played out during the film. I felt sadness and compassion for Susannah, who was unable to let go of her obsession with Tristan, just as Alfred was unable to let go of her, even when she told him to his face she didn’t love him. I wonder, if Susannah and Tristan had remained together, would she have ended up with the same fate as Alfred, trapped in a relationship where she was unable to make Tristan love her no matter what she did?

This can also serve as a reminder that any love and attention we try to control here on earth will eventually end up thoroughly unsatisfying. We as humans have been made to be fully and completely loved by God, because only He can satisfy us fully and completely. We can never get what we need in that way from another human being, and usually the tighter we hold on, the harder they fight to be free. I encourage you to look to God to satisfy your core passions. For women, God longs to be pursued by you just as you yourself long to be pursued. He wants to give you an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and He yearns to bring beauty to your lives as you yearn to bring it to others. For men, God desires to help you discover your warrior’s heart as you fight your battles. He has already made a place for you in this grand adventure called life, and He wishes to teach you how to fight for your own beauty to rescue.

Legends of the Fall can be streamed in several places, such as Amazon Prime and Netflix.

What are some things that God has shown you about the core passions of your heart? What battles have you fought? What adventures have you taken part in? What ways have you pursued or been pursued? How have you discovered or unveiled beauty? Drop them in the comments below!

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