Give me a home where buffalo roam

Legends of the Fall has Brad Pitt, wild bears, a noble savage and a family feud. It's paradise, American style, says Sheila Johnston
Fall, as in autumn, and as in loss of power and grace: Legends of the Fall is a big sprawling melodrama which deals with some big sprawling themes, the biggest of which is a popular one in Hollywood right now: the yearning for a lost Eden. In between, there's a fair riot of shootings and scalpings, bear hunts and zebra shoots, declarations of love and births and suicides. It's all hogwash, the solemnity toppling over occasionally into pure kitsch - but by no means unenjoyable.

Anthony Hopkins plays a former US cavalry officer who, disgusted with his government's shabby treatment of the American Indians, has retired to a remote homestead in the foothills of the Montana Rockies. His wife has long since hotfooted it back East leaving him three sons. The eldest, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), outwardly stolid, has a fierce blue gaze which burns like Hopkins's in moments of anger - they look eerily like a real-life father and son. Samuel (sweetly played by Henry Thomas, who once, half an eternity ago, was the little boy in ET) is the youngest, a dreamer.

The middle son, Tristan, has a pretentious name, a ponytail and what look worryingly like highlights: played by Brad Pitt, America's heartthrob du jour, he gets a full star entrance, galloping in from the horizon, backlit, gleaming. The director, Edward Zwick, seems especially fond of this shot because he keeps repeating it: Pitt leaves the homestead several times (always in autumn) so that he can return to a hero's welcome, the family beaming at him from windows and doorways as the music swells.

Tristan is, we are given to understand, a force of nature - a rougher version of the tearaway Pitt played in A River Runs Through It, another hymn to traditional, rural America. He once bloodied a bear in unarmed combat, and since then the animal has supposedly entered his soul (one might suspect the producer, Marshall Herskovitz, of having an ursine fixation: his last film was called Jack the Bear). He's a feral, solitary character, given to outbreaks of extreme violence: it's as though Zwick and Herskovitz, who worked together for years on thirtysomething, were reacting against all those effete and anguished yuppies: here at last, they seem to be saying, is a real, red-blooded male.

The story, which chronicles the dynasty's decline and fall, is narrated in voiceover, partly though the letters written by the various participants to each other: slightly confusing, this, as a narrative device, in the way it keeps hopping between different points of view, undercutting the film's centre of gravity. The binding voice belongs to One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), the ancient family retainer, who recites the story as though it were tribal lore: it's our old friend, the Noble Savage, as seen in Dances with Wolves and Oliver Stone passim - the American Indian whose only interest for the film-makers is as a foil for the white hero's life, his "natural" primitive presence lending Pitt, by proxy, a mythic grandeur.

The tragedy is triggered off when the idealistic Samuel decides to enlist in the First World War: the scenes where he is angered by the "tragedy in Serbia" while his father insists that it's none of America's business, have a definitely familiar ring. The others accompany him to Europe, Alfred to defy his father, Tristan to protect Samuel, but are unable to save him from dying in the trenches. As a result, his father and surviving brothers quarrel and fall apart.

I haven't mentioned the only significant female character: the young Englishwoman (Julia Ormond) with whom all three brothers fall in love. The film's publicity gives the impression that she's a central, destructive force, when, in fact, the opposite obtains: she's marginal, not pivotal to the plot, most of which could barrel along quite happily without her, and it's the family which finally crushes her.

The love scenes are uneasy. Pitt, in particular, is an actor with an emotional detachment about him: a brooding, self-absorbed narcissism for which film-makers have cast him again and again. Tristan might be a name with a romantic literary pedigree (underlined in the dialogue), but Pitt isn't terribly convincing as a passionate leading man. Legends of the Fall is above all a male melodrama, the story of love-hate between siblings and father and son.

Disillusioned, Alfred leaves the homestead to become a businessman; he enters politics and turns bad, his essential decency corroded from within. The bootleggers he becomes embroiled with - we are now in the 1920s - cause a further rift with Tristan and a final disaster. The father, meanwhile, has suffered a severe stroke and henceforth hobbles around lopsidedly in a shock of wild, white hair and ankle-length furry greatcoat (Hopkins, whose best performances are calibrated in millimetres, comes on in these scenes like a ripe old ham). One thing is responsible for all the family's woes: "Screw the government!" he croaks out of the corner of his mouth.

This is a familiar refrain at the moment, in films different on the surface but all driven by a deep disillusion with the political process: Forrest Gump, for instance, with its advice to lie low and keep one's nose out of trouble; or the forthcoming comedy Speechless, in which two speechwriters for rival parties discover that both their candidates are as rotten as each other. In Legends of the Fall, the message is: in an era of uncertainty and upheaval, it's best to stay home on the range, cultivating one's garden, as far as possible from the real world.

n Opens tomorrow