Legends of the Fall
It amazes me that no one has thought to make the comparison. If they have surely I have not read it. Though the novella passed by the mainstream of most readers and the movie was dismissed as a melodrama, Legends of the Fall is an important story. It is the retelling of the ancient legend of Tristan and Isolde. The story that was written by Jim Harrison and adapted into a screenplay by Susan Shillday and Bill Wittliff are formulaic in nature because they follow the precise outline of the tragedy genre.
Legends are retold and reinvented for modern times, as this one was, but most fair better in the critic’s eyes. It is perhaps the obscurity of the references and the way in which it was retold that allowed it to slip by unnoticed, but this has done the movie a great disservice. It is only when one sees the parallels between these two texts that the story and movie can be fully appreciated.
In the beginning of the movie we get to know Tristan, a man of the woods and the land. The mystical and spiritual tie to the land cannot take the form of the old Celtic beliefs, so Harrison transforms this element to the mysticism of the Native Americans. It is the Native Americans who hold on to a dying ancient tradition and pass it on to our tragic hero. One Stab takes on a Merlin like role as Tristan’s mentor and protector. Before we even see the opening credits the foundation for the magical and mystic nature of the tale is set. We see how Tristan is like the bear, wild and untamable. This image of the bear is repeated in the movie, as is the stampede of wild horses that come with his two returns to his home.
Also before the opening credits we get an introduction to characters. Though the movie portrays them as brothers, the legend does not. The movie takes liberty with the exact relationships of the characters, but the roles still seem to remain the same. The main character Tristan remains the solid foundation of the story, while the Queen Isolde becomes the cultured and educated Susannah. Uncle Mark takes the form of the political minded Alfred and the shy Samuel is the Queen’s Isolde’s slain beloved. Isabelle (a modern form of the name Isolde) is then his mother and Isabelle two, a farm hand’s daughter, is the princess Isolde.
This choice to make Isabelle Tristan’s mother is adds an interesting Oedipal twist to the story. Though the incest is not literal, the mirroring affect of the names and the set up of the adopted family creates a sort of safe way to introduce this element. In the legend Isolde was in fact his Aunt by marriage and the princess Isolde was his cousin by blood.
The legend and the movie begin to pick up pace when Tristan is sent off to learn how to fight. This part of the legend is transformed into the very modern and terrifying scenes of World War I. This is where, on the battlefield, poor Samuel is slain. Though it is by accident in the movie Tristan takes the responsibility for the tragedy and madness follows. And though it gives her much grief, Susannah does not vow revenge as Isolde does in the legend.
Soon after Tristan’s return Susannah and Tristan become lovers, just as the legendary lovers Tristan and Isolde do. In the legend Isolde becomes engaged to Tristan’s uncle Mark after they become lovers. Mark suspects and is jealous, but has no evidence of the affair, which continues after the marriage. In the movie Tristan and Susannah part ways when he takes off to travel, to get away from the trouble that has followed him home. Years pass by and Susannah is left to marry her lover’s brother. The affair is not continued into Susannah and Alfred’s, at least in the movie. Harrison’s novella stays true to the legend here, having Susannah beg Tristan to make love to her in the kitchen pantry.
Though the story ends up in the same place in the legend, the novella and the movie, the fact that the marriage of the tragic heroine was arranged and not a choice our she wanted to make, is lost. We get more of the sense that Susannah is lonely rather than the fact that she married for her country. The sense of duty does not come through and does not make their union make much sense. This is a weakness of the script rather than the legend and could have improved the characterization in the movie had it been treated differently.
It is suggested in the legend that Tristan should marry the queen’s daughter since he cannot have the queen. The princess Isolde of the legend and the adopted sister Isabelle two in the movie have both pinned over Tristan and have waited patiently for him to turn his affections toward them.
Interestingly the legend illustrates the wrongful match between Mark and Isolde by having the wedding ring that he gives to her be to small for her. In the movie the wrongfully sized ring is given to Isabelle two by Tristan. This ring is then the beginning of their relationship, which appears to be a good match, but not true match. In the movie Tristan marries Isabelle two and they have two beautiful children together. Years pass before Isabelle two is slain and Tristan finds himself engaged in a tragic conflict.
The feud between King Mark and his nephew Tristan takes take the form of the feud between Alfred and Tristan as brothers. A barren and bewildered Isolde drowns herself at the news that her love Tristan has had to flee into the woods to escape his enemies. This climatic and tragic ending is also in the novella and the movie in the form of Susannah shooting herself as Tristan battles the corrupt Irish politicians who were once working for his brother Alfred.
The epic romance of Tristan and Isolde is successfully transplanted from the shores of Ireland and England to great wilds of Montana. Because the tragedy is universal, it is easily transported from medieval times to modern times. Tristan, we find, is an archetype for the tragic hero. But he is also a unique voice for his particular time and culture.