Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear.
Such people become crazy, or they become legends...

So begins the film adaptation of Jim Harrison's novella Legends of the Fall. I have long been drawn to this film. When I bring it up in "favorite movie" conversations, people either say "I loved it" or "I didn't get it." There seems to be no middle ground. I loved it from the first time I saw it; I'm only now beginning to get it.

The story (and Harrison's novella is a wonderful read) concerns the lives of Colonel Ludlow and his three sons: Alfred, Tristan, and Samuel. Alfred is the brooding, first born; Tristan is the wild, middle child; and Samuel is the virginal, youngest son. I've watched it for years as the story of three men; however, I've recently begun to see it as the story of one man, everyman. I'll hit the highlights here. For those of you familiar with the film or story, you'll know what I'm talking about. For those of you who are not familiar, I hope it will compel you to at least see the film.

Against the convictions of their father, the three sons go off to war and after only a short period of time, young Samuel is killed. And in a very real way, the rest of the story deals with the conflicts and tensions between the two brothers that remain.

At some point and time, and it's usually a very distinct moment, every man's "Samuel" dies. The young, innocent boyish part of us encounters the world as it is, harsh and unyielding, and the innocence ends. Maybe it's a cutting word from our fathers, an apron-string-strangling from our mothers, a sexual wound at the hands of a trusted person, a father or mother walking away in divorce...the possibilities are endless. But you know deep within yourself that the innocence is over. Everything is different now. And who remains is Alfred and Tristan.

You're left with the duty-bound, rule-keeping Alfred within yourself and you're also left with the devil-may-care, feral Tristan part of you. You may not agree with that, but I'll stake a claim there. Every man I've ever met has those two brothers within; one may overpower the other in personality or appearance, but they're both in there. I know they're both in me. And we spend the rest of our lives trying to discern what to do with these two. We move into the stability of wife and children and are awakened one night by the lonely cry of a coyote and find ourselves turned toward the wall, weeping for some unknown but recognizable feeling. Maybe we walk away from family and friends and all that is familiar and dive into wilderness, only to soon find ourselves pining for a woman's touch, the laughter of children, and a roof over our heads. We do all we can to stay in line at work, knowing full well the weight of the responsibilites we carry, at the same time trying to hold on to some measure of individuality in a world that, regardless of what commercials say, rewards conformity. We have tatoos beneath our Ralph Lauren shirts.

It is hard to tell of happiness. Time goes by and we feel safe too soon.

Maybe we climb Mt. Hood or ride cross-country with buddies on Harleys and return home with "it" out of our system. We come back like those City Slickers, having "found our smile." Things go well for a season, we're satisfied and happy, we coach soccer and lead Bible studies, and then one day the sleeping bear rouses and we realize it wasn't enough, not even close. We begin acting strange and talking even stranger and those close to us keep asking if we're "o.k." and we inwardly cry out, "O.k. was never my goal." Our marriages assume a "cranky elegance" (Harrison's words) and our parenting is spotty at best. We try and stay under the radar at work, always wondering if anyone can really "see" us. Some of us are visibly repulsed by men who've sold out to the Man, who have no sense of wildness in their lives. Yet we envy their vacation homes in the Tetons or their Bavarian motorcycles in the garage. Others spend the entire time in their vacation home in the Tetons checking email or figuring out how to sell the BMW motorcycle because it hasn't been ridden in years. And we hate that about ourselves. Absolutely hate it.

I won't follow the whole thread here, but the brothers also fight over a woman, Susannah. Interestingly enough, Susannah cannot have children, she cannot bring forth life. She is this lush, wonderland of a woman, yet both brothers do not find in her what they seek. She eventually takes her own life. And then there's the father, Colonel Ludlow. And One Stab, the old Indian who mentors the boys as they grow up. And one cannot forget the landscape, the mountains of Montana, a home by a stream where the Colonel hoped "to lose the madness." Yet it followed him. As it does us.

I don't want to dissect the film too much; dissecting something always leads to its death. But I'll tell you, men, this one's a deep vein. Watch it or read it and see what you think. My caution is I believe you'll see yourself. Or maybe that's why I want you to see it. Or read it. Naming those inner voices within ourselves is the first step. Listening to and living by them follows. I'm not talking about listening to a parent or your pastor or some elected official. I'm talking about stilling yourself enough to listen to what or who is inside. If you do that, there's a good chance you'll become crazy. But there's a slim chance you might become a legend...

It was a good death.


  1. Thanks, John. Just added Legends to my Netflix queue. Looking forward to seeing it.

  2. An old friend of mine once suggested I watch this. I instinctively knew it would be emotionally challenging to see it, not only because of the circumstances of that recommendation, but also because I knew a little about the story.

    Well, a few days ago I finally got up the strength to watch it. I was stunned. Devastated in some ways, inspired in others.

    I saw much of what you saw. Too many things to enumerate. It's still swirling in me, pulling truths out of my own story.

    This one will stick with me, as will many of the quotes. Here's one I love from One Stab:

    "Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends."

  3. (Somehow I missed that you'd paraphrased One Stab's quote at the end of your post. Ah well, I still think it bears repeating. So there you go.)

  4. I love when your postings leave me without words, but just a release of a deep guttural "sigh" in appreciation of your gifts. Blessings, brother...

  5. After seeing this post, I couldn't resist finally acquiring a password so I could comment ...

    I'm surprised you didn't mention Alaska or Yosemite along with Mt. Hood and the Harleys.

    I think there's a lot of truth to what you are saying--as is evidenced by some of our recent conversations. The voices are rising up inside of me, my friend. Yet I haven't found the time to name them. And by "time," I think I mean courage. Oh perhaps I have named them, yet I fear what they might say, or where they might lead me.

    I know Alfred's in charge, though I find myself rooting for Tristan. I want him to win, but at the same time I'm scared of what that might mean ...

  6. I spent 45 years as a fine Alfred. Then Tristan got me into a lot of trouble. I'm still wandering in his shoes, and wondering if Alfred's ever going to make a comback.

    Meanwhile...I'm just looking for Julia Ormond...er...wait, did I just say that out loud?