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Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd(1967)

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For Julie Christie, a lot was riding on Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). In one year, with an Oscar® for Darling (1965) and a high-profile role in Dr. Zhivago (1965), she had become the Hot New Thing, the actress to watch. She went from those two pictures to work with Francois Truffaut on the adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and although that film was not a great success, it did little to dim her star. So she went into her next project with much anticipation and eagerness; Thomas Hardy's willful, passionate heroine Bathsheba Everdine seemed a role tailor-made for her. Plus, she would be working again with John Schlesinger, the director of one of her first films, Billy Liar (1963), as well as her Oscar®-winner.

Christie was always very curious about and interested in the entire filmmaking process. During the making of Far from the Madding Crowd, she got on well with the crew and her dressing caravan was open to everyone to stop by for a chat, a cup of tea, or a smoke (menthol cigarettes in great quantities). As filming progressed she became even more involved in the process, seriously concerned about the problems of weather and lighting and the struggle to turn Hardy's epic novel about a young countrywoman and the three men who try to win her love into something more satisfying than a lavish period soap opera. But as the production dragged on and on in the Dorset countryside, Christie and Schlesinger expressed less and less enthusiasm for the project. Around Christmas 1966, with six weeks of shooting still ahead, the best Schlesinger could muster was, "I think we've done it as well as we can." Released in October 1967, Far from the Madding Crowd, did respectable business in England but failed at the U.S. box office, spurred on by what seemed to be critical determination to take Christie down a peg from the lofty heights of the Academy Award and Zhivago.

The stress of the production contributed to some clashes Schlesinger had with his outstanding cast. The most established of the three male leads was 50-year-old Peter Finch. He had been making movies since his early 20s, and his credits included a handful of American hits, such as Elephant Walk (1954) opposite Elizabeth Taylor, The Nun's Story (1959) with Audrey Hepburn, and Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) with James Stewart. Finch was an experienced, intuitive actor very sure of his abilities, so sure, in fact, his companion at the time of production, Diana Quiseekay, said she never saw him study his part. Instead, he and Christie and several others would spend many nights at a little Dorset restaurant, often until a driver picked him up at six the next morning. With a cup of tea in one hand and his script in the other, she said, he would learn his lines on the way to the set. This off-the-cuff approach, however, did not stop Finch from asserting himself when he thought Schlesinger was not getting the proper amount of film coverage from every angle in one crucial scene. He fought the director tooth and nail, and when the rushes were screened, he caused a terrible scene, screaming and shouting at Schlesinger. Despite the incident, Schlesinger always maintained Finch was "marvelous" as Boldwood (an opinion backed by the British Academy's Best Actor Award), although he never again allowed actors to watch dailies.

The other two leading men in the cast were also enjoying the wave of popularity enjoyed by British actors at the time, particularly in America. Alan Bates had been making pictures since the mid-50s and was coming off recent successes in Zorba the Greek (1964), King of Hearts (1966) and Georgy Girl (1966). Like Christie, Terence Stamp was also experiencing something like flavor-of-the-month status for his brooding good looks and appearances in The Collector (1965) and the Swingin' 60s spy spoof Modesty Blaise (1966). Stamp said Far from the Madding Crowd was his first bad experience in film, claiming Schlesinger treated him as a "whipping boy" and forced him, a natural left-hander, to learn to wield a saber in his right hand, which brought him within a quarter inch of breaking Christie's jaw in one scene.

Perhaps the person who fared best on this picture was cinematographer Nicholas Roeg. Even critics who panned the film had high praise for his gorgeous camerawork. Others have credited him with helping Schlesinger take a more sensuous, contemplative approach to the material, using the visual clues of climatic and seasonal changes to evoke a sense of passing time. Roeg went directly from this film to Christie's next, Petulia (1968), and onto a directing career of his own beginning with Performance (1970). A few years later he cast Christie in the female lead of his adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier's supernatural thriller Dont Look Now (1973).

Look for an appearance by screenwriter Peter Stone in the small role of Teddy Coggan. Sometimes credited as "Pierre Marton," Stone wrote the scripts for such films as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Silver Bears (1977), as well as TV adaptations of the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn films Woman of the Year (remade in 1984) and Adam's Rib (a short-lived series in 1973). But he had nothing to do with the screenplay for Far from the Madding Crowd. His only other feature film appearance as an actor was an uncredited bit in Charade (1963), for which he provided the story.

Director: John Schlesinger
Producer: Joseph Janni
Screenplay: Frederic Raphael, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy
Cinematography: Nicholas Roeg
Editing: Malcolm Cooke
Art Direction: Roy Smith
Original Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Julie Christie (Bathsheba Everdine), Terence Stamp (Sgt. Troy), Peter Finch (William Boldwood), Alan Bates (Gabriel Oak), Fiona Walker (Liddy).

by Rob Nixon

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