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Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd(1967)

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Director John Schlesinger stepped briefly into the front rank of commercial filmmakers with Far from the Madding Crowd, a pastoral classic made possible by the rising star of actress Julie Christie.. Schlesinger, Christie and writer Frederick Raphael enjoyed a major success with 1965's Darling but MGM was surely eager to get the star of Doctor Zhivago back on the screen in a period romance.

The faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 epic follows a format strikingly similar to supermarket-rack romance novels. Primarily a poet, Hardy stated that he wrote the novel primarily as a way of making a living. But it is also an authentic picture of the hardships and social conventions of rural English life. The title is an archaic expression meaning, "away from the frenzied life in the city". It's chronically misspelled as "maddening".

In the farm country of South West England a spirited beauty must deal with the amorous attentions of three very different suitors. Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) is not a wealthy woman, but she's determined to choose a man for love instead of simple security. Shepherd and farmer Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates) is disappointed when Bathsheba turns down his proposal. Suddenly made penniless by a cruel trick of fate, Gabriel wanders for several months before taking a job as shepherd on a large farm. His master turns out to be none other than Bathsheba, who has just inherited the farm from an uncle. Now just an employee, Gabriel must swallow his pride when the rich William Boldwood (Peter Finch) visits and falls deeply in love with his new neighbor. Bathsheba does her polite best to discourage him as well. As Boldwood's obsession grows, she meets the man of her dreams, the handsome soldier Frank Troy (Terence Stamp). Frank has no interest in farm work but Bathsheba could not be happier. The panicked Boldwood tries to bribe his rival to move on, only to find out that Frank and Bathsheba have already married.

Far from the Madding Crowd's episodic structure is ready-made for the movies. The set pieces and "cliffhanger" moments are what made it popular as a newspaper serial in 1874. A crazy sheepdog runs an entire herd over a cliff. Bathsheba foolishly sends a valentine to Boldwood that reads, "Marry Me". Storms and fires threaten the farms. Troy seduces Bathsheba with a stunning display of swordsmanship, slashing within inches of her face. One suitor decides to commit suicide by walking into the sea. A desperately hoped-for marriage so disappoints another suitor that he resorts to violence.

The story's most resonant subplot involves a good maid named Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome), who loves and almost marries Frank Troy. A tragic wedding-day mistake leads Fanny to a terrible end reminiscent in tone to Hardy's later Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The memory of Fanny haunts Frank almost like a gothic curse.

The movie was considered by many to be a disappointment, and although Julie Christie's performance could not be bettered the role did not make her into a top female star. This clearly happened because Schlesinger and Raphael wanted to billboard the book, not the movie stars, a gambit that would be unthinkable today (think Keira Knightley). Viewers expecting bodice-ripping love scenes might think the movie boring. Dramatic situations are not lacking, but Crowd doesn't signal melodramatic turns with bombastic music. Nobody appears at the curtain to deliver moral verdicts on the characters.

Movies about strong women who drive a selection of suitors (usually three) to distraction are rarely this even-handed. Think of Johnny Guitar, where the weirdly masculine Joan Crawford scrambles the hormones of the title character, an outlaw called The Dancin' Kid, and an inexperienced boy. Poor Bathsheba Everdene invites disaster just by being a little indecisive. We naturally side with the patient Gabriel Oak and his offer of a lifetime of affectionate companionship and loyalty: "At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be." The eligible Squire Boldwood's passion becomes so intense that it might as well be a psychosis. He collects gifts to his "future bride" and is so sickened that he allows his crops to be destroyed in a storm.

The dashing Frank Troy is the closest the story comes to a villain. Investing little of himself, he accepts Bathsheba's worship as a matter of course. Yet he proves to have a conscience when it comes to the luckless Fanny Robin. When Frank arrives to reclaim Bathsheba, it's up to us to decide if he's turned a new leaf or is simply reclaiming his property. Far from the Madding Crowd doesn't telegraph "correct" interpretations of its characters' motivations.

John Schlesinger's portrait of country life is rich and vibrant. Bathsheba refuses to be patronized at the agrarian markets, while Gabriel must wait on line to beg for work from the visiting landowners. Period songs play a big role at the parties Bathesheba throws for her workers. William Boldwood must cajole his farmhands into operating a newfangled threshing machine, quite a mechanical marvel for the 1860s. The film recreates an elaborate period circus, featuring an exciting performance built around the penny-dreadful character "Dick Turpin, the Highwayman Rogue".

With its quartet of superior performances, Far from the Madding Crowd has aged better than most of MGM's Road Show attractions from the 1960s. As Schlesinger purposely blocks an easy interpretation of Bathsheba's intentions, her romantic dilemma makes for good post-screening debate: which is the better suitor, and why? Is Bathsheba Everdene to be blamed for being indecisive and fickle, or are her problems just the result of bad luck?

Warners' DVD of Far from the Madding Crowd is a handsome presentation of the 1967 epic. Nicolas Roeg's celebrated cinematography is light and reddish in some exteriors, which may be the result of a slight fading of the negative elements. But overall the film has a rich and satisfying appearance, especially the scenes in the fields that appear to reproduce famous paintings. Original prints were in 70mm with six-track stereo, and the disc offers a remastered DD 5.1 mix.

We're also informed that this copy is the film's International Version, which is three minutes longer. An Overture (approximately 3 min.) and an Intermission/Entr'acte (approx. 2 min.) are present but the new footage is said to be a from a bloody cockfight sequence attended by Terence Stamp's character.

The only extra is a trailer that announces that Bathsheba "gave herself to three men", which is true only in the verbal sense -- we're talking about a lady, after all. The colors are perhaps a bit more accurate on the trailer, but Julie Christie's diamond-blue eyes would cut through any transfer.

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by Glenn Erickson