Thomas Hardy’s 19th century novel of class distinction, gender inequality, romantic love and practical application has been beautifully rendered in the film Far From the Madding Crowd. Recently released to favorable reviews starring Cary Mulligan, it was also adapted as a silent film in 1915, and in its most famous incarnation, the 1968 John Schlesinger epic starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Warner Archive has recently released this version in a gorgeous Blu-ray transfer that not only illustrates, but also improves upon Nicholas Roeg’s jaw-droppingly stunning cinematography.
The 1960s were a major motion picture renaissance for Great Britain. While we in the states constantly refer back to the 1970s as one of the most pivotal, game changing decades, England’s cinematic metamorphosis occurred ten years earlier with such films as This Sporting Life, Tom Jones, Billy Liar and Darling, young filmmakers and actors originally working in British Television strove to make a significant mark in UK’s struggling cinema. Two of the most recognized, director John Schlesinger and actress Julie Christie, exploded on the scene with the aforementioned Billy Liar, and Darling. Christie further cemented her name with the international blockbuster Dr. Zhivago, so it seemed a no-brainer for director Schlesinger to once again helm a Christie starrer, adapting the popular novel Far From the Madding Crowd.
Christie is Bathsheba Everdeen, a young girl living in Southwest England in the 1800s with her aunt on a sprawling farm. Next door is hard-working shepherd Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), who, seeing little prospect of finding any woman to marry, quite boldly and unceremoniously asks for Bathsheba’s hand. It’s quite obvious she is a “more than modern woman” who believes love must somehow factor into the equation, and feeling none for Gabriel, rejects his offer. He’s quite floored by this surprising result, and goes back to tending his sheep. Quite quickly, Bathsheba is carted away to the town of Weatherbury, where it turns out her wealthy uncle has passed and left his estate and farm to her. At the same time, one of Gabriel’s herding dogs forces his flock of sheep over a cliff. Penniless, the onetime shepherd journeys to Weatherbury to seek out his fortune as a shepherd for hire.
A fire on Bathsheba’s new estate coincidentally brings Gabriel to the rescue, and the two are awkwardly reunited. With mostly ignorant field hands to help her, she hires Gabriel as her chief “Bailiff.” Meanwhile, Bathsheba’s maid, Fanny, is in love with Sergeant Frank Troy (a dizzyingly dashing Terence Stamp) who attempts to marry the girl, but she goes to the wrong chapel. He believing she is playing with him, and calls off their engagement. She will, of course, rear her head down the line.
The smoldering passion that Gabriel feels for Bathsheba seems to go unrequited, although the girl is so focused on struggling with her own formative set of standards that she is confused and haughty by the Shepherd’s brusque overtures. Enter William Boldwood (Peter Finch) the wealthy aristocrat living in the nearby farm who has never even showed an interest in a woman. He comes to offer his assistance to Bathsheba after her fire, and falls hard at first sight. He offers her his hand in marriage on the spot, and while all the townsfolk believe this would be a match made in heaven (and bring the two largest estates in the county together under one landlord), Bathsheba is still holding fast to her notion of romantic love. She tells Boldwood she needs time to consider. That is, until a nighttime “meet cute” with dashing Sgt. Troy sends the girl head first in (irrational) love with the military bad boy. Now just as Boldwood pursues Bathsheba with wild abandon so does she pursue the woman killer Troy.
Far From the Madding Crowd was something of a sensation when the book was released for its depiction of a stubborn, forward thinking female protagonist like Bathsheba. It was also realistic in illustrating the struggles a woman with so much power and influence thrust upon her must deal with in such a sexually repressed and sexist society. She wants to make the right choices, but she’s not skilled, educated or experienced enough to know what to do, let alone old enough to understand the sexual and romantic control she has over men. She’s forced to make mistake after mistake, the worst of which is falling hard for a cad like Troy.
Christie was obsessed with playing the role, and after having two sensations with director Schlesinger, spearheaded the project with him attached from the start. Acting almost as a producer (she wasn’t) Christie was interested in every facet of production, from design, scheduling and costuming to casting. Novelist Hardy’s county of Dorchester was the setting for the book, and so, then, was the film’s. The location and the cinematography are the two most striking and impactful elements of the film, and that is felt in almost every shot. It’s no surprise that just three years later, Director of Photography Roeg would be helming his own films, with actress Christie in tow.
As always, Christie is beautiful in period wardrobe and against the romantic backdrop of the sheer cliffs, the rolling green hills and the ancient buildings and villages, as are Finch, Bates and Stamp. The film is a near-to-bursting catalogue of 60s thespian beauty.
To its detriment, however, the epic feels like an epic, and drags in its final third too slowly to a conclusion the audience can see coming a mile away. Warner Archive’s release restores the film with an opening overture, an intermission and an entre acte suite that only helps to drag out the proceedings even further. Still, the print is a marvel to behold, and an additional featurette which follows Christie as she “tours the surroundings of Dorchester” and gives us some behind-the-scenes moments of Schlesinger working with his actors, is a fascinating addition and insight into the swinging sixties’ method of filmmaking; a potent and important time for British Cinema.