In honor of its remake opening this week, let’s go back to 1967 when Thomas Hardy’s novel first received the big-budget Hollywood treatment. Far From the Madding Crowd is a difficult text to adapt since, unlike Hardy’s infinitely more readable Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the plot meanders as much as the sheep everyone herds within. Most adaptations, including the latest from the looks of the trailers, play up the romance angle which shouldn’t take more than 2 hours to tell. Director John Schlesinger’s take is a bloated, utterly beautiful film with some decent performances, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re watching a book report; this is one movie where adhering to the source material verbatim backfires.
Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) is the mistress of a large farm. For all her dominance and strong will, she finds herself floundering in the ways of love, pursued by three very different men.
On a very basic level, watching Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray edition of Far From the Madding Crowd expertly shows off the gorgeous cinematography by future director Nicolas Roeg (he would helm his directorial debut, Performance, three years later). The sprawling English vistas and verdant farmland emphasize a quaint land of possibility, contrasted with the cluttered, chaotic, and vibrant English towns that Bathsheba and company visit.
But, too often, the movie feels like a lesson in learning to herd sheep. This is the problem screenwriter Fredric Raphael runs into. He does an amazing job of condensing and honing Hardy’s dense prose. As much as I hate advocating cheating, children, if you have to read this than just watch this version! Every major and minor event in the novel is acted out on screen, probably aiding in a runtime closing in on three hours. In the case of Bathsheba’s various relationships with small-town herder Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), soldier Sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp), and William Boldwood (Peter Finch), you understand the various mechanics intimately.
In most cases, however, there’s too much farm life depicted, such as Gabriel having to do some weird gassing procedure on the sheep, farm fires, and the like. Some of Hardy’s sillier plot devices also remain, including the ridiculous twist where Troy, faking his death to escape his marriage from Bathsheba, takes up acting.
For the most part, the movie depicts the various “faces” of a woman trying to be both masculine and feminine, flirtatious and serious, demure and aggressive. That doesn’t quite fit Julie Christie’s persona, especially since she’s tarted up too much for a small-town farmer. Her fickleness is also supposed to come off as anathema to the audience, but it doesn’t help that the three men vying for her attention are so two-dimensional. Again, most of these problems were inherent in the prose itself. Christie works with what she’s given, and her windswept hair and luminosity certainly make her worthy of being on a pedestal.
Because this is a Thomas Hardy novel, the best element of the romance involves Bathsheba’s love for the wrong man, in this case a downright gorgeous Terence Stamp (Have I mentioned that some actors should never be allowed to age?). Stamp, who had made the fantastically creepy The Collector two years prior, revels in playing the redolent Troy. When Bathsheba weepingly expresses her love for him, he looks away – almost looking at us in the audience – and smirks; he’s ensnared her. Filled with the typical issues of these types of romances – a pregnant mistress, drinking, carousing – both Stamp and Christie are amazing. The same can’t be said for Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak aka the “right” guy. He’s too cocky for the role because he acts too much like God’s gift to women.
As a primer to Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd works, if not by being a bit overblown and focused on minutiae. Julie Christie isn’t who I’d pick as Bathsheba, but she works perfectly opposite rascally Stamp.
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