HER ROMANCE WITH THREE MEN BECOMES A BOLD ADVENTURE.
When it was announced that director John Schlesinger would adapt Thomas Hardy’s classic Victorian novel “Far From the Madding Crowd” as his next project, there must have been a few gasps of surprise. After all, this was a man who had earned his stripes as a British filmmaker by directing pictures that portrayed contemporary urban affairs, not least Darling (1965), which had Julie Christie in “swinging London”. The star chose to join Schlesinger on his trek to the English countryside, far from the madding crowd… but in the end, this adaptation turned out to have plenty in common with Schlesinger’s other work.
We’re in the West Country of England, some time in the late 1800s. Bathsheba Everdene (Christie) has come to live with her aunt for a while. She gets to know Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a young shepherd who falls in love with her. One day, he asks her to marry him, but she explains to him that marriage is out of the question because she simply doesn’t love him. Shortly afterwards, she leaves her aunt for a nearby village. When Gabriel later is financially ruined because of an inexperienced sheepdog, he also packs up and leaves. Looking for work, he ends up in a town called Shottsford where he happens to prevent a potentially serious fire. When the owner comes to thank him, she turns out to be Bathsheba. She explains to him that she recently inherited her uncle’s estate, and hires him. However, any hopes Gabriel might harbor of wooing her are dashed by two other men who fall in love with her…
The story unfolding as well as in Hardy’s novel
Those two men are William Boldwood (Peter Finch) and Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), and there is very little all these three men have in common, except their infatuation with Bathsheba. For much of the story, Gabriel stands on the sidelines, observing the mad behavior of Boldwood and Troy. The former is a dull, lonely but wealthy farmer who falls victim to a minor prank played by Bathsheba, but fails to understand it and decides to pursue her as his wife. Uncomfortable and embarrassed about the whole situation, Bathsheba promises to at least consider his proposal. The latter is a dashing sergeant who dazzles her with his charm and swordplay… but has a gambling problem, as well as a complicated relationship with a girl who was employed by Bathsheba’s uncle. This is a good story and screenwriter Frederic Raphael and Schlesinger makes sure it unfolds as well as in Hardy’s novel; we may judge these characters for various reasons, but we remain unsure of exactly where the plot will take us. In the end, we (as well as Bathsheba) have learned lessons about the ingredients that make for a lasting marriage. That journey is long, but then again these people are certainly flawed – and richly portrayed. Christie is just as compelling a lead as in Darling, frequently making decisions that have dire consequences; Stamp is a delight as the womanizer who turns out to be quite the coward. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg gives the film an earthy tone in his depiction of the cold, muddy and windy landscape. Some of his visual touches render the film a modern look, but Richard Rodney Bennett’s beautiful, discreet music score has a more timeless quality.
The drama between these four characters has enough passion to match anything going on among the most madding of city crowds, especially between Boldwood and Troy. It drags at times, but always recovers with one more twist or expertly conceived scene. That’s pretty impressive for a movie that ends up simply saying that you should always go with the boy next door.
Far From the Madding Crowd 1967-Britain. 171 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Joseph Janni. Directed by John Schlesinger. Screenplay: Frederic Raphael. Novel: Thomas Hardy. Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg. Music: Richard Rodney Bennett. Cast: Julie Christie (Bathsheba Everdene), Peter Finch (William Boldwood), Terence Stamp (Francis Troy), Alan Bates (Gabriel Oak), Prunella Ransome.
Trivia: Dirk Bogarde was allegedly considered for the role of Boldwood. The story was also filmed as a TV movie in 1998, as Tamara Drewe (2010) and Far From the Madding Crowd (2015).
Last word: “I didn’t want to play my part in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, simply because I felt it would come as no surprise to anybody that I could do it, you know. It called on certain qualities that I’d used before. And I think it’s necessary to surprise people – and to surprise myself. Perhaps I’m trying to prove something to myself. I suppose I am. Why not? I would much rather have played Troy. Anyway, I didn’t. But I mean, Gabriel Oak is a great part, and he’s quite difficult because he’s so good. Wise and patient people are very difficult to act.” (Alan Bates, Film and Filming)