Julie Christie, Terrence Stamp, Peter Finch, Alan Bates

Directed by John Schlesinger

Written by Frederic Raphael, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

- “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750) by Thomas Gray

Between the bookends of legendary David Lean classics Dr. Zhivago in 1965 and Ryan’s Daughter – made three years later and which bears closest resemblance of all British romantic epics from the period, sits John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of the celebrated Thomas Hardy novel.

As justly acclaimed as the previously mentioned Lean works are, Far from the Madding Crowd is unjustly understated, lost into cinematic history amidst a time where British romantic cinema was in a massive and lavish world all on its own.

It is a love story not caught between the fires of Russian revolution, or swept amongst the sandy tides and passionate emerald green forests of Ireland.  It takes place in Hardy country, rural Western England, home of sheep and goofy accents.  Fiercely independent heroine Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits her deceased uncle’s farm, and with the help of rough-hewn but honest master shepherd Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates) – whose marriage proposal she turned down while she was still but a lass living with her aunt – creates a booming agrarian community built on wool, wheat, and the affection of her mostly male workers.

The neighboring farm is headed by the wealthy Mr. Boldwood – a spot-on performance by veteran Peter Finch – who Bathsheba is told has never been able to keep interest in a woman long.  As she is willful and playful in the field of romance – as well as spectacularly beautiful – Bathsheba mischievously sends him a valentine with the token “Marry me” as the only message.  This sets off the lonely bachelor on a fantasy of Bathsheba that he will never be able to get over.

In the meantime, sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp) – head of a Dragoon unit returning to their base nearby – aspires to marry young Fanny, but when they agree to marry at a church nearby, Fanny foolishly forgets which church and ends up arriving too late. Troy’s pride – more important than his love for her – takes a heavy blow, and he leaves her.

After admonishing Oak for correctly rebuking how she was unfairly treating Boldwood, the man himself astonishes her by asking for Bathsheba’s hand in marriage.  Taken aback but not sure if she wanted to say no to a man whose wealth could assure her own making and sustainability, she says that she would promise nothing but would give him an answer come harvest time.

Inevitably, Bathsheba crosses paths with Troy late at night, and this third suitor turns the tables on the headstrong woman’s every perception of love and what she knew to be love as she falls suddenly and totally for the dapper soldier.  Understandably, she forgets her harvest-time agreement just as completely.

Bathsheba and her three previous, current and would-be suitors continue through the story’s sudden twists, en route to a shocking, if not rather rushed, conclusion to this engrossing 171-minute story of man and woman’s pride, love’s confusing and often tragic effect on both the amateurs and veterans of this world, and how patience can endure when luck and guile fail.

As in all novels adaptations, but bearing infinitely more scrutiny for a long-loved classic story, the casting is essential.  Blonde, blue-eyed, flawless Julie Christie – who Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael introduced to the world in 1965’s Darling – was a sure thing for the role of Bathsheba, but bore criticism for her too-pretty appearance considering she was a girl born into the country, now farming head of a successful agragrian business.  The same criticism appeared thirty-five years later with Nicole Kidman playing Scarlett O’Harian character Ada Monroe in Anthony Minghella’s take on Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain”; enduring all matters of mental and physical hardship while still remaining a bastion of unblemished porcelain skin and blonde hair with nary a lock out of place.

Christie does her absolute best to get into the character of Bathsheba by dressing in sometimes unflattering 1860s-rural England period clothing and altering her genteel accent for a Cornwallian one, but it is a timeless truth that true beauty can never be hidden, and Christie’s – surely one of the absolute screen Perspephones of the century – is a clear example.  So Schlesinger and the producers use this to their advantage.  A scene in which Bathsheba is asked at a summertime picnic by her workers to sing a folk ballad shows the utter adoration she receives from all men, not just her three suitors.  A slow panning shot by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who would go on to use his skills from working with Lean and Schlesinger to become an accomplished director in his own right) allows each farmhand’s worn, sometimes wrinkled face, grow serene and almost tearful as they each watch her sing – a wonder of beauty to be beheld probably never before by them.

That same beauty works in affectation with her three suitors, and is what prompts each of them to ask for her hand, albeit with subtly different motives.  Gabriel Oak prompts her for marriage by coming to her aunt’s home with a baby lamb, explaining that she could watch it grow as she raises it herself.  He is amazed by her beauty, but also is sincere in his desire to take care of her, to be her equal companion.  She is too young and proud to appreciate such, but time tells by story’s end.  Mr. Boldwood views her as the embodiment of everything he’s ever wanted in his years, an exquisite and pleasing thing that he can dress up and buy gifts for and keep in his mansion and to celebrate to his affluent London friends.  He is sincere himself – he would never treat her poorly – but he is also obsessed, as taken by her fantasy as her actuality, and his inability to reconcile these results in his tragic end.

Troy is a different animal entirely, whose pride allows him to quickly forget Fanny and find instant gratification with the more beautiful and better-educated Bathsheba despite his heart’s true home.  He uses his own physical features (Bates’ Oak, with his curly brown hair and chiseled, rugged features, is by far the most handsome of all the suitors, but lacks the confidence that Troy has in spades) and the dashing quality of his perpetual blood-red uniform to woo her.  In great surprise, considering she had for so long explained that no man was a master of her heart but she, Bathsheba becomes enamored, infatuated and finally downright worshipping of Troy.  In the film’s most famous (or infamous) sequence, Troy invites Bathsheba out in the rolling fields far from home, where he pretends to attack her with his sword; charging at her on an imagined steed and deftly slicing off stray blonde locks to show his quality.

The implied arousal Bathsheba gets from the display is delicate, but there onscreen nonetheless.  But any girl who has been taken aback by a uniformed soldier; seen a man possessed by such raw talent for killing and yet such gentle grace and touch, a man as assured in what he wants as by what means he is willing to get it, and to be more shallow, carrying weapons and golden buttons that decorate his outfit, could say they have felt the same.

Even when Troy loses all interest in Bathsheba, even going as far as to renounce their love, she can never say no to him, can never forget him.  She had gone from disciplined independent woman to starry-eyed doter, from manipulator of love to being completely imprisoned by it.

In this respect she holds more in common with poor Mr. Boldwood than her other men.  But in a time of such weakness, to be befriended and coddled and harried by a man just as weak is not the remedy.  It is only shepherd Oak, who coolly and patiently watched her ride off with Mr. Boltwood as he asked for her hand, saw her betray the man’s good intentions by eloping suddenly with Troy – and yet still stood by her as her most trusted servant and worker – who knows and knew that what she needed wasn’t a fairytale soldier come to sweep her off her feet and promise her sweet nothings, or a lonely and repressed old man stricken with obsession and idolatries to pamper her.

Strength deserves strength, and in the end it is a mutual respect rather than a fiery love that could only stabilize, endure and cultivate on the farm only to be found in Hardy country, far from the madding crowd.

Images courtesy of themoviedb.com, moviemail-online.co.uk and flickr.com, respectively.

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