This week’s film is quite nearly the perfect definition of a hidden gem. Director John Schlesinger’s 1967 “Far From the Madding Crowd” was an excellent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s outstanding Victorian novel that somehow got completely overlooked when it was released in a year of more contemporary popular films like, “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Using a rather faithfully written screenplay by Frederic Raphael and an excellent cast of British superstars Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terrance Stamp, this nearly three-hour film was shot in Dorset, England. Schlesinger authentically recreates Hardy’s romantic tale of Bathsheba Everdene (Christie), a determined and independent, but slightly vain young woman who manages a farm she inherited from a late uncle and the three men who pursue her: the handsome young soldier Francis
“Frank” Troy (Stamp), the middle-aged and wealthy farmer William Boldwood (Finch) and the simple shepherd/farmer Gabriel Oak (Bates), all set in the fictional region of Wessex. The film was gloriously photographed by cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, who, years later, became a successful director himself.
Hardy’s themes, language and complex characters have always been a passion of mine from the first time I read Hardy’s “Return of the Native” and a selection of his poetry in an honors English class in high school. This romantic love story begins with a bearded shepherd Gabriel leading a herd of sheep over a rolling green hillside with his two border collies guiding the flock when over the horizon he sees a beautiful golden-
haired woman riding horseback toward her farmland. Later, when he finally meets up with the woman, Bathsheba, he has an important proposal to make. She refuses his hand in marriage, saying she simply does not love him.
In Schlesinger’s next sequences, Mr. Boldwood and later the dashing young soldier Sergeant Troy are introduced. A series of misfortunate events bring several of the characters closer, and when a fire destroys a part of Bathsheba’s farm, Gabriel comes to work on her farm, while Boldwood makes a visit offering his help. Servants comment to Bathsheba that many women have tried to court the bachelor Boldwood, but “he is married to his farm. No woman could touch him. It’s said he has no passionate parts.” This strangely touches Bathsheba’s vanity, and she subsequently sends Boldwood a note showing her interest in him.
Meanwhile, Troy returns to the village and renews his pledge to his local sweetheart Fanny, and they plan to marry within a week. But when Fanny gets confused with the location of the church where they are to get married and arrives too late for the late morning wedding, Troy claims he’s been humiliated and changes his mind.
Months later, while out walking her property late one evening, she encounters Troy, and he is immediately taken with her. He then tells her, “A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine.” And Bathsheba is enthralled by the attention of this handsome soldier, despite her servants warning that he has a reputation with many women as a heartbreaker. Soon Bathsheba and Troy secretly marry, and the jealousy proceeds as Boldwood tries to pay Troy to leave England and ever-faithful Gabriel shows disgust to her betrayal yet agrees to stay on in her employ.
After a series of more unfortunate twists of circumstances, Troy disappears after the death of Fanny, and Boldwood makes another move to win Bathsheba’s heart before the four central characters face one climactic event that seals their fates.
The performances of the four leads are outstanding. Julie Christie, as Bathsheba, is an intriguing mix of youthful feminine determination and radiant beauty, so appropriate for this classic romance. Her chemistry with Bates made the emotional aspects of this tale so palpable. Before this film, Christie was just off the twin successes of David Lean’s screen epic “Doctor Zhivago” and the 1965 Oscar for best actress in Schlesinger’s “Darling.”
In Donald Spoto’s 2007 biography “Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates,” he notes, “No matter his (Bates’) initial indifference to the role of Gabriel Oak, his performance managed a delicate balance of the heroic with the romantic sensibility precisely right for Hardy’s honorable farmer—a determined man of the soil, uneducated but no simpleton, and simultaneously one able to love and be loved.”
And, despite a very impressive remake in 2015, with Carey Mulligan as
Bathsheba, I still find that Schlesinger’s version of “Far from the Madding Crowd” captures the passion of Hardy’s tale more effectively.