Dir. John Schlesinger. Starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp
There are better moments in Far from the Madding Crowd than this, but the most exquisitely Hardy moment of the film is at the wedding of Frank Troy (Stamp) and his pregnant girlfriend, Fanny (Prunella Ransome). (Runners-up in this movie include a thoughtless card, a fifty-pound payment made twelve hours too late, a drunk driver, a set of clothes on the beach left there by a man who was not drowning but waving.) Fanny has been pressuring Frank for the wedding and finally gets it, only to wind up at the wrong church. She waits, entranced by the music some soldiers are playing while they make eyes at her, wondering what she’s doing there. And then Schlesinger cuts, and we see Frank with his best man and a minister; she’s somehow mixed up the churches. Hardy’s philosophy, which I’ve long found intoxicating, is present in a moment like that. Lives alter because of a simple misunderstanding. Fanny runs to the church once she’s realized, but by then the vicar has bailed and Frank is so upset that he barely acknowledges her. Of course, in Hardy as in life, it’s never just that simple. Fanny’s misapprehension dooms her as much as it dooms Boldwood (Peter Finch). It upends Bathsheba (Christie) and Gabriel (Bates). And although there’s no way to know that Frank Troy might not have met some even more unsavory end, surely some cosmic retribution obliterates him in return for the way he refused to spare the woman he placed in an untenable position.
Far from the Madding Crowd is only five years the junior of Lawrence of Arabia, and while it’s a little blasphemous to compare the two, Schlesinger has the same vastness on his mind as Lean. So often, he finds ways to express the scope of England in a way that we don’t often see done in the movies, and those are some of the best sequences of Far from the Madding Crowd because Schlesinger decides to make romance equivalent with the soaring hillsides. Bathsheba rides a horse from one end of the screen to another across a tawny hillside. In one scene, Bathsheba hides from Gabriel while he discusses a proposal of marriage with her mother. While Schlesinger shows us what it looks like when Christie peeks into the room in an American shot, we also see from a great distance the way that Christie splays herself flat against the outer wall of the house while Bates comes towards the other side of it. A verdant hillside becomes the place where Frank begins his courtship of Bathsheba in earnest, swinging his sword and enacting cavalry charges down the slope. The phallic intimations of swordplay are entirely welcome because the movie is not in the least coy about the meaning thereof; Terence Stamp’s physical handsomeness is as necessary and fetishized by the other characters in this movie as it was in Billy Budd and would be in Teorema. It is a bad sign for Boldwood that he is not shot in the same ways. Although he is frequently found in the outdoors, and even with Bathsheba, as he is when he proposes in the woods, he does not get the vista treatment.
Boldwood’s boots, which are fitting for a member of the landed gentry, are the sign that sets him apart. He wears them out, and they shine in the low light as he sows seed or in the noontime as he rides out to Bathsheba’s farm. No one else has an item of clothing so useful and so gaudy at the same time. Of the four lead performances in film, Finch probably gives the best one. His feelings are easier to sum up and to empathize with than anyone else’s—a schoolboy crush—but his advanced age makes him foolish. Finch was in his early fifties when the movie was released, and he looks it compared to Christie and Stamp, neither of whom was thirty when Far from the Madding Crowd was released. His speech is too courtly compared to theirs, his manners too refined. When Troy throws Boldwood’s money down at him from his marriage loft, it’s a triumph of the young showing the old their urns. Nor does the movie, in good late ’60s fashion, assume that Boldwood is necessarily a superior mate for Bathsheba. Even if Troy is a rake and a roustabout, a man who abandons his wife and career in order to star in a circus act, at least he doesn’t kill anybody.
Gabriel Oak (a name rivaled only by like, “Angel Clare” and “Damon Wildeve” for pure symbolic resonance) is the reliable center of the story, who stands firm in the face of rejection and ruin. The film begins with his efforts to train a sheepdog, and within fifteen minutes his sheepdog has sent his sheep on a suicide stampede off a cliff while he slept. Gabriel shoots the dog, which is more or less expected, but what’s remarkable is how little emotion he shows in his face as he raises his shotgun. Some combination of Bates and Schlesinger recognize that the performance of Gabriel’s emotions is more than telling the audience that it recognizes what they’re feeling; they realize that an actor of Bates’ ability has the strength to make us feel what he feels. And so there is no sadness for the dog (or the sheep, for that matter) nor does he appear especially angry. Something in his face says that he understands the calamity of having gone to bed with a livelihood and having awoken without it, and all the same he is not wrathful when he kills. His calmness makes him the best match for Bathsheba, although she’ll have had to run through a couple other choices before choosing the shepherd. Certainly he makes it clear early in her marriage to Frank, when the new master of the farm gets all of the hands drunk during his wedding feast (after sending the women home to bed) and it’s left to Gabriel and Bathsheba alone to ward off disaster for the crop during a terrific storm.
The movie’s most serious flaw, and it’s hard to know if this is a flaw rooted more deeply in the source material, is that Julie Christie is put almost entirely in positions to react. Some of the better moments in Far from the Madding Crowd give Christie the chance to instigate: her slow appearance from the left of the screen on horseback that stuns Gabriel, a shot from below where the sun lights up her face and hair that puts Finch in shadow, a scene where she comes into the kitchen and hears the maids gossiping about Frank. In the second half particularly, a great deal of her dialogue can be pared back to “No, Frank, let’s not,” and it takes the wind out of the sails of a more interesting character. It’s no surprise that her best scene after the intermission is mostly silent and mostly read on her face. She connects the dots that Frank had hidden badly from her and does something that most of us cannot imagine doing: she rips the lid off a coffin with her bare hands, pulling the nails up, to find the corpse of Frank’s lover in her home. Christie is every bit as good as her male co-stars, who are some of the best British actors of their time. I wish the movie had given her a little more time to stretch her wings.