When he wrecked their teeny tiny car, Appellate Judge Tom Becker fled the circus to get far from the madding clowns.
A willful, passionate girl and…the three men who want her!
When the beautiful and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie, Away from Her) inherits her uncle's farm in the English countryside, she vows to run the place on her own, having found the last bailiff to be stealing from her. She hires shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates, Butley), who had courted her when she was but a poor girl. She'd turned down his proposal then, and she makes it clear now that their relationship is strictly employer and hired hand.
Bathsheba's beauty and confidence attracts the attention of a neighboring landowner, Mr. Boldwood (Peter Finch, Sunday Bloody Sunday). Several years older and never married, Bloodwood proposes to Bathsheba at their first meeting. Flattered, she turns him down, but he promises to persist.
Bathsheba then meets a soldier, Frank Troy (Terrence Stamp, Superman). Unbeknownst to her, Troy had recently ended a long-time affair with her maid, Fanny (Prunella Ransome), who ran off heartbroken when Troy broke their engagement. Bathsheba feels something for Troy that she didn't feel for the other men…but is she wise to let her heart overrule her mind?
Far from the Madding Crowd was one of the last of the studio-produced, epic-scale romances before Ryan's Daughter came along and effectively closed the book on the genre. Made in 1967, it was an old-fashioned prestige release that stood in stark contrast to the exciting "new Hollywood" offerings like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.
Based on Thomas Hardy's 19th century novel, Crowd featured the top talent of its day. Front and center was Christie, fresh from her Oscar win for Darling, as well as her iconic turn as Lara in Dr. Zhivago. Bates and Stamp were at the forefront of hip, young, internationally successful British actors, Bates because of Georgy Girl and Zorba the Greek, Stamp thanks to Billy Budd and The Collector. The film was directed by John Schlesinger and adapted by Frederic Raphael, who'd worked with Christie on Darling, and the breathtaking cinematography was by Nicholas Roeg, who'd go on to direct Performance, Walkabout, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Unfortunately, all this talent—plus the added bonus of an off-screen affair between Christie and Stamp—can't get Far from the Madding Crowd off the ground.
When Christie, Schlesinger, and Raphael collaborated on Darling, they came up with a film that was cutting, incisive, and emotionally distant. Far from the Madding Crowd is also emotionally distant, but since this is supposed to be a love story, that distance is a liability. This is a handsomely produced, well-acted, and literate film, but it's as romantic as a weather map.
There's very little passion between any of the characters. Bates' Gabriel makes an honorable proposal at the start of the film, Bathsheba turns him down (because she doesn't love him, she says), and that's pretty much that. He's always kind of in the wings, but Gabriel doesn't chase after her, and he accepts their professional relationship like the "good man" that he is.
Boldwood simply falls in love at first sight, and when Bathsheba demurs, he becomes relentless, letting his own farm go downhill because of his obsession with her. We really don't know much about him, and we have no idea why, aside from her beauty, Bathsheba would become an all-consuming passion for him. The film does nothing to explain it, though the character restates it pretty much every time he's on screen ("Promise you'll think about marrying me!" "Do you think she'll marry me?"). Since we don't understand Boldwood's motivations, his story, which should be central, more or less fades into the background.
Then there's the relationship between Bathsheba and Sgt. Troy. Christie and Stamp were, at the time, two of the most beautiful people in movies, and they look great together, but their romance generates no sparks. He's a lout, which is clear from his earlier scenes with Fanny. His interactions with Bathsheba don't do much to elevate him; in fact, he just gets worse the more we see of him. Much of the time, he acts like an arrogant idiot, and Bathsheba throwing herself at him seems like a betrayal of her character rather than a facet of it.
While the story is weak, this a beautiful film to look at. The widescreen compositions are wonderful, as is Nicholas Roeg's cinematography. Here and there, we get some odd POV shots, which should work to create suspense or a sense of intimacy but just seem jarring.
In a lot of ways, Far from the Madding Crowd reminded me of a later film, Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. Many of Nestor Almendros' shots of field workers in Days of Heaven seem to echo Roeg's work here, and some of the plot devices of Malick's film could have been inspired by Schlesinger's—the wealthy farmer offering security over love, a circus figuring into the developments, a fire, the muted rather than expansive passions, nature as a key player, among others.
The disc from Warner Bros. is bare bones, save for a trailer. The transfer is decent, if a bit washed out here and there, but overall free of any major damage. The audio has been remastered to 5.1 surround, it sounds great. The film opens with an "overture" and contains an intermission and "entr'acte," so audiences would have something nice to listen to when they filed into the theater and then a break-up in the almost-three-hour running time. This is also an "extended" version, with an additional three minutes not seen in U.S. theaters. Can't tell you where they turn up, but they're there.
Unlike many other epic romance films, Far from the Madding Crowd doesn't play against a larger backdrop such as war or natural disaster. It's just as the title says; everything takes place away from other people and places, so the scope is very narrow. What we're left with is a series of pretty pictures strung together with a less-than engrossing story.
Recommended for fans of the stars or the genre.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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