Far From the Madding Crowd (Blu-ray Review)2 Mar, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch, Alan Bates.
The next time you wonder about the hold that Thomas Hardy romantic heroines have on some guys, just remember that the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wrote his senior thesis on these very women, who were likely not the type A-Rod would ever date. And for that matter, the first time I ever even heard of a Hardy heroine was during my first reading of The Catcher in the Rye in the sixth grade, when Holden Caulfield himself came off as someone captivated by The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye — a factoid I much later pointed out in 11th-grade English to the best teacher I ever had (Ellis Lutz), who turned a lot of people in our class into permanent Hardy fans. There’s something about these women that really makes you want to hold hands with them out on the heath.
All this primed me three years later for MGM’s super-duper production of Far From the Madding Crowd, which reunited screenwriter Frederic Raphael, director John Schlesinger and Julie Christie from Darling (scheduled for a Region B Blu-ray release soon) — a beautifully timed smash in terms of the British Invasion that had won Oscars for the trio’s first and last. It further reunited Christie with the studio that had just scored big-time with the critically shrugged-off Doctor Zhivago, and it doesn’t take too much savvy to speculate that had it not been for Zhivago, this expensively dicey project would have had a much tougher time getting bankrolled. As it turned out, Schlesinger’s rural spectacle with a “money” British cast did a lot better in its country of origin than it did over here at a time when Academy voters were on their way to giving the Oscar to a far less interesting In the Heat of the Night (which beat several better films, in fact) and U.S. audiences seemed to prefer even Gene Saks’ crumbling mise-en-scene in Barefoot in the Park as a way to spend their dollars.
This said, the movie of Crowd was and is a little lumpy, if never less than highly watchable, as its second half wallows too much in local color while failing to find a way to at least suggest what makes Christie’s Bathsheba Everdene (Hardy was a great one for names) tick. Though I’ve never been able to figure out why the actress’s makeup is so harshly bronzed here a lot of the time, Christie was still in the early stages of her Every Man’s Dream period (which, in truth, has never really ended). And yet, the movie is, on balance, a male actor’s show, with some of the most appealing Alan Bates ever preserved on screen and Peter Finch all bewildered and poignant in a role that might have been career-definitive had Network not come along just before his death. And this was a BIG production, which even in my home-state Ohio got road-shown in initial engagements with reserved seating and a 35- to 70mm blow-up — which kind of makes me wonder why the stereo soundtrack on this Blu-ray isn’t a little more robust, something that Richard Rodney Bennett’s magnificent score (I immediately plunked out for the vinyl soundtrack) deserves.
Christie-as-Bathsheba (with an inherited West Country farm to boot) manages to entice the three main men who cross her path — who, if you look at most of her other potential choices in this Victorian setting, makes sense. Given that Bates, Finch and Terence Stamp play them, the opposite makes sense as well — with Stamp’s cavalry officer perhaps given a built-in edge due to his penchant for flashy behavior, as in the exciting setpiece where gives a hillside demonstration of sword-wielding in perhaps the movie’s best-remembered scene (two of its rival contenders involve goats). The inherited farm would seemingly give Bathsheba the ability to call her own shots in life, and for a while she tries — but desire for a permanent relationship is obviously part of her make-up, even though complete payoff is apparently beyond her reach. On the other hand, most people have to love the person they love, even when Love No. 1 is draining the financial coffers with a bad gambling habit.
Despite the limitations of Metrocolor (the otherwise striking Lust for Life, also new on Warner Blu-ray, was dealt a similar bad-luck hand for visual posterity), the Crowd Blu-ray will deliver the visual goods for most viewers; Schlesinger was really blessed to have Nicolas Roeg as DP back in the days (Roeg would photograph Christie in Petulia the following year and later direct her in Don’t Look Now, which is just out on Blu-ray from Criterion). Though its abundance of strong individual scenes are weighted in the first half (there’s an intermission here), this still unusual commercial risk-taker ranks right up there in my 1967 estimation once we put Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate on the stand-alone pedestals where they still belong — somewhere around where, say, next-rung-down gems like El Dorado, Point Blank and Cool Hand Luke would be. Later on this year, there’ll be a new version with Carey Mulligan, which I suspect could end up being more successfully sanded around the edges in its storytelling but without the sensual magic Schlesinger’s movie has. (It’s pretty amazing that his following project was Midnight Cowboy.)
When Crowd went to second-run American theaters, MGM chopped off a short but effective coda to jerry-build something closer to a happy ending (studio suits ride again); fortunately, this isn’t only the full-length cut but one with three extra minutes hitherto exclusive to the original British release version now included. Though their scenes together are relatively few and their characters’ relationship kind of star-crossed, Christie with Bates remains a kinetic screen combo. Somebody ought to get their subsequent re-teaming in The Go-Between on DVD and Blu-ray pronto, though you can get both as imports if you have an all-Region player (and I have).