Properly rediscovered: 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd

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It’s heartening to see John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd getting a well-deserved reappraisal, with some fairly glowing reviews for the restored version released in cinemas this Spring:

“One of the most entrancing and elemental landscape films ever shot in these isles, thanks in large part to Nicolas Roeg’s peerless cinematography and Schlesinger’s decision to cram the soundtrack with folk songs and country dances.”
Time Out

“What is striking, almost 50 years on from when it was made, is its extraordinary craftsmanship and its emotional intensity… This is not one of those handsomely mounted but stilted period dramas that is stifled by the fussiness of the costume and production design… Schlesinger’s film has a raw, elemental charge. It manages to portray rustic life without seeming quaint.”
The Independent

“The Hardy adaptation that really captured the scale, beauty and menace of the landscape, and all its colours and moods.”

“Christie carries the film with her own insouciant vulnerability. A classic.”
The Guardian

“Quality oozes from every pore.”
The Times

“Splendidly lusty fare, its feet deep in the mud of the English countryside, its head in the lens-flared glare of a dreamy tragi-romantic sky.”
The Observer

Not so long ago critics would dismiss the film as swinging-sixties style tacked onto Hardy’s Wessex – to the casual observer, perhaps not unfairly. The popular notion was that The Kinks had name-checked Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in ‘Waterloo Sunset’ in the year of release (something Ray Davies denied: “It was a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world”).

Filmed in Dorset in the autumn and winter of 1966-1967, it’s not surprising Schlesinger’s film didn’t translate well to a Hollywood expecting a Dr Zhivago epic. After all, Schlesinger wanted to “dig out the dark spiritual side of Hardy… with verisimilitude”. As any Hardy aficionado will appreciate, this could be tantamount to setting your picnic in a crypt.

The restoration has been supervised by its cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (who in 1967 was yet to be the lauded director). At nearly three hours, it does demand a little of the viewer, but it’s a truly beautiful film, with a lush Oscar-nominated score from Richard Rodney Bennett, and the superlative casting of Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.

Perhaps its renewed appeal owes something to Schlesinger unearthing the landscape of a Victorian past in 1967, to clash with the hipster faces of Britain’s gentle, modish revolution. You could say Schlesinger’s film is now an uncontrived landmark, part of a timeline that tracks how we’ve looked to the landscape for authenticity: whether then, in the face of a ubiquitous ‘sixties scene’, or now, in the face of rampant capitalism.

And contradictions of style and substance – are they not the very heart of Bathsheba’s dilemma?

Released throughout the UK – see here for screenings.

Below: things to be grateful for in 2015 include the film now getting the poster it deserves (above), and not this excrescence from 1967:

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9 thoughts on “Properly rediscovered: 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd

  1. Val

    Hello, This was interesting to learn, as I was not aware they had re-issued the film. All I can say is that I thought it beautiful , exceptional. compelling and well acted, the first time I saw it in the cinema in 1967. I find it difficult to understand how it could ever have been dismissed in the first place. I am just curious what reasons a ‘new’ audience might find the film appealing now~ would it be chiefly because it has the ‘sixties’ retro influence appeal for those under 40 ? Most period films reflect to some degree the fashions (in hair and make-up usually) and are viewed through a somewhat co lens of the time in which they were created, but I would like to think that people who are new to it, will see how much more there is to it than what is on the surface. It is visually rich and beautifully filmed but much more, as you will know. Thank you for posting this~ I count the film amongst my favorites from the 60’s.

    • I think it did very well in the UK originally, and audiences enjoyed it – it was certainly remembered. I’ve read that US critics were harsh on release which perhaps account for the idea it didn’t quite ‘achieve’ – but that’s no way to judge a film. Perhaps post-Oscar Julie Christie was such an ascendant star Hollywood expected something more in tune with the era.

      The internet keeps so much art, film and music alive, sources and influences are just a big melting pot: I’d like to think we no longer judge eras as ‘old-fashioned’ (apart from cultural attitudes). If anyone really loves film they have nearly a century of amazing and creative ways of exploring themes, ideas and places – that’s how I see it. The era in which they’re produced doesn’t really matter provided they’ve been made with integrity. It’s fascinating how period films reflect the time they are made in as you say. I think from the critic reviews above, people are seeing beyond the retro aspect to the cinematography, quality of acting and so on – and of course, in 1967 the Victorian era was still within living memory, so the sights and sounds of the film are perhaps less self-conscious than they would be today.

      I would also recommend The Return of the Soldier from 1982: again, Julie Christie and Alan Bates, with Glenda Jackson. No idea why that one didn’t get recognition, though I think it did well at Cannes.

      • Val

        Yes, as you say, the Victorian era not such a distant memory for many folks still in the mid 60’s ~ I always marveled at the fact my grandparents mode of transport as children was a horse and wagon and they still plowed their fields with a mule or horse, when my father was still a boy in the late 20’s early 30’s~ it was just a short leap from the late 1890’s to the 60’s really. I have actually seen both The Return of the Soldier( which I recorded from t.v. in the 1980’s ) as well as The Go-Between (which I loved) both such fine films especially The Go Between~ I was always a big Alan Bates fan as well as Glenda Jackson and tried to see most of their work when I could. You are right too re: the internet keeping these films, music and art alive and accessible ~ I have been able to discover (if not quite always able to view) so many lesser known films and obscure and cult films which I otherwise probably would not have known about, except by being able to explore various websites. It really is like a great treasure chest if you know where to look or are lucky enough to you stumble upon some rich site .

  2. Wonderful – have so often longed to see this again… this film, and The Go-Between ( also with Bates and Christie, and peerless Margaret Leighton) are my all-time favourites… hope it gets to the Antipodes… and you’re so right about the poster!!!!

    • Yes – couldn’t agree more, there is certainly a blog post on The Go-Between due! Watched again with a cleaned-up Blu-ray of that just weeks ago – though would love to see it on the big screen: the landscape and the atmosphere of full summer has never been bettered… and the Michel Legrand soundtrack of course.

  3. RobinSurtees

    Thanks for this! Schlesinger’s FFTMC was the first film my future wife and I saw together (having discovered we were both fans of Thomas Hardy) and we were bowled over by it, so it’s good to learn that the restoration has been so successful. I do wonder, however, how many people outside London and other cities will have the chance to see it as it should be seen – on a big screen in a large, packed auditorium. It’s an odd irony that as films become more spectacular (sometimes pointlessly spectacular), cinemas become smaller…
    Ah, that poster! At least the spelling ‘willful’ pins the blame firmly on the film’s US distributors (though a slightly less OTT version was also used in the UK). When it was released in a 35mm version, the US came into its own again with a poster so crass as to be hilarious in the way only Really Bad Ideas can be. (See https://www.facebook.com/warnerarchive/photos/a.275238161562.177744.205910361562/10153105450431563/?type=1&theater)
    At least the new poster gives Hardy the most visible credit after the four stars!

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