Saturday, February 21, 2015

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Blu-ray (MGM 1967) Warner Archive

With its exquisite evocations of 19th century England, rivaled only by Julie Christie’s magnetic beauty as the personification of Thomas Hardy’s tragically flawed heroine, Bathsheba, director John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd (1967) evolves into a finely wrought literary adaptation of impeccable taste. Determined every inch of his production should faithfully adhere to Hardy’s prose – practically – Schlesinger and screenwriter, Frederic Raphael set out to retain virtually all of the novel’s pivotal plot points without embellishment (mostly); Nicolas Roeg’s starkly beautiful cinematography, Richard Macdonald’s exemplary production design, Roy Forge Smith’s matchless art direction, and, Richard Rodney Bennett’s poetic underscore, greatly contributing to the immersive road show experience; complete with overture, entr’acte and exit music.  Better still; the picture is blessed to have a trio of British actors - Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp - unparalleled in their craft, and cumulatively on par with the greatest thespians of their generation. In short, Far From the Madding Crowd possessed all the regalia integral to the very best cinema epics made at the studio throughout the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.
Regrettably, 1967 was hardly a banner year for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The studio once boasting ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ had since been forced to divest themselves of their top-heavy star and producer system. In the process, they inadvertently defaced their own reputation within the industry as the undisputed ‘king of feature films’. For a while, particularly in the early 1960’s, this creative blood-letting did not equate to artistic anemia in any distinct way. And, as its competitors soon discovered, there was still money to be made in distributing independently outsourced film product, co-financed or bought outright. What really sounded the death knell for MGM in the mid-1960s was its revolving door of executive management. None of the suits who came and went understood the film business from the inside, much less how to harness all of the company’s formidable assets in any way to sustain its’ longevity. As such, they were as much responsible for hastening Metro’s demise as the changing times and tastes. Unable to see the ground beneath their feet had shifted men like producer, Sol C. Siegel and later, television exec, James Aubrey persisted to invest in top-heavy ‘landmark’ pictures; shrinking MGM’s yearly output to as few as four or five in-house made movies, betting the future welfare of the company exclusively on their success or failure. Such insanity continued to prevail behind the scenes. By 1967, MGM desperately needed a megahit to pull them from the brink of foreclosure or, at the very least, save them from a hostile corporate takeover.
Jointly budgeted at $3 million, MGM footing approximately 80% of the bill to its partner, Anglo-Amalgamated’s meager 20%, Far From The Madding Crowd was a sizable financial investment for the beleaguered leviathan. Then, as now, timing in Hollywood is everything. Arguably, Far From the Madding Crowd was the wrong movie in a year rife with modestly-budgeted crime dramas like Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde and In The Heat of the Night, and contemporary comedies; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate. Far From the Madding Crowd hails from the David Lean school of film-making; an intimate period drama grafted onto the Herculean scale of some socio-political upheaval – in this case, England’s transferal from agrarian to industrialized nation. Evidently, MGM believed that with a master craftsman like Schlesinger at the helm, and the box office draw of Julie Christie, Far From the Madding Crowd simply could not fail. They were to be cruelly disillusioned.  Yet, for the moment, it sincerely appeared as though the tide was in their favor. Just two short years earlier, Lean himself had towered at MGM with Doctor Zhivago (1965), another project plagued by setbacks and skepticism, also costarring Julie Christie. While Zhivago’s success was not immediately assured (indeed, early previews met with antiseptic public response and a thorough gnashing of teeth from the critics), in good ole-fashioned Hollywood terms, the picture sprouted legs, buoyed by general word of mouth to eventually attain the reputation of an epic on par with David O. Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939); very distinguished company, indeed.  
Under the delusion all their financial woes of late could be expunged with another excursion into period drama, outgoing V.P, Robert H. O'Brien had green lit Far From the Madding Crowd with fingers crossed, leaving incoming head, G. Clark Ramsay merely to gird his loins for another sleeper hit. Tragically, Far From The Madding Crowd was not that movie. Although it proved popular in its native U.K., the picture was an unmitigated box office disaster in the U.S. where it barely made back a third of its initial production outlay. Viewing Far From the Madding Crowd today, its failure remains even more perplexing and appalling. For here, is a vision of England as Thomas Hardy had writ, teeming with classicist pruderies and salacious intrigues. Better still, all the aforementioned actors are at the pinnacle of their powers, deftly executing their roles with surgical precision. There’s nothing to touch Terence Stamp’s deliciously vile rake, Sergeant Frank Troy; a perverse and heartless seducer who could give tepid milquetoast, Christian Grey a few pointers on how to dominate a woman so completely. Julie Christie’s fallible innocent, inveigled by his lustful byplay to destroy her own happiness, is as truly catastrophic a creature as Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara; dogged and blindsided by her hapless romanticized ambitions, while miraculously achieving a level of intuitive empathy for the character. Alan Bates is superb as the long-suffering Gabriel Oak, singularly devoted to Bathsheba’s needs, while Peter Finch offers a cannily mature outlook on the passionless elder suitor, William Boldwood.
In hindsight, it becomes even more glaringly transparent Far From The Madding Crowd is less afflicted by that dreaded elephantiasis often plaguing grandly mounted period dramas and ever more the victim of its own bad timing. Had it been made and released only a scant two or three years earlier it might very well have walked away the undisputed winner of the coveted Best Picture Academy Award.  Further removed from the hype of its anticipated large format, road show experience, Far From The Madding Crowd is even more distinctly a work of cinema art; meticulously crafted and expertly played. Although criticized at the time, Julie Christie could look back upon this performance with a distinguished sense of pride; Far From The Madding Crowd capping off a decade’s worth of stellar acting in Young Cassidy, Darling and the aforementioned Zhivago (all released in 1965). Christie’s stubbornly assertive and impetuously self-assured heroine is a marvel to behold. She is precisely believable as the sort who could so easily, completely and misguidedly throw away her own chances for genuine contentment as convincingly pine after the only man who, quite obviously, is pure poison.   
Frederic Raphael’s screenplay masterfully condenses the novel’s sprawling narrative, spanning many years, into a manageable timeline that never once seems rushed or wanting for something intelligent and compelling to say. The marriage of Hardy’s wordy prose to the more versatile moments of showmanship Schlesinger unveils as pure cinema is never awkwardly realized. In the end, Far From the Madding Crowd entertains with a stringent fidelity to its source material without becoming mired in the particulars; a very delicate balancing act, herein seamlessly achieved. Hardy’s title loosely denotes the ‘madding crowd’ as the human world – awash in, and a mess of, noisy, though largely fruitless and trivial pursuits, further complicated by needless hustle and bustle, and often self-inflicted hardships and strife brought on by the foibles of flawed human sexuality. Bathsheba knows more than a little something of these; reaching blindly toward foolish daydreams about men, while unable to see the sincere value in a peasant farmer who, apart from lacking in social standing, is ideally the man who could bring her to satisfaction in all other regards. Hardy’s novel is explicitly clear on this point, as is the movie. We are almost immediately meant to pledge our troth with Gabriel Oak, an industrious, though struggling shepherd; ruggedly masculine, yet respectful and sensitive. He is the proverbial diamond in the rough. How any woman could not see as much is something of a mystery, unless, of course, the woman happens to be Bathsheba. 
Far From the Madding Crowd is essentially a tale woven around the time-honored precept of ‘pride, coming before the fall’. Our story begins on the windswept, stormy cliffs of Dorset. The frugal Oak (Alan Bates) endeavors to rear his flock of sheep on a parcel of land not far from the farm of Bathsheba Everdene’s (Julie Christie) Aunt Hurst (Alison Leggatt) and to use whatever moneys accrued from his labors as a dowry to woo the fair, but self-satisfied maiden. As a promissory note of his romantic intensions, Gabriel delivers a young lamb to Mrs. Hurst, meant for Bathsheba to rear. His wish to present the livestock in person is dashed, however, when Bathsheba deliberately hides until he has gone. Believing herself to have been wrong – a rarity for this heroine, Bathsheba hurries up the path to catch up with Gabriel on the open road. He nervously reveals the purpose of his visit, proposing marriage and tenderly adding, “And at home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be…and whenever you look up, there I shall be.” Although somewhat flattered, Bathsheba rather cruelly dashes Gabriel’s hopes, explaining how the situation is quite impossible, “…because I don't love you.”
Still, the offer has been made. And Gabriel is not so easily dissuaded. Unhappy chance, a terrible storm spooks the rest of his sheep and a new herding dog, the latter forcing the entire flock off a very steep precipice to their death. In one fell swoop, Oak has lost his entire livelihood, sabotaged in his romantic pursuits too. Nevertheless, he still loves Bathsheba. With nothing to keep him in Dorset, Gabriel reluctantly departs to seek out new employment at a hiring fair in the nearby town of Casterbridge (fictional, but modeled on Dorchester). Unable to gain work, Oak moves on to another fair in Shottsford, then another in Weatherbury, determined he should begin anew – though naively assuming he will return to claim Bathsheba for his own. In the interim, however, Bathsheba is called away to nurse an ailing uncle who eventually dies. As fate would have it, Oak is unable to find a job anywhere. Unaware how close in proximity his quest for employment has brought him to his former life and love, Oak stumbles upon a blaze on a great estate. He quickly organizes the villagers to help extinguish the flames before any great damage is done. When the owner approaches to thank him, he suddenly realizes it is Bathsheba, having since inherited her late uncle’s house and grounds. Although their reunion is fraught with uneasiness, Bathsheba cannot entirely dismiss Oak as she had done before. Instead, learning of his plight, she hires him to manage her farm.   
This, to be sure, is very much to his liking and purpose. Once again, Oak’s hopes are dashed when he discovers Bathsheba has been entertaining the romantic notions of another man, William Boldwood (Peter Finch). Interestingly, William is neither ‘bold’ nor packing wood for Bathsheba, but rather fairly forlorn and sexually repressed. Equally, he bears the brunt of hushed scorn from most of the woman in the village, viewed as the unattainable capon. “There's no woman can touch him, miss,” one of Bathsheba’s servants suggests, “He has no passionate parts.” Nevertheless, at age forty, Boldwood has become a man of means. Recognizing his secret infatuation, Bathsheba decides to play a pitiless trick, sending Boldwood a valentine embossed in red with the words ‘marry me’. Boldwood is driven to distraction by this overture and quite oblivious it has been made in vindictive jest. Observing Boldwood’s escalating frustrations, Oak is repulsed by Bathsheba’s malicious satisfaction. His admonishment of her is made both out of consideration for poor old Boldwood and Oak’s own lingering envy and desire to possess Bathsheba. Unwilling to entertain his smug superiority, Bathsheba instead fires Oak at once.      
A short while later Bathsheba’s sheep begin to die from bloat. Much to her chagrin, she quickly realizes Oak possesses the knowledge for a cure. Her vanity temporarily delays the inevitable. But when the sheep continue to expire, threatening the sustainability of the estate, Bathsheba swallows her pride momentarily to implore Oak to return. Diligently, Oak brings about an end to the pestilence and Bathsheba forgives him his disdainful remarks; their friendship that was, now restored. At this juncture, we learn one of the housemaids, Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome) has fallen desperately in lust with Sergeant Francis ‘Frank’ Troy (Terence Stamp). In or out of his uniform, the dashing Troy is the chambermaids’ delight; full of self-appointed pomp, with his sexual prowess proving the real elixir. Very reluctantly, Troy had promised to marry Fanny. A fateful mix up occurs, Fanny arriving at the wrong church and Troy spurning her thereafter because he believes this accidental humiliation to be deliberately planned. However, unbeknownst to anyone, Fanny is carrying his child.  Returning to his native Weatherbury, Troy and Bathsheba’s paths cross.  As is often the case in love, his bravura is initially off-putting to her, though eventually it sparks a passion. Once more, Oak attempts to intervene. This time, his concern is more genuine. If Bathsheba must marry someone other than him, then let it be Boldwood, who clearly has her best intensions at heart.
Drawn to Troy’s more selfish magnificence she misperceives as a clear indication of the power her own beauty commands, Bathsheba pursues her soldier with ravenous desire. Boldwood increasingly becomes more confrontational toward Troy, forcing Bathsheba to insist he not return from Weatherbury or face Boldwood’s wrath. Instead, Bathsheba skulks off to Bath to be with her lover, returning some time later with Troy at her arm. Boldwood offers Troy a considerable sum to leave town and bother them no further, whereupon Troy scornfully announces he and Bathsheba are already wed. More embarrassed than wounded by this discovery, Boldwood storms out of the house.  The marriage already begun under a black cloud, very quickly, Bathsheba discovers her new husband is a profligate gambler who has no interest in farming and, curiously, very little in keeping her satisfied. She begins to suspect that although Troy’s own egotism was insulted by Fanny’s luckless folly, his heart has yet to fully be divested of her memory.
Time passes. Troy and Bathsheba encounter Fanny on the open road. In her late stages of pregnancy, the girl is virtually unrecognizable to Fanny.  But Troy has not strayed so far as to be unable to recall their happier times together. Fanny is destitute and malnourished. For some time, she has been toiling at one of the Casterbridge workhouses. Sending his wife on ahead before she has the opportunity – much less the wherewithal – to identify the girl, Troy takes pity on Fanny. He empties his pockets of money and promises to send more in a few days. Alas, his philanthropy has come too late. Fanny dies in childbirth a few hours later along with the baby. The pair are laid to rest in a single coffin and sent on to Weatherbury for internment. Knowing all along the child is Troy’s, Oak remains vigilant in keeping his secret. After all, what good could it do anyone now if Bathsheba were to discover the truth? But Bathsheba has had time to decipher the clues for herself. Jealously, she orders the coffin brought to their home overnight, sneaking down to the cellar after everyone else has gone to bed to unscrew the lid and see for herself what she already suspects.
Returning from his failed rendezvous with Fanny in Casterbridge, Troy is presented with the corpses of his lover and their child. Unable to bear their loss, he gingerly kisses Fanny’s forehead, quietly exclaiming to Bathsheba, “This woman is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be.”  In honor of Fanny’s memory, Troy spends every last penny to erect a suitable monument. Filled with self-loathing for the first time, and quite unable to bear even the sight of his present wife, Troy departs to contemplate his future. Alone on a windswept beach he strips bare and dives into the ocean.  A terrific undertow catches and carries him out to sea. Presumed dead, Troy is actually rescued by a row boat. He vanishes for a year. During this time, Boldwood endeavors to make Bathsheba his wife. Primarily to quell her own guilt over the considerable pain she has caused him, Bathsheba agrees to this marriage. But Troy covetously resurfaces at Weatherbury on Christmas Eve, intruding upon Boldwood’s party to reclaim his wife.
The shock of seeing him again is enough to send Bathsheba into a tantrum. Troy commands her to return at his side. But she shrieks in horror instead when he reaches for her arm. Boldwood shoots Troy dead and then attempts to turn the gun on himself. He is subdued and subjected to a murder trial, granted a ‘confinement during Her Majesty's pleasure’ instead of condemned to swing by the noose at the public gallows – at least, in the novel. Herein, director John Schlesinger cannot resist the implication Bathsheba’s love has condemned an innocent man to death; Boldwood – brought to emasculated ruin, seen through the bars of his prison cell while two grave diggers solemnly prepare a rosewood casket, presumably for his burial after being put to death. Once more, time passes. A profoundly chastened Bathsheba is witnessed by Oak cleaning up Troy’s grave; she having buried her husband in the same ground as his lover, Fanny and their child, adding a suitable inscription to their tombstone. Oak quietly insists the last eight months seem to have passed in the blink of an eye, while Bathsheba confesses for her they are almost an eternity.
The last few moments of Schlesinger’s film differ somewhat from the novel. In Hardy’s masterpiece, Oak informs Bathsheba of his plans to leave her employ and seek out a new life in America. She begs him to reconsider and asks to know the reason for his desertion, particularly at this moment when she is truly alone and friendless. Oak explains how her good name is being besmirched by town gossips. He proposes marriage yet again. Reconsidering her options, Bathsheba declares it is too absurd and too soon to entertain such a proposal. He bitterly concurs his awkward timing has been an impediment to their happiness. But when Bathsheba murmurs she only considers it ‘too soon’, Oak realizes she has come around to his way of thinking. The two are married in secret and elect to live obscurely abroad. By contrast, the movie retains the overall structure of Hardy’s concluding chapters, but changes the general tenor of Bathsheba’s acceptance.
Indeed, Oak and Bathsheba are married in the village with considerable pomp and circumstance; his respectability within the community enough to cleanse his newlywed wife’s reputation. Bathsheba is never reticent in accepting Oak’s second proposal. In fact, she can barely contain her joy upon receiving it. However, Schlesinger does give us a hint not all will be well in this new marriage; perhaps, because Bathsheba may continue to regard it merely as a convenience, while Oak is genuinely invested, even blindsided by his foolish amour. The proof is in the film’s final sequence; a quick cut from the ebullient wedding day celebration to a stormy afternoon; Oak staring blankly out a window at the inhospitable weather while Bathsheba is doing her needlepoint. Chimes from an animated clock draw Oak’s attention to the tiny figure of a soldier with trumpet in hand; a reminder of Bathsheba’s marriage to Troy and, likely an inference his memory will never be farther from both their lives than this hourly reminder on their mantelpiece.  
As a visually rhapsodic interpretation of the Victorian era, Far From the Madding Crowd is supremely satisfying. These characters live and breathe from another period in the embodiments put forth by Christie, Bates, Finch and Stamp.  Better still, director, John Schlesinger’s evocation exhibits a superior level of movie-making craftsmanship in all departments, from set design to costuming and underscore.  Too many would-be epics lack this fundamental ‘lived in’ quality, even as they remain prettily tricked out in the necessary accoutrements.  Viewed today, it pangs one to reconsider Far From the Madding Crowd as little more than a weighty footnote to MGM’s illustrious past. In fact, it helped drag the company down the steep embankment toward financial ruin. In the old days, Metro did up virtually all its homegrown product with such meticulous attention to every last detail, and, were generally rewarded – even praised – in the public’s estimation that another finely wrought entertainment had been judiciously achieved. Far From the Madding Crowd is such a picture. Today, with the studio no more and time and movies themselves having moved toward an uncertain future, heavily dependent on CGI-laden drivel at the expense of solidly crafted/character-driven drama, the pall of Far From the Madding Crowd’s insolvency seems less important or, perhaps, unimportant altogether. Great works of art – cinematic or otherwise – endure: not because they have aged well, but rather, once removed from their initial hype/debut, their true finery and characteristics are allowed unassumingly to shine through. Far From the Madding Crowd radiates resplendence. It is hardly a ‘pretty picture’; but it nevertheless, typifies a moment in English history even the likes of Thomas Hardy could be gratified to acknowledge as a reflection of the world he had once known.    
The Warner Archive continues to serve up quality plus in 1080p. Far From the Madding Crowd in hi-def is stunning. Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography is deliberately diffused, and this Blu-ray reproduces its exquisite afterglow and ‘soft’ characteristic to perfection.  The biggest improvement is color saturation. The old Warner DVD looks incredibly faded by direct comparison. Prepare to be amazed by the deeply saturated greens, gorgeous earthy browns, subtly contrasted flesh tones and absolutely dazzling assortment of royal blues, lemon yellows and blood-red crimson soldiers’ uniforms. Wow! The old Warner DVD was relatively free of age-related artifacts; a compliment carried over to this Blu-ray. Contrast is superior to anything previously seen in standard def. Film grain is presented at an acceptable level and accurately reproduced. As with the aforementioned DVD, this Blu-ray is of the 171 minute international cut, including 3 ½ minutes of footage excised from the North American general release print.
The 5.1 DTS audio is another stunner, clean and crisp with exceptional spread across all five channels. Richard Rodney Bennett’s underscore fills the room with grandeur unheard in American movies for quite some time. Extras are limited to a ten-minute featurette new to Blu-ray and the original theatrical trailer. Parting thoughts: why don’t you already own this? Far From the Madding Crowd on Blu-ray is bar none a reason to rejoice and, once again, sincerely thank George Feltenstein and the Warner Archive for their splendid work on deep catalog hi-def Blu-ray releases. Show your support. Buy this disc!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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