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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Far from the Madding Crowd (Blu-ray)
Far from the Madding Crowd (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // February 10, 2015 // Region Free
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 26, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) is a gorgeous looking period drama, a faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel, originally serialized in Cornhill Magazine. The film was the third collaboration of director John Schlesinger and actress Julie Christie (following Billy Liar and Darling), and doubtlessly green-lighted by co-producer MGM (with Britain's Anglo-Amalgamated) as a follow-up to their smash success with Doctor Zhivago (1965). But, more than Christie or Schlesinger's direction, the main attraction is the stunningly beautiful and imaginative cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, whose busy schedule during this time included such varied projects as second unit work on Lawrence of Arabia and DP assignments on François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (also with Christie), Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death. Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp co-star as Christie's suitors.

Warner Archive's Blu-ray improves markedly on an earlier DVD release, but still falls short of perfection. It's clear that those supervising the transfer worked hard to squeeze every last drop out of the available film elements, but there still exists a slight harshness to the show apparently absent on original roadshow prints.

Beautiful Bathsheba Everdene (Christie) receives an offer of marriage from earnest shepherd Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates). She does not love him and so rejects his offer. Soon after, one of his less-experienced dogs drives Gabriel's herd over a cliff to their deaths. Financially ruined, Gabriel seeks work herding on a large farm.

Meanwhile, Bathsheba inherits her uncle's huge farming estate. Everyone assumes that she's in way over her head, but almost at once proves her mettle. She confidently takes charge, refuses to be taken advantage of at the grain exchange, ends some minor corruption on the farm, and generally proves herself to be a strong, assertive master over her large staff of peasant farmers and household servants.

Finding an unused valentine card, she impulsively writes "Marry Me" on it, sending it to William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a wealthy, gentleman farmer nearby. Believing her to be sincerely affectionate, he soon proposes but, again not in love, she refuses William, too.

Some time later Bathsheba becomes enamored of vain cavalry sergeant Frank Troy (Terence Stamp), especially after he demonstrates his virtuosity with a saber, boldly brandishing it within half an inch of her face. In an earlier scene, he had refused to marry maidservant Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome) when she innocently went to the wrong church by mistake. Frank marries Bathsheba instead, she refusing to believe his licentious reputation.

Far from the Madding Crowd is a challenging film, for reasons that might alternately seem a failing or an asset. Is Frank merely a self-obsessed cad, a rake, or is his reckless behavior and treatment of Bathsheba a reflection of his own self-loathing and self-destructiveness? William's desire to love and protect Bathsheba from harm is obviously sincere, but at what point does it cross the line into unhealthy obsession? Is Bathsheba, in her fickleness, the cause of so much unhappiness among her three suitors, or is she merely being forthright in her treatment toward them?

Beyond the fine acting, particularly by Bates as the most pragmatic of the three men, the film is extremely impressive in the way it meticulously and accurately recreates 19th century rural England (the film was shot in Wiltshire and Dorset, in South West England) on such a modest ($2.75 million) budget. It has the beauty and attention to detail of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick, and visually shares similarities to Terrence Malick's later Days of Heaven (1978).

As in Malick's film, seemingly ordinary farm crises like bloated sheep become immensely dramatic set pieces. A storm and Gabriel's frantic efforts to secure the harvest from a ruinous downpour is intensely exciting. An early scene of Bathsheba asking the farmers and servants to stay on after the uncle's death provides interesting insight into the workings of the estate while shrewdly introducing minor characters, providing each of them with intriguing, individual personalities. William's farm is depicted as more technologically advanced; he introduces the latest farming equipment, and seeing this Victorian machinery in operation is fascinating, too.

Except for the principals and, in a small role, busy Freddie Jones, the movie is cast with actors, possibly including many non-professional actors, who have extraordinarily authentic Victorian faces, further adding to the period verisimilitude.

But it's Roeg's cinematography that most impresses. Early scenes with Gabriel are on grazing fields drained of color, while Frank's blood-red cavalry uniform pops off the screen, as does the green foliage of Bathsheba's estate during the summer sequences. In many scenes, Roeg's compositions resemble 19th century paintings. Virtually the entire picture is beautifully (or hauntingly) realized, such as William's lonely walk back home after learning of Bathsheba's marriage to Frank. Any random moment is likely suitable for framing.

The movie should have been a huge success but wasn't. Its cinematography wasn't even nominated for an Oscar (though Doctor Doolittle and Camelot were) and while the film did well in England, it fairly well bombed in the U.S.

Video & Audio

Filmed in Panavision with original prints by Metrocolor, the HD transfer of Far from the Madding Crowd strains a bit to restore the original film's look, but the presentation overall is very good, with the color most of the time approximating original prints. The film received some release as a 70mm blow-up roadshow; the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix may be based on that 6-track magnetic stereo presentation, but mostly it's pretty flat with little directionality, coming to life only during the film's storm sequence. The complete British cut has been sourced (including Overture, Intermission, Entr'acte, and Exit Music), with nearly three minutes of footage (mostly a cockfight, apparently) shorn for U.S. showings. Optional English subtitles are offered.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to a trailer and promotional featurette from the time of the film's release, Location: ‘Far from the Madding Crowd.'

Parting Thoughts

Underrated, Far from the Madding Crowd isn't nearly as well known as other big-scale historical dramas done up as ‘60s roadshows, but it's far better than most: intelligent, adult, subtle, and positively gorgeous to look at. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.

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