The first few minutes of the 1967 film Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by John Schlesinger and based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel of the same title, belong entirely to the English landscape — specifically, that of the southwestern part of the country, along the coast. As seen through the lens of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, the pale brown hills and steely sky and sea create a bleak picture, yet one that has its own austere sort of beauty and, above all, power. When a human figure finally appears, he’s little more than a speck on the horizon with a herd of dingy sheep at his feet. Interpersonal drama will soon move to the forefront, but the natural world remains an ever-present force.
The human figure in question is farmer Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), and a few moments later, his attention is seized by the distant sight of a young woman on horseback. Gabriel has pinned his hopes on marrying this girl, Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), but when he asks her aunt, Mrs. Hurst (Alison Leggatt), whether she might be interested, he’s told that she has “one, two, three — dozens” of men after her. Thinking little of his own chances, he gives up at once and leaves for home, only to be chased down by Bathsheba herself. She tells him that her aunt’s talk of suitors was untrue: “In fact, I haven’t anyone at all.” He takes this to mean that she’s willing to marry him, and he describes their future life together at some length before Bathsheba cuts him off. “I’m sorry, but it’s no use,” she says. Her reason is simple enough: She doesn’t love him. Although Gabriel points out that she ran after him, she contends that she simply wanted to clear up a possible misunderstanding: “I just didn’t want you thinking I was any man’s property.”
Bathsheba is an independent spirit, and before long, she finds herself in somewhat extraordinary circumstances for a Victorian woman. Upon the death of her uncle, she becomes the sole owner of his estate. Initially, she has a bailiff to oversee the day-to-day operations, but after firing him for theft, she decides to run the farm herself. She declares her intentions to her employees:
Now, I don’t yet know my powers or my talents in farming, but I shall do my best, and if you serve me well, so shall I serve you. And don’t let anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.
While Bathsheba’s wealth and social position give her a great advantage over many of her female contemporaries — she has no need to marry for money, or to marry at all if she so chooses — her headstrong nature still plays a key role in her success. A less determined woman (or man, for that matter) might change her mind and hire a bailiff as soon as she faces a challenge, but not Bathsheba. She also proves savvier than she might appear: When a couple of merchants try to sell her overpriced corn seed, banking on feminine ignorance and barely hiding their sneers, she turns the tables on them. “Well, now, I know nothing about these matters, it’s obvious,” she says politely, then adds, “or I’d say that this was a fusty, pinched, no-good parcel of pig fodder!” She throws the grain up in the air and into their faces, humiliating them instead of allowing them to humiliate her.
But Bathsheba’s pride and high spirits can sometimes lead her into trouble. One day, she learns that William Boldwood (Peter Finch), the other major landowner in the area, has been pursued by countless women but has never given in to any of them, and is essentially wedded to his farm. (“‘Tis said he has no passionate parts,” one of her servants says, which raises a few eyebrows.) As she’s just come across an old, unsigned valentine while going through the contents of her new home, Bathsheba can’t resist sending it to him with the words “Marry Me” inscribed in the center. Much to her surprise, not to mention his, her seemingly harmless prank awakens unprecedented feelings in the middle-aged Boldwood. It isn’t long before curiosity blossoms into infatuation and then into full-fledged obsession.
Considering Boldwood’s circumstances, his extreme reaction isn’t hard to comprehend. Despite the fact that he’s deeply involved with the life of his farm, his social class sets him apart from most of the people with whom he interacts on a daily basis, and his peers live too far away to allow for regular contact. His isolation is made particularly obvious when he’s shown dining alone, save for the presence of two dalmatians; he spends most of the meal staring at the valentine, which is on display on his mantelpiece. From a purely materialistic standpoint, Bathsheba would be an ideal match for him, as a union with her would give him control of her land as well as his own, but that doesn’t appear to interest him. Instead, he’s enchanted by what little he knows of her personality, her intelligence, her beauty and, perhaps more than anything, by the long-neglected idea of love. It’s telling that when Schlesinger shows Bathsheba through Boldwood’s eyes, there are often technical touches — slow motion, dramatic lighting — that emphasize his too-romantic view of her.
Bathsheba, for all of her self-possession, isn’t above being swept away by love herself, but she requires someone more dashing than either Gabriel or Boldwood. Enter Frank Troy (Terence Stamp). Frank, an army officer and a thorough rogue, is the sort of man with whom a Jane Austen heroine would carry on a brief flirtation but never marry, his true character having revealed itself in time to save her. Thomas Hardy being rather more pessimistic, Bathsheba may not be so fortunate. Things must play out as they will…
To some degree, the world of Far from the Madding Crowd is an unpredictable one, a world in which people are constantly at the mercy of both human frailty and nature’s vagaries. The residents of this agricultural community are so interdependent that an imprudent marriage or an emotional disturbance can evolve into much more than a personal problem, especially when it occurs at the top of the social ladder. Although the laborers and other tenants have individual responsibilities to carry out, if landowners like Bathsheba and Boldwood err in managing the system as a whole, everyone suffers the consequences. Nature, meanwhile, can change a person’s destiny in an instant. This becomes painfully clear early on when one of Gabriel’s dogs drives his herd of sheep off a cliff, thereby ruining him; he goes from being a farmer in his own right to working as Bathsheba’s shepherd. Fires can threaten an estate; storms can ruins a harvest; the ocean can drown a swimmer.
And yet, at the same time, there’s a certain inevitability about it. People act according to their natures and must deal with the consequences; but, more than that, one gets a sense of life on a larger scale, even in the relative isolation of the countryside. Whatever private joys and sorrows arise, life goes on all around, with its work and its routines and its ever-cycling seasons. That manner of existence would soon fade away, though most of the characters exhibit little or no awareness of the changes ahead. No doubt they assume it will carry on for years and years in the future, just as it did for untold generations in the past. Human beings come and go; the earth endures. Bathsheba may inherit a sizable piece of it, but on a fundamental level, it — like Bathsheba herself — isn’t any man’s property.
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