Far From the Madding Crowd

If given the chance, I would watch Julie Christie read the phone book. (Do they even make phone books anymore?) And the torrid, tragic romanticism of Thomas Hardy’s novels seem perfect for cinematic translation, with their surging passions, period detail and wind-swept English locales. Put the two together and you have a recipe for success, right? Up to a point…

Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD reunited Christie with director John Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederick Raphael, both of whom had propelled her to her an Oscar in 1965 for Darling. (Raphael won as well.) Christie wears the period duds well, playing Bathsehba Everdene, a willful 19th century Dorset farm owner who falls in love with ne’er-do-well soldier Terence Stamp, much to the dismay of her caretaker (Alan Bates) and rich neighbor Peter Finch, both of whom have also fallen under her spell. Critics trounced the film, but the performances are fine, especially Finch and Bates, Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography is stunning (and should have been nominated), and Richard Rodney Bennett’s score is as ravishing as Christie herself.

Because Bathsheba is one with the earth, Bennett’s haunting main theme serves a dual purpose. Beginning with a solo piccolo followed by oboe and strings in the main titles, the music sets the perfect tone for the lonely, desolate Dorset countryside and foreshadows the desperate, hollow love to follow.

[audio:farfrom1.mp3] Click Track: Far From the Madding Crowd

The secondary love theme for Sergeant Troy (Stamp) and servant girl Fanny (Prunella Ransome) conveys love’s innocence and purity. During the coffin scene, the theme lays on a bed of sustained minor-key strings, giving the music a particularly

[audio:farfrom2.mp3] Click Track: Fanny & Troy

In the memorable hillside meeting between Bathsheba and Troy, snare drum, swirling strings and flutes follow her rush of passion and the main theme takes a twisted turn as Troy practices his sword maneuvers on her. Hints of the Fanny theme provide aural clues as to where his heart actually lies.

For such a long film, the score is used sparingly. Traditional folk songs from Dorset and Somerset give local musical color, in addition to a lovely solo by Christie singing Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Through Bushes and Through Briars.”

The film could probably be trimmed by a half hour but, to his credit, Schlesinger said he didn’t want to treat audiences to a “Reader’s Digest version” of Hardy’s tale. Bennett’s lovely score brought the composer deserved attention and an Oscar nomination. The CD is long out of print, but hopefully one of the labels will repair that situation soon.

4 comments

  1. More Richard Rodney Bennett, and this is my favorite work of his. It is so evocative of Hardy country that it’s hard to imagine the visuals without it. I was able to see FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD in 70mm at the opulent Midland Theater in Kansas City, and under those circumstances, was hestitant find any faults with it – particularly the impeccable craftsmenship.
    Bennett would create another beautiful period score a few years later with LADY CAROLINE LAMB (1972), almost – but not quite – as perfect. I’ll give Marcus Dods some credit here, too; it seems he always took on the conducting chores for Bennett.

    1. These are the kinds of films that are MADE for the big screen. Even on a big flat-screen TV, it’s just not the same and probably unfair to the film. Still, watching it again made me want to go back and re-read some Hardy. One of my favorite authors.

  2. My God what a beautiful score. I too saw this on the large screen and have never forgotten this haunting music.

    The theme is so reflective, with an almost tragic resignation – truly memorable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *