Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I watched Far From the Madding Crowd yesterday, the 1967 film based on the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel. It stars Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene, Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak, Terence Stamp as Sgt. Troy, and Peter Finch as William Boldwood.

In the 2015 remake, mega-hunk Matthias Schoenaerts played Gabriel Oak. To ensure that audiences preferred Oak and understood how stupid Bathsheba's choices were, the diminuitive Michael Sheen was cast as William Boldwood and the somewhat effeminate, slight, pouty-mouthed Tom Sturridge as Sgt. Troy. Sturridge plays Troy in a sneering, petulant, almost mincing way. Sheen plays his role as timid, withdrawing.

I prefer the 1967 version. Hardy's novel is intended to undermine the common myth that rural life is more sedate and moral than city life. He shows how Bathsheba usurps the traditional male role to take charge of a farm and become a wealthy woman. To the modern reader, this is something to be applauded. To a reader in Hardy's day (and to Hardy), this was foolish. Bathsheba's foolishness is shown in the way she gives up the love of the hard-working, moral oak and the rich, moral (if stick-in-the-mud and unemotional) Boldwood. Instead, she falls in love with the immoral Troy.

Hardy makes it quite clear why Bathsheba falls in love with Troy: He has a large penis, and is excellent in bed. Hardy depicts this in the scene in which Troy pulls out his sword and engages in an exquisite display of swordsmanship in the arbor while Bathsheba squeals in delight. This erotic scene is designed to make it blatantly obvious why Bathesheba falls so suddenly and powerfully in love with Troy. "She's just a foolish woman," Hardy seems to be saying, "falling for the biggest cock and most expert cocksman around." Readers in Hardy's day knew exctly what he was implying.

Bathsheba's foolishness goes even further. In Hardy's day, men were expected to court women for many months before proposing (much less marrying). This allowed a woman and her family to more accurately gauge the man's real character. It allowed the family to speak with the man's relatives, friends, employers, and find out even more about his character. Character was everything, and marrying a man of character was incredibly important for a woman. Bathsheba spends no time getting to know Sgt. Troy. She marries him almost immediately after meeting him, based solely on his extraordinary good looks, his huge penis, and his incredible sexual skill in bed. Casting away the social norms associated with courting was like being a prostitute, to Hardy's readers. It was insanity.

But marrying Troy is like marrying a male prostitute or gay porn star: It ends in misery. Bathsheba's first love was her farm, and the high social position it gave her in her rural community. She throws over her farm for Troy's immense endowment. But on their wedding night, a storm hits. The storm threatens to destroy the farm by making the newly-mown hay wet. Wet hay will rot, and force Bathsheba to kill all her animals during the winter lest they starve. It will ruin her. Troy doesn't give a shit; he prefers to spend the night drinking with the local men rather than saving the farm.

This scene is critical to Bathsheba's character development. Troy has never loved Bathsheba; his only true love has been the farm girl, Fanny. Earlier in the novel, Fanny became pregnant with Troy's child. Troy agreed to marry her, and Fanny unfortunately went to the wrong church. By the time she realized her mistake, and hurried across the parish to the correct church, Troy had left -- convinced Fanny had refused to marry him. Fanny, broken-hearted, ran away. Troy then met Bathsheba, and married her. But he's never stopped pining for Fanny.

After the storm, Bathsheba must suspect that Troy doesn't really love her. He loves her money, loves the social position that her money gives him. He loves fucking her. But he is not in love with her.

Sure enough, things go from bad to worse. Troy begins spending Bathsheba's money incredibly fast, and she nears bankruptcy. Troy engages in the most immoral of activities, like cock-fighting. (In Hardy's day, the animal cruelty movement was becoming incredibly powerful. Cock-fighting, dog-fighting, bull-fighting, and other activities had just been banned. Troy's love of cock-fighting would have been seen as incredibly wrong.) Troy's drinking worsens. He begins to ignore Bathsheba, even becoming curt with her. It is implied that Troy even begins fucking the pretty local farm girls.

Bathsheba understands why Troy increasingly hates her. But she refuses to admit it until Fanny returns. Troy and Bathsheba encounter her, dying and about to give birth, on the road near their farm. Troy manages to conceal Fanny's identity from Bathsheba, and sends his wife on to the farm. Troy gives Fanny all his money, and tells her to meet him at the Casterbridge workhouse that night. Fanny manages to make it to the workhouse, and dies in childbirth. When Bathsheba learns that it is Fanny who has died, she pays for a coffin and allows the coffin to lie her in her house overnight. But Bathsheba's servants begin to whisper that Fanny had a child. Late at night, Bathsheba goes to the coffin, unscrews the lid, and discovers the body of Fanny and her dead child inside. Just then, Troy arrives (having gones to Casterbridge to see Fanny and having learned about her fate). Troy kisses the green, decaying corpse deeply and intimately, horrifying Bathsheba. He then cruelly tells Bathsheba that Fanny was more woman than Bathsheba could ever be, and that he never loved her. Bathsheba flees to her bedroom.

Bathsheba is never forced to reject Troy. Troy spends all Bathsheba's remaining cash to buy Fanny a lavish tombstone. He then swims out to sea, and commits suicide...

The 2015 film makes it really clear that Bathsheba is foolish for not choosing Gabriel Oak. Oak is the most handsome of her suitors. Oak is the most emotionally demonstrative, and the most moral.

The 1967 film is truer to the novel. But although Bathsheba's choice to the reader of 1874 was clearly foolish, it is less so to the film-goer of 1967. The 1967 film works overtime to hide actor Alan Bate's handsome face, powerful body, and immense endowment. The 1967 film casts mega-hunk Terence Stamp, who five years earlier had exploded on screen as the hot-bodied and beautiful Billy Budd, as Troy and the 51-year-old Peter Finch as Boldwood. In this regard, Troy is set up to be a good choice for Bathsheba. Director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Marathon Man) doesn't push any eroticism in the swordplay scene. Troy is dashing, where Oak is stolid, muddy, smelling of sheep. Troy is young and emotionally demonstrative, unlike Boldwood.

Bathsheba's choice of Troy in the 1967 film is seen as a good one. Or, at least, not a bad one.

Some viewers complain that Alan Bates isn't very handsome in the 1967 film.

I argue that's because the film goes out of its way to undermine Bates' terrific good looks, great body, and enormous endowment. The film purposefully makes Bates look dingy and ugly.

I mean, look at the guy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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