Normally, my daughter writes much more about movies (and sometimes television) than I do. My desire to write about movies has long since given way to a desire -- which I've happily been fulfilling for well over a decade -- to write about dogs and other animals. Sometimes, though, my old passion for cinema intersects with my newer passion for writing about the non-humans we live with. Last night, when I watched one of my all-time favorite movies for the first time in quite a few years, was a case in point.
The movie was Far From the Madding Crowd, the 1967 cinematic opus that's based on the Thomas Hardy novel of the same title. In the 40-plus years (yikes!) since I first saw this movie, and in the many times I've seen it since, I've never stopped loving the opening titles--both the gorgeous vistas and the sublimely pastoral music by Richard Rodney Bennett--and the fact that the movie is quite faithful to Hardy's work. Last night, however, I was struck by an aspect of the movie that I'd never considered before: the roles of animals in the story, and how those roles were depicted on film.
Much of the movie takes place on farms, so it's natural that animals would at least be part of the scenery. But this story gives non-human individuals some pivotal roles that really propel the story forward. Since the movie was made long before CGI or animatronics were available to filmmakers, I couldn't help wondering last night how on earth those who created this movie achieved the animal-related effects they did. Specifically (warning: spoilers ahead), how did the filmmakers:
-- create the scene near the beginning of the movie, where Gabriel Oak's young Border Collie leaps into a sheep pen, herds the sheep to one end of the pen so that they topple the fence surrounding the pen, and then literally herds those sheep over a cliff where they fall to their deaths (I'm assuming that the carcasses that we see on the beach below are puppets of some sort)?
-- create the scene where the sheep on one farm come down with an apparent case of bloat, forcing Bathsheba to beg Gabriel (whom she had fired in a previous scene) to come and cure them? Specifically, how did they get all those sheep to stagger, fall over onto their sides, and do that fast, shallow breathing (I'm assuming, again, that puppets were what Oak sticks that great big needle into)?
-- create the cock-fighting scene that irrevocably establishes Frank Troy as a ne'er-do-well (for anyone who'd had doubts up to that point) whose marriage with Bathsheba was doomed as surely as Gabriel's first flock of sheep were?
I wonder, too -- particularly regarding that cock-fighting scene -- whether anyone monitored the animal action. Although American Humane's Film and TV Unit has been around for more than 65 years, the organization's "no animals were harmed" tag line didn't begin to appear in movies until 1972. And American Humane itself acknowledges that "achieving wide-scale compliance [with its guidelines] was complicated even then by the number of films shot overseas." Far From the Madding Crowd, which was helmed by the British director John Schlesinger, and shot on location in England, would certainly have fallen in the problem category.
Were any animals harmed by the making of one of my favorite works of cinema? At the very least, that cock-fighting scene looked unnervingly authentic; however, I'll probably never know what actually occurred. But the thought that harm might have occurred in the name of art casts one of my favorite movies in a different light than before.
P.S. Please excuse the shameless maternal brag that I probably not-so-artfully slipped into my lede sentence. I probably shouldn't have, but I just can't help myself.