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Cinema: John Bull in His Barnyard

5 minute read

Tom Jones. “I have endeavoured in the following History,” wrote Henry Fielding in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, “to laugh Mankind out of their favourite Follies and Vices.” Two centuries have passed: Mankind still has its favourite Vices: and Novelist Fielding’s sprawling, brawling masterpiece still stands as the greatest comic novel in the language. Now Britain’s Tony Richardson (The Entertainer, A Taste of Honey) has made the novel into an absolutely magnificent movie. The film is a way-out, walleyed, wonderful exercise in cinema. It is also a social satire written in blood with a broadaxe. It is bawdy as the British were bawdy when a wench had to wear five petticoats to barricade her virtue. It is as beautiful in Eastman Color as England is in spring. And it is one of the funniest farces anybody anywhere has splattered on a screen since Hollywood lost the recipe for custard pie.

“Upon my word,” said Coleridge, “I think Tom Jones one of the three most perfect plots ever planned.” It is also one of the most intricate; a film of the full book might take six hours to show. Director Richardson and Scenarist John Osborne decided to tell the whole story —well, almost—but tell it so fast that six hours of hilarity are squeezed into two. And let the gasping customers fall where they may.

In a mad little prologue, shown as a silent film with title frames inserted and a hurdy-gurdy hammering in the background, tiny Tom is found luxuriously “abandoned” in Squire Allworthy’s bed and is instantly adopted by the dear old fellow (George Devine). In the next scene Tom (Albert Finney) is already pushing 20—not to mention the voluptuous daughter (Diane Cilento) of his uncle’s gamekeeper. Five minutes after that the audience knows all about the beauteous Sophie Western (Susannah York), Tom’s light-o’-love: about Squire Western, her apoplectic pa; and about that slimy fellow Blifil, who considers Tom a rival for Allworthy’s estate and who hates him as only a boy with pimples can hate a boy all the girls adore.

Within an hour the vicious villain has slandered the hero’s good name, persuaded the gullible Allworthy to disown him, extracted from Squire Western a promise that Sophie will become his bride instead of Tom’s. Appalled, Sophie flees to London, whither Tom is also bound. Western and Blifil set out in hot pursuit, and the next hour is crammed with all manner of violent and absurd adventures: desperate duels, rascally robberies, satanic stranglings, egregious escapes, and any number of precipitate plunges into a fate nobody seems to consider worse than death. At the climax poor dear Sophie is about to be raped and poor brave Tom has his neck in a noose and—

Courage, Dear Reader! Lo and Behold are Fielding’s favorite characters, and Richardson makes frequent and gloriously funny use of them. His actors catch the spirit of the thing from the first scene, and they have a picnic. The characters are rumbustious caricatures. Joyce Redman is a soggy old piece of cake. Finney is Tom clean through—a fine strapping country boy whose heart is in the right place even when his foremost interest isn’t. But Hugh Griffith is the man to watch. A tankard in one hand, a buttock in the other, Squire Western superbly defines a type not quite extinct: the aboriginal Tory, John Bull in his own barnyard.

The portrait amuses but it also macerates. Richardson is angrier than Fielding was, and he sharpens the author’s satire to a cruel point. His scenes in the London slums are brief but harrowingly Hogarthian: and Squire Western’s hunt explains more powerfully than words could possibly explain the senselessness and horror of blood sport. Mile after mile the chase goes on: the running deer all terror and loveliness, the men and the dogs all grinning the same blank, murderous, animal grin. Then all at once the deer collapses. Blood in their eyes, the men and the dogs fall upon it together. They snarl and they slaver, they tear at its throat. Smeared scarlet, Squire Western screams, and out of the melee of blood and teeth he lifts in triumph suddenly the mild disastrous head.

Satire has seldom shown a more horrifying face. Nevertheless, in Richardson as in Fielding, satire is not the essence of what is said. The animal ferocity of Tom Jones is essentially an excess of animal spirits, of roaring ungovernable physical vitality. Vitality is what Tom Jones is really all about: the terrible vitality of Fielding’s England, the primitive illimitable will to live the whole of life. You are a pack of dirty dogs. Fielding told his fellow men, but then every dog will have his day. The great novelist saw all the slavering horror of life and he laughed in its face. Live, he demanded mightily, live it all! And in its final frame the film demands the same. “Tomorrow,” it cries in the name of its hero. “Tomorrow, do thy worst! I have lived today.”

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