Tom Jones: Tomorrow Do Thy Worst

On Film / Essays — Feb 27, 2018

When Henry Fielding’s vast comic satire The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling was published in 1749, it was widely admired as a landmark in the form of the English novel, innovatory in its technique, unsurpassed in the ingenuity of its structure, and unprecedented in the breadth and variety of its characterization and social scope. Nevertheless, its risqué tale of the sexual adventures of its hero, from his discovery as an infant foundling to his appearance at Tyburn gallows as an accused thief and murderer, did not meet with universal approval. The age’s most formidable arbiter of literary taste, Samuel Johnson, pronounced it “so vicious a book . . . I scarcely know a more corrupt work,” and the bishop of London thought its publication was partially responsible for two earthquakes that rocked the capital the following year.

Cut to 1963 and the opening at the London Pavilion cinema of Tony Richardson’s film Tom Jones. Despite a mixed critical reception in both the United Kingdom and the United States (one review, in the London Times, declared that “there is nothing in this film that could give any member of the audience one moment of enjoyment”), the film, like its literary forebear, proved wildly popular among viewers. It broke box-office records and won four Oscars (for best picture, director, adapted screenplay, and original score), as well as three British Academy Film Awards. “Nothing . . . had prepared the cinema world for the earth-shattering Tom Jones,” wrote the great cameraman Oswald Morris, wistfully recalling that he had turned down the chance to photograph the film because he did not feel it was his style. The movie was something of a departure for Richardson’s production company, Woodfall, whose track record at that time consisted of such powerful contributions to the British New Wave as Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). When Richardson approached the head of Bryanston Films, Sir Michael Balcon, for additional funding for Tom Jones, Balcon hesitated to give his immediate support, because the projected cost was already above the sort of budgets he had been working with. During this period of indecision, United Artists stepped in with the financing, which would yield a profit twenty times the size of its investment. Reflecting ruefully later on the film that had slipped through his fingers and could have rescued Bryanston, which was purchased by the television company Associated-Rediffusion in 1965, Balcon wrote: “No doubt Tom Jones is engraved on my heart.”

Yet Balcon’s caution was understandable. For all his status as a major novelist, Henry Fielding could hardly claim the same level of popularity or public recognition as a Charles Dickens or a Jane Austen. Also, Richardson’s résumé did not offer many clues as to how the venture might turn out. His reputation at that time was solidly built on gritty realism, not satirical comedy, and stories set in the present, not the past. How would he tackle a period film in color, something quite outside his experience? The answer was: with gusto. He and his screenwriter, the playwright John Osborne, agreed there was only one way to approach an irreverent novel like Tom Jones: that is, irreverently. Their adaptation performs wonders in compressing Fielding’s nine-hundred-page opus into a film lasting a little over two hours, while ensuring that not only are the major incidents all there but also the main themes: the contrast between country and city; the criticism of social snobbery and religious hypocrisy; and the protest against parental and patriarchal oppression. The filmmakers’ inclusion of an elaborate stag-hunting scene (only briefly alluded to in the novel) supplies both spectacle and a reminder of how close to the surface of human affairs violence lurks—a truth Tom will encounter again later in the film. As Osborne noted in his published screenplay, “the hunt is no pretty Christmas calendar affair but a thumping dangerous vicious business,” and Richardson reinforces this with shots of the riders using their whips, their spurs cutting into the flesh of the horses, the hounds tearing into the deer.

“This is our holiday film,” Richardson declared to the cast and crew in the seaside resort of Weymouth, at the beginning of shooting, in the summer of 1962. Like most holidays, it was not without its mishaps. The Welsh actor Hugh Griffith threw himself into the role of the rambunctious, hedonistic Squire Western, who treasures his hounds above any humans, with a reckless abandon that was occasionally alarming. There is a moment when the squire yanks back the head of his beloved mare Miss Slouch so sharply that the horse falls backward on top of him; it is totally in character and funny in context, but it was entirely unplanned. A consummate professional, Edith Evans channeled her occasional exasperation with her spirited (and frequently inebriated) costar into an astute characterization of Squire Western’s sister, who, appropriately enough, constantly upbraids her brother for his loutish behavior. Her delivery of one particular rebuke—“Wake up, you country stewpot! . . . Rouse yourself from this pastoral torpor!”—carries such magisterial force that one is fleetingly reminded of her definitive stage and screen performances as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In his memoir, The Long-Distance Runner, Richardson also recalled problems with what was to become the film’s most celebrated scene, one between Albert Finney’s Tom Jones and Joyce Redman’s Mrs. Waters in which the consumption of a gigantic eighteenth-century meal develops into a metaphor for ravenous desire. Apparently, it took only around three hours to film, during which the actors had to munch through an assortment of lobster claws, chicken wishbones, roast ribs, oysters, and pears, but “the physical effect on the two of them lasted for days.”

Finney has said he never liked the title role, feeling that Tom was too passive a character to allow him the opportunity for much real acting. Yet that passivity is important, for it is a facet of Tom’s sensitivity. He is a lover, not a lecher, and never proceeds with sexual advances without invitation. Indeed, in Tom’s scenes with the predatory Molly Seagrim (Diane Cilento at her most alluring), the film perfectly captures the feeling implicit in Fielding’s comment that “Jones had more regard for her virtue than she herself.” And for all Finney’s qualms, it is hard to imagine another young English actor of that time who could have conveyed Tom’s good nature so robustly, for it is essential to the moral scheme of the tale that, for all his sexual susceptibility, Tom’s generosity of heart is infinitely to be preferred to the ostensible virtue but secret malevolence of Squire Allworthy’s nephew, Blifil (a suitably sinister David Warner).

“I have shot it all as if it were happening today,” Richardson told Life magazine. Throwing caution—and the rule book for reverential adaptation—to the wind, he deployed a gallimaufry of gleefully obtrusive devices to galvanize the narrative. The tone is set by a madcap opening that covers the first two chapters of the novel in about five minutes of screen time, rendering the mysterious circumstances of Tom’s birth in the style of silent comedy, all accompanied by John Addison’s jaunty, harpsichord-dominated score, which will throughout contribute much to the film’s sense of gaiety and mischief. A double vertical wipe tactfully draws a veil over Tom’s seductive encounter with Molly in the woods; a freeze-frame impales Tom’s hypocritical tutor Square (John Moffatt), identifying him as the real father of Molly’s child when the blanket concealing his presence collapses; stop-motion photography highlights the playfulness of the relationship between Tom and Squire Western’s daughter, Sophie (Susannah York), before it blossoms into love; an iris shot of Dowling the lawyer gives particular emphasis to the moment when he hands the letter to Blifil that contains the truth about Tom’s parentage; the farcical collision of characters at the inn at Upton is shot in accelerated motion in the style of the Keystone Kops; and so on. In borrowing techniques from early cinema, Richardson was only emulating Fielding’s own formal experimentation with a new literary genre. In the same spirit, the film’s droll narrator (Micheál MacLiammóir) is the analogue of Fielding’s overt authorial presence, sometimes delicately withdrawing from a scene of sexual dalliance (“It shall be our custom to leave such scenes where taste, decorum, and the censor dictate”) and at other points making a sympathetic plea for understanding on the hero’s behalf. Fielding was well aware that the liberties he was taking with the novel genre would not please everyone, but, in justifying his digressions in chapter 2, he insisted: “I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever. And here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs, or works, which no ways concern them.” Richardson would heartily have endorsed those sentiments.

Yet the runaway success of the film was due not to its skill in capturing the spirit of a 1749 classic but to its felicity in catching the mood of 1963. With the soaring popularity of the Beatles, the sixties had started to swing, and Tom Jones became part of the revolution. It brought a colorful and joyous exuberance back into British cinema. Tom Jones himself seemed an oddly modern figure, a hero who cheerfully exemplified the possibilities of social mobility and did so without a class chip on his shoulder. He could also be seen as a sort of rural James Bond, the depiction of his amorous appetites exemplifying the trend of saucy screen comedy reflecting the decade’s sexual emancipation. “The whole world loves Tom Jones!” proclaimed the film’s poster, and, for a while, it seemed to. This was even acknowledged in a New Yorker cartoon from the time in which a morose patient asks his psychiatrist: “Doctor, what’s my problem? Tom Jones depressed me.”

Although it would be an overstatement to say that Richardson was depressed by Tom Jones, he did come to feel its success was not wholly justified. He was grateful that its substantial profits enabled him to initiate a number of new projects for Woodfall, but he considered it, as he put it in his memoir, “incomplete and botched in much of its execution.” In 1989, he took the opportunity to reedit the film, cutting it by seven minutes and supervising a stereo soundtrack mix. Presumably, this version is closer to his original intention, although one has the sense that he still felt that Tom Jones loomed larger in his reputation than he would have liked. Nowadays, it is perhaps more common to see The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) cited as Richardson’s masterpiece, though it is somehow typical of his contrariness that he forbade any official press showing of that film in the UK out of anger at the way he perceived British film critics as having treated his work in the past, including Tom Jones. He was to spend much of the latter part of his career in America, making occasionally distinguished films (for example, a fine rendering of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance for the American Film Theatre in 1973) and thoughtful television dramas (such as 1978’s A Death in Canaan, which movingly explored an imminent miscarriage of justice). He died in 1991, some time before the delayed release of his final film, Blue Sky (1994),which turned out to be one of his best, with Jessica Lange winning an Oscar for her performance. Nevertheless, if Tom Jones was a film of and for its time, it merits celebration as the work of a fine artist who, deservedly and unexpectedly, for once struck gold. He would surely have been entitled at that point to rejoice in the narrator’s final words in the film, quoting from a translation of Horace by the seventeenth-century English poet John Dryden, as Tom is united at last with Sophie:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own;
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.