Some years ago, Squire Allworthy (George Devine), an eighteenth century nobleman, retired to his bed chamber in his country mansion to sleep, but as he was about to climb into bed, he was shocked to see someone was already there: a baby. He called the servants and his wife to see what had happened, and they quickly got to the bottom of the situation, realising one of the staff had given birth illegitimately and was wanting to be rid of the child out of shame. The Squire was not about to reject the mite, so decided to adopt it himself for he and his wife to look after, sending the mother away. That baby grew up to be Tom Jones (Albert Finney) - they said he would hang someday.
Emboldened by the critical and financial success of Woodfall Films, director Tony Richardson decided to adapt an item of literature for his next project, and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones was that novel. He had his producing partner John Osborne pen the script, and after finding American backers to put up the budget they went ahead. It was not a happy shoot, though it had its moments, but mostly star Albert Finney did not feel as if he suited the historical milieu - he had been the unforgettable lead in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, after all, and this was not exactly the same sort of thing - and the whole enterprise was never completed to the satisfaction of Richardson, who brooded over it.
So much so that in 1989, over twenty-five years after it had been one of the biggest hits of the nineteen-sixties and secured the Best Picture Oscar, Richardson returned to his most prominent success and recut it to a form more to his liking for a rerelease. Apparently he was happier with this version, though while shorter, it would take a keen eye to notice much that was radically different, and the original still held a place in pop culture for being one of the instigators of the Swinging Sixties, that blessed time where Britain led the way in bringing in the Permissive Society, enormous change and resetting of values, and a new breed of entertainment the world and at home couldn't get enough of.
Certainly Tom Jones brought American money to British shores to produce a whole raft of movies, some more successful than others, a state of affairs that lasted till the seventies began and the cash began to run out as tastes changed, largely thanks to the talents who emerged in the sixties. As with the likes of The Beatles and James Bond, it was a force for wildly innovative creativity across the nation and beyond, but for some reason while plenty of that lasted in the memory, this film drifted away to be mostly recalled by film buffs who appreciated the cinema of this time and place, its freshness and cheery quirks so often imitated that they were exhausted very quickly. With all that in mind, it may be easy to look back on the definitive bawdy romp and wonder what all the fuss had been about.
Yet put yourself in the place of an audience who were growing tired of films that reminded them how miserable life could be and having to identify with protagonists who were angry and frustrated at the course of the nation, and you could see why Tom Jones (now in colour!) knocked almost everything else at the pictures, Dr. No excepted, into a cocked hat. The big Hollywood production of 1963 was Cleopatra, one of the most devastating flops to the industry of all time, a stately, slow and pompous spectacle that this upstart showed up in almost every way possible: we had so much to thank this for, no matter the mixed feelings of those involved. Sequences such as the stag hunt that devolves into a bloodthirsty melee or the meal which serves as a prelude to sex were vividly rendered, but there was such a variety of styles in the casting that it didn't matter that it hit the funny bone only sporadically, you were transported along with it, tricks and all, through sheer energy and cheek. Music by John Addison.
[Available as part of the BFI's Woodfall box set on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes these fully restored films: