Fresh from the success of Parenthood (1989) and Backdraft (1991), director Ron Howard decided to unleash his inner David Lean and make Far and Away (1992): a sweeping historical epic, starring couple du jour Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, based around the 1893 Oklahoma land rush. Working from a script by his Willow (1988) collaborator Bob Doleman, Howard was so intent on recreating the scope and majesty of the old classics that he decided to film in Super 65mm a format. Howard would be the first director to use Super 65 since Lean’s Oscar winning Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and for the last 20 years only a handful of films have followed suit, most notably Paul Thomas Anderson’s long awaited Scientology riff: The Master (2012).
After the great Heaven’s Gate disaster of 1980, most studios would have told Howard to go and swivel – epic features with big casts were not, clearly, bankable investments. Due to his recent hot streak and the talent on board, however, Universal decided a modest 30 million was a safe bet. Woefully, things didn’t quite go to plan. Although it did make its money back, the scorn it received and the lengthy runtime affected ticket sales and, before long, the film slipped into relative VHS obscurity.
Most of the negative press focused on the lack of chemistry between Cruise and Kidman but, for me, their relationship is played beautifully. Cruise plays Joseph Donnelly – a simple Irish farmer – and Kidman plays Shannon: the well-to-do landlord’s daughter. The love between the classes narrative may have been endlessly recycled but was clearly Howard’s intention to retell and an old story his way. Cruise’s sterling work in Rain Man (1998) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) had proved he had acting chops but his previous film: Days of Thunder (1990) was retrogressive, harking back to the high octane nonsense of Top Gun (1986). The knives were already sharpened and the salivating critics were ready to shank him in the back.
Many also mocked his Irish accent which to somebody who regularly hangs around with folks from the Emerald Isle be laughable, but to a 13 year old in an Odeon cinema it wasn’t even an issue. His character was from Ireland and he sounded vaguely Irish, that was good enough. If you want a really dodgy accent then look no further than John Wayne’s Irish lilt in The Quiet Man (1952).
Roger Ebert’s review of the film is pretty dismal, not least because he seems mysteriously agitated by the predictability of the fight scenes and he’s not the only one to complain they were ripped off from other boxing films. The fact of the matter is that these scenes are wonderfully shot and fairly brutal to boot. Punches crunch into ribs and blood splatters across the room instilling a much-needed authenticity – they are pretty integral to the plot. Ebert’s review betrays another reason why Cruise in particular received such bad press: Ebert and his peers grew up with the likes of Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Burt Lancaster. They were all mature men’s men and it would therefore be much more difficult for them to accept Cruise, a relative whipper snapper, as an epic protagonist.
Furthermore, many of the harshest critiques came from somewhat middle class writers and Far and Away is the quintessential working class wet dream. The peasant comes to America to seek his fortune and falls in love with the bored stuffy rich girl who enjoys slumming it for a while. Joseph, however, doesn’t want Shannon to live like common people and does whatever it takes to break free of poverty. The romance between Kidman and Cruise might not melt the screen with steam, but nor should it. They’re both virginal, slightly awkward and naïve. They argue, bicker and try to make each other jealous; it’s a portrait of young love. It’s got sod all to do with whether or not Tom is really a closet homosexual and Nicole a cold-hearted bitch. They are playing romantically involved characters and at no point is that romance unbelievable. I am constantly suspicious of critics who castigate a film because they can’t buy the main relationship as, let’s face it: most film writers are geeky social retards who spent their youth in a darkened cinema rather than necking some chippy behind the bike sheds; what they know about the opposite sex can be written on the back of a ticket stub.
Maybe I saw it an impressionable age or maybe it’s the old romantic in me but I do remember getting all weepy-eyed when I first saw it at the cinema and I will always defend anything that makes me cry to the hilt. I’m emotionally-invested in the film, the characters are like old friends and every year or so when nobody is around I’ll dig it out. We all have a bunch of those in our locker and few would ever feature on a seasoned critic’s Top 100 list. The fact that most of mine star Tom Cruise is best left for another article. And a trained psychologist.