This Sporting Life

(UK - 1963)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, William Hartnell, Colin Blakely
Genre: Drama/Sports
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Screenplay: David Storey, from his novel
Cinematography: Denys N. Coop
Composer: Roberto Gerhard
Runtime: 134 minutes

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Lindsay Anderson’s feature debut takes an uncompromising look at human misery, depicting the unattainability of happiness due to gaps in communication and social class. It’s a relentlessly bleak piece of social realism, hopeless but never wallowing in its negativity. Richard Harris gives his breakthrough and probably best performance as an angry young lower class man hell bent on doing two things, breaking though the barriers to make something of himself and capturing the heart of the widow (Rachel Roberts) he rents from. There are really only two jobs in his small industrial northern England town – miner and footballer – and, surprise surprise, the same rich men control both. Harris’s Frank Machin character successfully makes the transition from faceless driller to face in the sporting world due to heart, willpower, and determination rather than skill. Unfortunately, the aggressive hard-nose full steam ahead style that brings rugby stardom yields the opposite results in his love life.

Mrs. Margaret Hammond’s (Roberts) husband worked in the mines, and apparently hated his life so much he killed himself. Hammond only rents to Machin because she isn’t being taken care of by the mining company. Her heart went to the grave with her husband, rendering her unable to give any affection to another man as she’s trapped in a perpetual state of grieving. As unfortunate as the situation is, the finality of his action leaves her no choice but to move on, yet Hammond is arguably more devoted to her husband than ever, clinging to reminders that can only bring profound misery.

It’s amazing how alone Machin & Hammond can be together. She refuses to accept him, and he refuses to give up trying or settle on one of the many alternatives that come out of the woodwork with his football stardom. Perhaps a sensitive man could ease open the door to Hammond’s heart, but Machin’s usual tactics are closer to prying. In his defense, he can be very tender and tries everything he can think of and then some. Some things should be in his favor, for instance he’s great with her children. They have fun together as he can be a big kid, but he also has strong and consistent paternal instincts. He tries to raise Hammond up with him, buying her an assortment of items ranging from practical to fanciful. The more he gives her, the more she starts perceiving herself as a kept woman. When she sees herself as his whore, she’s too ashamed to face the small town.

Mrs. Hammond plays the part a few times, but sex is no help to Machin, who needs her heart rather than her body. She denies him even a sliver of her love. Machin continues rebelling against the ways of the world, failing to see the only person it’s effecting is Hammond. To the upper class his actions only prove their stereotype - he’s unrefined - correct, while to Hammond it causes further embarrassment because she’s sometimes with him and always associated with him. She eventually started to melt a little bit, but suddenly she associates him with various forms of shame, costing Machin the slight chance he may have had with her. Ultimately, Machin’s money makes him classless. He’s too coarse, brutish, and rough-hewn to be accepted by the upper class and has too many luxuries to remain amongst the working class people he grew up with.

Denys N. Coop’s cinematography provides the film with a drab black and white look that represents the empty lives that lack both opportunity and happiness. The rugby scenes are the exception, lively and vibrant as the sport represents Machin’s only release. The football field is the one place a man like Machin can be in charge, the tough guy rolling over the opposition. But when your goals are to conquer the kingdom and seize the (un)fair lady, it’s not enough. The constant rejection from the one woman who’s unimpressed by his stardom and athletic prowess combined with a class system that seemingly allows for as much upward mobility as India’s caste system fuels the rage burning inside Machin even when he’s on top of the rugby world. And in any brutal sport, it’s only so long before even the best are on the receiving end. For that matter, the film is told in flashback, the novocaine induced recollections of Machin as he recalls the events that led up to him getting his teeth knocked out.

Richard Harris was a very talented rugby player in real life. If he hadn’t contracted career-ending tuberculosis, he may never have pursued the theater. Novelist David Story played as well, and Anderson includes all his precise detail, the rich and the banal. Despite the abnormally long length for a “kitchen sink” film, it feels much shorter than say Tony Richardson’s revered The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner. Runner is half an hour longer, but is too didactic and simply lacks the dimension of This Sporting Life. Both films are about the star athlete’s issues with the authority figure and class system, but there’s a big picture in Anderson’s film that’s lacking in Richardson’s. In This Sporting Life the injustice is more the background to the love (or lack thereof) story, with several factors and issues ultimately shaping the man.

Anderson had his doubts about the score by avant-garde musician Roberto Gerhard, but it’s one of the main elements that separates This Sporting Life from the kitchen sink films of Richardson and Karel Reisz (who had the opportunity to direct, but opted to give Anderson the chance and act as producer due to similarities with his previous work). Gerhard’s eerie sound effect laden score is more along the lines of the brilliant work Toru Takemitsu was doing at the same time in the social realist works of Masaki Kobayashi.

Harris’ Cannes winning performance seems inspired by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and an inspiration for Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Harris’ character has more sides to him than De Niro’s does, but both ultimately fails outside the sport for the same reasons they succeed in it. Machin’s aggression is particularly ill matched for the woman he chooses, who is fragile and totally bound up. Despite the overall bleakness, Anderson shows the goodness in Machin a lot more than Martin Scorsese does in Jake La Motta. Machin is a brash impatient hothead who lashes out in rage, but we imagine he’d be capable of an exceptional amount of love, at least within his own terms. Whatever good it would do, it’s hard to say, since you couldn’t trust him to handle any situation that didn’t go his way in a civilized manner. What’s so captivating about the film is we see how they could really help each other. Hammond needs to let her husband’s memory go, and Machin needs her to love him. Anderson and Story leave enough gray area to get you thinking. We hope, we imagine, and then another violent outburst...




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *