This Sporting Life

This Sporting Life


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Yorkshire, the early Sixties. On a bleak, windswept pitch a rugby league match is in full swing. Frank Machin (Richard Harris), rising star of the ‘City’ club is in the forefront of the action as always – until an opponent slams a shoulder into his mouth, breaking six front teeth.

It’s a fittingly stark and brutal opening to a film that still packs a punch. Lindsay Anderson’s feature debut (and Harris’ first starring role) is all about pain – not just the physical pain of a tough sport whose players and fans see it as a release or escape from lives of back-breaking labour in the mines and factories, but the emotional agonies of characters trapped by background and circumstance, unable to break free or express their true feelings.

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The ‘British New Wave’ had been exploring such themes for several years by this time, producing classics such as Room At The Top, Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, but also a welter of inferior identikit versions, to the extent that the ‘it’s grim up North’ genre was already becoming a cliché.

Just how different Anderson’s film is from its precursors is obvious from the scenes that follow its striking opening. As he is carried dazed through the treatment room then given gas by the dentist before his teeth are pulled out, Frank’s life (sporting and otherwise) unfolds in a series of vivid, impressionistic flashbacks.

The unconventional narrative structure leaves the audience as disoriented and confused as the protagonist and gives an experimental, dream-like feel to the film that owes more to the French New Wave, but Anderson (whose background was in documentaries) doesn’t stint on the gritty realism or forget the importance of the story.

The story begins when Frank, a young miner, becomes determined to win a place in the City squad. They represent the only glamour in a small town revolving around the same routine – pit and factory by day, pub and dancehall by night. Frank refuses to join in the adulation of the players, picks a fight with one of them and, when the team’s elderly scout Johnson (William Hartnell) arranges a successful trial, holds out for a big money deal.

His arrogance offends some of the directors – but not the chairman, Weaver (Alan Badel). He takes Frank under his wing and grooms him for ‘stardom’ in a deliberate move to emphasise his power over the rest of the board.

Frank hopes his new-found wealth and fame will impress his landlady, Mrs Hammond (Rachel Roberts), the widow of a worker who died in an accident at Weaver’s factory. The two have a caustic, cagey relationship and even when it develops into an affair and Frank becomes a surrogate father to her two young children they are unable to express their love for each other – she feels consumed by guilt; he uses his aggressive, independent self-image as a shield against the world. But the film makes it clear that Frank is essentially an innocent – constantly manipulated by his new bosses at the club, realising too late that there’s more to life than being ‘a big ape on a football field’ and that he has merely exchanged one form of prison for another.

Frank's downward spiral builds to a climax that is both raw and powerful, but also artistic and moving, as he finally drops his guard and expresses emotion. But is it too late?

In all this, Anderson is astonishingly assured for a first-timer, delivering a film that’s intellectually diverting and rewarding as well as a compelling human drama. Some credit I feel is due here to David Storey, a former rugby league professional, who roots his tale in a very believable world, though one that seems very distant now that the sport is another Sky money-spinner. Like The Damned United, it conjures up an era when sports grounds were ramshackle rustheaps, pitches resembled the Somme on a bad day and the height of a player’s ambitions was to own a car and have the odd meal at the local ‘swanky’ restaurant.

And the performances are uniformly terrific. Those who know Harris only as the weathered elder statesman of The Field, Gladiator and the first two Harry Potters should make a beeline for this; young and hungry but obviously hugely talented, he dominates every scene. But as well as raw, feral charisma he also brings a subtlety and tenderness to the later scenes and, despite all the character’s faults, it would take a hard heart not to be moved by his inarticulate agonies.

According to some accounts Anderson was infatuated with Harris and there’s definitely a charge to the scenes where he’s on the field of stripped down to his vest. In fact, there’s a very distinct homoerotic undertone to many of the film’s key relationships – Weaver’s predatory dominance of Frank and Johnson’s constant, somewhat pathetic, devotion to him.

This is another way in which the film differs from, and transcends, its precursors – but it doesn’t stop the central relationship with Mrs Hammond from being believable and powerful. Roberts offers a memorable portrayal of a woman still young and attractive, longing to be happy but squeezed dry by grief and austerity, and her scenes with Harris are still electrifying nearly 50 years on.

Badel is terrific as the spivvy, flint-eyed Weaver and (bizarrely) Hartnell nabbed his role as the first Dr Who on the strength of this. A solid midfield of familiar faces (Colin Blakely, Leonard Rossiter, Arthur Lowe and Frank Windsor to name but a few) round off an impressive ensemble.

Occasionally the symbolism is a bit blatant and it could perhaps benefit some judicious editing, but this is still one of the best British films ever made. Hollywood took a firm grip on Harris after it, with decidedly mixed results (for every Major Dundee there was a Golden Rendezvous), and despite the odd masterpiece like If... Anderson’s career never quite lived up to this early promise. But this is a solid triumph for both of them.

This Sporting Life is being re-released in selected cinemas with a new digital print, which will undoubtedly bring out the best in the stark black and white photography. But for all Anderson’s artistic flair this is still (like all the best British New Wave) a film about people. Frank’s story has the simple, powerful resonance of Greek tragedy. If you feel cinema’s all about telling such stories, then I urge you to see it.

Reviewed on: 31 May 2009
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A Rugby League player embarks on a doomed affair with his landlady.
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Director: Lindsay Anderson

Writer: David Storey

Starring: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, William Hartnell

Year: 1963

Runtime: 134 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK


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The Damned United