Midway through David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life, published in 1960, the widow Mrs. Hammond tells the hero that her relationship with him is making her feel “dirty.” “I couldn’t think why she should say all this,” he muses, “and the shortest way of stopping it I found was to hit her.”
Lindsay Anderson’s film of the novel replicates that moment and typifies its tone and theme. This Sporting Life (1963) is a clenched fist of a movie. Its hero, Frank Machin (Richard Harris), is a professional Rugby League player who instinctively channels feeling through physical aggression. Early in the film, when he is still working as a coal miner, he provokes a fight in a dance hall simply, it seems, out of envy. In his trial game for the club, he deliberately injures a player on his own side when he feels that teammate is affecting his performance. His first love scene with Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts) is more like rape than romance, presaging a relationship that develops into a tormented struggle, she still in mourning over the death of her husband, he brutally—and in the end, fatally—trying to pull her out of her shell of coldness and withdrawal.
Most sporting films involve pain, but they will end in triumph for their hero, usually as reward for his moral redemption. By contrast, This Sporting Life starts in the realm of pain—Frank is thumped in the face during a match before the narrative proper has even begun—and never leaves it. The rugby field is a battleground of brutality, fitness, and survival. Some scenes between Machin and Mrs. Hammond are more like brawls than arguments, making you flinch (the distinguished cameraman Walter Lassally thought they had an emotional power unequaled in any British film). An outspoken critic in his younger days of the timidity of British cinema, director Lindsay Anderson was bringing his bold ideas onto the screen.
Born in India in 1923, the son of a Scottish major-general, and educated at Cheltenham public school and Wadham College, Oxford, Anderson had first made a name for himself as the founder of the film magazine Sequence in 1947. In its pages he championed the poetic cinema of Jean Vigo, Humphrey Jennings, and John Ford, directors whose films had what he called “larger implications than the surface realities might suggest,” and extolled the critical precepts of commitment, courage, and conviction that were to be the watchwords of his own cinematic practice. That practice began shortly thereafter, with a series of short fiction and documentary works in the late forties and early fifties. After winning an Oscar for Thursday’s Children (1954), a sensitive documentary about a school for deaf and dumb children, codirected with Guy Brenton, he became the driving force behind the so-called Free Cinema movement of the mid-1950s, where “free” was a synonym for “personal.” It featured six programs of films by new directors at London’s National Film Theatre, including Anderson’s own O Dreamland (1953) and Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which aimed to bring a new working-class realism to the screen. These films coincided with a similar trend toward social realism and rebellion against the inherent conservatism of British culture and society in the plays of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, and others, and in the contemporary working-class novels of John Braine (Room at the Top), Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving), and David Storey, whose unusual sexual and social frankness were highly acclaimed and very popular. The screen adaptations of these novels in the late fifties and early sixties ushered in a new era of British film and formed the core of what was to be known as the British new wave, a movement of which the later This Sporting Life was perhaps the most forceful expression.
Anderson had read This Sporting Life with great admiration. He knew its north of England milieu, as he had made a number of documentaries for the mining engineering company Sutcliffe Ltd. in Wakefield in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and also a documentary, Wakefield Express (1952), about the workings of the local newspaper. (This Sporting Life was shot on location in the town and uses some of the players from the Wakefield Trinity team to add authenticity to the rugby scenes.) But what really impressed Anderson was the quality of the writing. “He seeks to penetrate the soul,” he said of Storey, “yet he never forgets the relevance of the social world in which souls meet, conflict, and struggle. He labors to balance the ambiguities of our nature: male and female, tenderness and violence, isolation and love.” In discussing Storey in such terms, Anderson was also disclosing something of himself.
Storey was a divided individual, a coal miner’s son and a professional rugby player who, before the publication of the novel, had also financed his way through art college. If the ambiguities of Machin’s character clearly echoed those of the author, they struck a strong chord in Anderson too, a closeted homosexual privately infatuated with his leading actor, Richard Harris, and, perhaps because of this, empathizing with the repressed Mrs. Hammond, who is alternately awed and appalled by Machin’s oppressive masculinity. “A bleak northern affair of powerful, inarticulate emotions frustrated or deformed by puritanism and inhibition” was the way Anderson described the central relationship, adding ruefully, “No room here for charm or sentimental proletarianism.” True enough: when the phrase “I love you” finally escapes Machin’s lips, Mrs. Hammond spits in his face. It is one of the most harrowing relationships in British film, but it sears the soul because both Harris and Roberts give the performances of their lives. They were both to be nominated for Oscars, and Harris was to secure the best actor prize at the Cannes festival, while Roberts was to win a British Academy award as best actress.
Still, the film did not make for comfortable viewing, and it was not a commercial success. Its timing was unfortunate. Although in some ways it is the culminating achievement of the British new wave, in terms of theme (Harris’s Machin the most extreme case of the movement’s angry young men) and in terms of style (with its audacious montage and complicated flashback structure), audiences were by this time beginning to tire of L-shaped rooms and lonely long-distance runners: around the corner were the more exuberant spectacles of James Bond, Tom Jones, the Beatles, and Swingin’ London. Audiences also found it difficult to relate to a hero whom even Anderson described as “half overbearing, half acutely sensitive.” The film seemed overlong and overstated to some, particularly in the notorious deathbed scene of Mrs. Hammond in hospital, where a Bergmanesque spider stalks the wall, only to be crushed by Machin’s fist when he learns of her death (typical even here, though, that grief can only be expressed by an act of violence). The film has its tender moments, however, and the slow-motion coda carries a real weight of sadness and even tragedy, as Frank trudges across the rugby field, now out of favor with both management and fans, before jogging away from the camera, into an obscure and uncertain future.
Fortunately, Anderson was to have his day in the sun at the end of the decade with If.... (1968), his scathing satire of the British public-school system, which was described (to Anderson’s delight) as “an insult to the nation” by the British ambassador to France but which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and caught the late 1960s mood of anarchy and iconoclasm as well as any film of that era. He was to continue his professional collaboration with David Storey, directing a number of Storey’s plays, one of which, In Celebration, he was to film in 1974 with the original cast for Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre. Later films such as O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982) acquired a following, and his last film, Is That All There Is? (1993), made for the BBC, was a documentary self-portrait of great wit and poignancy.
The film that stands up best, however, still seems to me to be This Sporting Life, an utterly uncompromising work, the toughness of its vision eloquently augmented by Denys Coop’s chilly black-and-white photography and by Roberto Gerhard’s spare, almost atonal score. Its observations on the way sporting clubs become the playthings of businessmen now seem very prescient, and Alan Badel’s club owner, Weaver, has something of the Mephistophelian menace of George C. Scott in The Hustler (1961), ostensibly interested in the hero’s welfare, actually after his soul. Indeed, far from dated, the film today seems, curiously, to anticipate great 1970s cinema, and particularly the films of Martin Scorsese. Watching Machin admiring and shadowboxing with his image in the mirror, and out on a date with a woman he cares about but that he clumsily turns into an embarrassing fiasco, one cannot help thinking of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, from 1976 (according to the writer David Sherwin, Scorsese told him the name Travis had been chosen as homage to the Malcolm McDowell character in If....). And if one considers the film’s brutal sporting background, the dynamic leading performance, the oppressive physicality and masculinity, and a hero whose main outlet for inner turmoil is external violence, then Frank Machin suddenly looks like Jake La Motta in a rugby shirt, and This Sporting Life a British precursor to Raging Bull (1980).
When Anderson died in 1994, a vital voice in, and on, British cinema was silenced. The voice could certainly be cantankerous: pity that poor critic who tentatively began a question to Anderson with the words “Were you trying to say . . . ?” only to be slapped down with the imperious response “I wasn’t trying to say anything; I said it.” Yet it could be as compassionate as it was impassioned. To me this is particularly seen in This Sporting Life. Anderson once said that he sometimes thought of himself as being like the boy who stood on the burning deck: stubborn, defiant even in isolation, but not quite certain in his own mind whether he is being a hero or a bloody idiot. No wonder he understood Machin so well, particularly in those moments of bluff bravado or in gestures of generosity so clumsily delivered that they provoke embarrassment more than gratitude. He feels things deeply, but the articulation of these feelings is so difficult. I think particularly of that nightclub scene where Machin, whose insecurity and isolation here have been very sensitively suggested, is prevailed upon to sing. Sportingly, he does so, and in a clenched, awkward, and somewhat abashed manner reveals something essential at his core—and maybe Anderson’s too. “Here in my heart,” he sings plaintively, “I’m alone and so lonely.”
Neil Sinyard is professor of film studies at the University of Hull in England. He has published more than twenty books on cinema, including studies of directors Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Jack Clayton, Richard Lester, and Nicolas Roeg. He provided the audio commentary for the recent Criterion DVD release of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.