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THIS SPORTING LIFE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, William Hartnell
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.66:1 widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Feature commentary, four documentaries, trailer, interview, booklet
Length: 134 minutes
Release Date: January 22, 2008

They haven’t got the guts to stand up and to walk about like me!

Film ****

Outspoken and opinionated, Lindsay Anderson always seemed to thrive as one of Britain’s more underrated and infrequent film directors.  To some degree, his relative anonymity was of his own choosing, for where his British contemporaries were frequently lured to Hollywood, Anderson shunned American cinema and resisted any attempts to re-locate.  Where some directors succumbed to the seductive trappings of mainstream success, Anderson stuck to his almost radical and revolutionary tendencies.  And where Britain’s brightest film directors merrily toiled away exclusively in feature films, Anderson preferred the greater freedom of expression that could be found through documentary filmmaking and in fact only helmed six feature films throughout his career.

The young Anderson started out as a film critic.  While an Oxford scholar, he founded a film magazine and regularly wrote critiques denouncing the escapist films of his Britain circa the 1940’s.  Anderson favored the ideal of truth in cinema.  Small wonder that a decade later, Anderson would become a major influential voice on the Free Cinema movement of the 1950’s, essentially Britain’s counterpart to Italian neorealism.

Anderson’s first initiation in film directing was the direct result of encouragement from an engineer’s wife, a certain Mrs. Lois Sutcliffe.  She persuaded the inexperienced Anderson to direct a 1948 industrial short for her husband’s company.  Despite his lack of formal training, Anderson quickly picked up the tricks of the trade and by the early 1950’s had developed into a fairly competent documentary filmmaker, even winning an Oscar for a short documentary about deaf and mute children, Thursday’s Children.

Anderson continued to make documentaries and even dabbled in the theater as well until age forty, when he came across the autobiographical novel “This Sporting Life” by David Storey.  Impressed by the savagery of the novel’s frankness and authenticity, Anderson contacted the author and together, they collaborated on a screenplay adaptation.  Anderson even knew the young actor he wanted for the lead role - Richard Harris, a promising young British actor who had been quite a revelation in the stage play “The Ginger Man.”  The eventual film, This Sporting Life (1963), would preserve the raw emotion and power of its source novel thanks all three men - Storey’s sublime screenplay, a commanding performance by Harris, and a stripped-down, cinéma vérité approach to direction by Lindsay Anderson.

This Sporting Life is a searing character portrait about a rugby player whose passions eventually destroy him. It focuses on Anderson’s forte - personal, intimate stories about ordinary, working-class people.  Shot on location in Wakefield and featuring the town’s own rugby players, This Sporting Life combined Anderson’s expertise as a documentary filmmaker with a kitchen-sink gritty realism that gives the film its tremendous emotional resonance.  This Sporting Life would ultimately lead a new trend of rebellion against conservativism and staleness in British cinema (much as the French New Wave of the late 1950’s had been a rebellion against stagnation in the French film industry).

In This Sporting Life, Frank Machin (Richard Harris) is a Yorkshire working-class lowlife who aspires to something greater than a dead-end existence as a coal miner.  Single and alone, Frank rents a room in a flat owned by Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), a widower with two young children.  Frank is a crude man, seeking companionship but lacking the social skills to express himself in an articulate manner beyond clumsy gestures.  But in her own way, Margaret too is damaged goods, a wounded and repressed woman who in her private bereavement has shut herself off from the world and so is also unable to fully express or reveal the depths of her inner suffering.

One day, Frank receives an opportunity to try out for the local rugby team and so impresses the team’s bosses that he is soon hired.  Frank quickly becomes the stalwart star of Rugby League football, but at the pinnacle of his success, Frank’s own personality flaws begin to fail him.  He is, after all, rude, conceited, cocky, and defiant, a malcontent who brings a raging passion to everything in his life, on and off the playing field.  He is seemingly unable to embrace simple happiness but must set about destroying it to feel secure about himself.

It is in times of crisis, when we most need the moral support of friends, that we miss their presence and languish in their absence, for only then do we understand the inherent human need for companionship and bond.  Frank seeks love but cannot return that gentleness in kind.  He seeks friendship but his self-interest and lack of social grace cause him to lose what few true friends he has.  Through the efforts of a friendly mentor, “Dad” Johnson (William Hartnell), Frank received his first big break, but later when they meet, “Dad” is given an indifferent shrug, almost a casual brush-off, by the now-successful Frank Machin.

Tender affections fail Frank when he tries to win over Margaret.  He does not so much as make love to Margaret as he forcefully takes her and brutalizes her.  Indeed, more often that not, when Frank proves incapable of expressing himself, he resorts to aggressive shouting and violence - a slap to the face, a twist of the wrist, perhaps even a punch to the nose.  He quite literally and figuratively crushes the only two people in life who cared about him.

Frank Machin ultimately sees himself as others see him - just “a great ape on a football field” for the public’s amusement.  His unbridled explosiveness takes him to the top of the game but is the cause of his downfall as well.  His successes on the rugby field will be matched by failures in his private life such that in the end, Frank will be lonelier than before, losing the respect of his colleagues, losing his fans, losing the one woman he loved.

In a sense, Frank Machin is On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy revisited.  He could have had class.  He could have been somebody.  But in the end, Frank is unable to overcome his faults and becomes just another working-class outsider, a non-contender struggling to find a meaningful niche in life.  He is a man without solace.  His light will wane, and his life will become one of diminution, past glories faded into a lonesome present and uncertain future.

As Frank Machin, Richard Harris offers one of the most powerful film performances of his career.  This is not the thin and frail Richard Harris of later years but a young, strong, and virile Harris at the peak of his masculinity, truly the personification of a rugby player.  That said, one does not need to understand rugby to enjoy This Sporting Life other than to appreciate the sheer, primordial physicality of this violent sport.  In truth, This Sporting Life is not really a sports film but rather a character study.  And while Richard Harris’ Frank Machin is certainly the soul of this film, Rachel Roberts is equally as compelling in a devastating and achingly sad performance as the widow Mrs. Hammond.  Their performances complement one another and provide the emotional turmoil at the heart of this film.

This Sporting Life received a confused reception upon its initial release, as British audiences at the time could not fully grasp its nuances.  Today, Lindsay Anderson’s film can be viewed clearly as a film ahead of its time, anticipating the gritty 1970’s films of directors such as Martin Scorsese.

After This Sporting Life, Lindsay Anderson would finally achieve great success with his next film, the radical and revolutionary film If... (1968).  As a film about a student uprising, it was a huge hit, especially in the environment of political riots and student unrest worldwide at the time.  This film won the Cannes’ Palme d’Or and established Anderson’s reputation internationally.  Other films would follow, including the well-received The Whales of August (1987) starring screen legends Bette Davis and Lillian Gish.  Anderson would continue to work in the theater and documentaries, but perhaps his crowning achievement will always be his first feature film, This Sporting Life.

Video *** ½

This Sporting Life is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format.  The transfer was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive.  The black & white cinematography is crystal clear with clean, sharply-detailed images.  Some crowd sequences have a newsreel-like appearance to them which accentuate the film’s documentary feel.

Audio ***

The monaural audio was remastered from a 35mm optical track and cleaned to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle.  Crowd sequences, such as nightclub scenes or rugby matches, have heavy background ambient noise, but that is to be expected.

Features ****

This Sporting Life arrives on two discs.  Disc One holds the movie itself as well as a trailer and a feature-length, scholarly commentary track by Paul Ryan.  Separately-recorded anecdotes from novelist David Storey also help to lighten the spirits and to flesh out the film’s background and reveal how events from Story’s own past influenced his novel and the film’s screenplay.

The remaining supplemental features, four documentaries and an interview, can be found on Disc Two.  Three of these documentaries are early Anderson efforts which provide a career trajectory of the former film critic’s development as a film director.

Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man (29 min.) presents an homage to the life and career of the iconoclastic director through a series of interviews with his colleagues and actors.  Among those to appear are Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, Richard Harris, and Malcolm McDowell.  Old photographs, film clips and commentary about Anderson’s best films are included.

Anderson’s directorial debut was Meet the Pioneers (33 min., 1948), an industrial documentary focusing on the workings of a conveyor factory.  The sometimes technical narration is provided by Anderson himself.  The factory was operated by the Sutcliffe family, which had commissioned the young film critic to make this promotional film despite his lack of prior filmmaking experience or training.  Attached to the film is a delightful interview with Lois Smith (18 min.), formerly Mrs. Sutcliffe, in which she relates many humorous anecdotes about the making of Meet the Pioneers.

Wakefield Express (32 min., 1952) is a Free Cinema portrait of quaint regional life for the town citizens and newspaper employees of Wakefield.  At the time, the weekly newspaper was commemorating its centennial year of existence.  This documentary demonstrates Anderson’s maturation as a film director and also offers an early look at the small town that would later serve as the setting for This Sporting Life.  There is even a brief glimpse of rugby practice in this film.  Anyone interested to learn how newspapers were once created will certainly enjoy this fascinating documentary!

Is That All There Is (52 min., 1993) is Anderson’s final film, a poignant denouement to nearly a half-century of filmmaking.  This autobiographical day-in-the-life look at not-quite-retirement for the director still has him reviewing new plays and scripts and engaging in sharp repartee with a host of friendly colleagues from film, journalism, and the theater.  There are a few tongue-in-cheek staged scenes which blur the line between film and documentary.  Is That All There Is ends with a bittersweet wake for the late Rachel Roberts.

Lastly, included with this two-disc set is a 32-page booklet containing cast & crew information, production stills, and two essays.  “The Lonely Heart” by Neil Sinyard offers background about the film and its pivotal place in the new British cinema of the 1960’s.  The 1963 article “Sport, Life, and Art” by Lindsay Anderson explores the pre-production history of This Sporting Life, the director’s own theories concerning film critique, and his early foray into the world of theater.

Summary:

This Sporting Life is a gritty, documentary-style window into the life and personal demons of a Yorkshire rugby player.  Richard Harris delivers a powerhouse performance of a lifetime but is equally matched by Rachel Roberts’ own tragic and grieving performance.  Another highly recommended offering from Criterion!

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