This Sporting Life
by Dan Schneider

Throughout the dozen or so film roles I had seen him in, I was never particularly impressed with the film work of Richard Harris. Not that there was anything of particularly bad quality to it, but neither was there anything of particularly great quality either. Then I watched This Sporting Life, the 1963 black and white debut film of Lindsay Anderson, starring Harris as rugby star Frank Machin and….WOW! What a revelation. Yes, the comparisons to Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in Raging Bull are apt...save for one thing. Harris gives an even better performance than those two iconic actors in those two iconic roles. Why? Simple. His performance is more real. Really. Watch Brando again, and compare his scene where he famously rages Stella to that where Harris pleads his love to Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts) in this film--Harris never loses total control, plus he has a tenderness and vulnerability inside of the rage. Now, watch De Niro when a bloated La Motta is in jail and pumping his fists against concrete, and compare it to the scene where Harris punches a hospital wall, and crushes a spider hovering over Margaret during her death scene. Yes, in one film Harris outdoes signature performances held up as some of the greatest in film history.

Now ask why? Because he is not indulging in the Method madness. His acting flows from the character and the moment, as wrought by a great screenplay and a great actor converging, not from some need to revel in the supposed 'reality' of a fictive character's angst. And credit the screenplay to David Storey, who adapted his own novel of the same name. On top of Harris's bravura performance there's a restrained performance of slow death (literal and emotional) from Roberts, plus the fact that the film is a sports film that successfully subverts all the conventions of a sports film. It tells of the rise and fall of a Yorkshire coal miner, Frank Machin (Harris) from nobody to local sports hero, mostly in flashbacks after Machin gets knocked out in a scrum. We see assorted episodes of Machin's rise, particularly his pursuit of a comely young widow, Margaret Hammond (Roberts, who looks uncannily like actress Elizabeth Montgomery). The film basically becomes a study of Machin's inability to deal with his athletic success and romantic failure.

This Sporting Life was the first feature film directed by Anderson, and while it won awards and garnered high critical acclaim, it did not do too well at the box office, and Anderson would have to wait five more years before If.… got him his first taste of financial success. Previously, Anderson had been a well regarded documentary filmmaker (his Thursday's Children from 1953 had won an Oscar for best short subject documentary) and a highly-regarded theatrical director (adapting Willis Hall's "The Long And The Short And The Tall", for example). This Sporting Life was considered one of the last socially conscious 'Kitchen Sink' dramas (Britain's version of Italian Neo-Realism), but has also been called part of the British New Wave, a movement that was sweeping many European film cultures. Anderson had previously been involved with the Free Cinema documentary movement of the 1950s, and, throughout his life, was drawn to –isms of art, often even writing absurd manifestos for them.

The film's scoring is quite evocative of the brute nature of man and the sport of rugby. It was crafted by Roberto Gerhard, but its almost otherworldly nature reminds me most of Jerry Goldsmith's breakthrough score for the 1968 science fiction classic The Planet Of The Apes. Yet it fits in perfectly here, coming and going at odd moments, subliminally evoking the idea that Machin, via his brutal sports, is often in a different reality than others, on a perpetual 'Queer Street,' if you will. The flashback structure and the cinematography by Denys Coop is very good, as well--strict black and white compositions with jarring off-kilter shots every so often that visually reflect the feelings the musical cues by Gerhard invoke. An example is a scene of Machin at a rail yard at night, staring at a train seemingly headed straight at him (a shot that visually synchs up with a similar scene in Satyajit Ray's The World Of Apu); another is a scene of Frank on a hillside, standing at nearly 180 degrees as the hill curves sharply away from him. These scenes visually reflect Frank's difference from the other characters about him. Only Margaret is similarly de-synched from normality, but Frank fails to realize that even their difference is different.

Yet, Frank Machin is not a dim-witted brute, like the characters portrayed by Brando and De Niro; he has his own brittle wisdom of self-reliance. When Margaret moans that life is unfair, and others have lives made for them, he replies: "That's right, Mrs. Hammond, and some people make it for themselves." And when the wife of his team's owner tries to seduce him with flattering small talk, he replies with his own take on how life works: 'It's like this, Mrs. Weaver: you see something, and you go out and you get it. It's as simple as that.' Machin is a no bullshit sort of character, and this pervades his being--he is the same way in whatever situation: bathing nude with his teammates as they wrestle in the showers, ordering food at a hoity-toity restaurant with Margaret, or schooling her on life. When he and she have their final argument, and she declares him a fraud for acting above his station, he responds: 'You want me to be like them. You want me to crawl about just like the rest. Well, just have a look at the rest. Take a good look at the bloody people around you. There isn't a bleeding man amongst them: you're flat on your back from the go, crawling about you. Because they haven't got the guts. Do you understand that? They haven't got the guts to stand up and walk about like me.'

The DVD is from The Criterion Collection, and it's among the better packages offered since the company started skimping on audio commentaries after they switched to the new semi-circle C logo a few years back. It contains two disks, and the first disk has a sparklingly restored audio and video version of the film. Also on the first disc are the original theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary with Paul Ryan, editor of "Never Apologise: The Collected Writings Of Lindsay Anderson", and David Storey, the screenwriter and author of the novel, "This Sporting Life" The two seem to have recorded their parts at separate times, and Ryan is by far the more interesting speaker. He is knowledgeable about the film, the place and time of the film's setting, and on general aspects of filmmaking. He also relates some entertaining and informative anecdotes about the film's director, Lindsay Anderson. One wishes the whole commentary could have been Ryan alone, for when Storey speaks, the commentary dies. Even though the story is a fictive version of many of the events of his own life, Storey lacks any real insights into his own private 'Machin moments,' nor does he seem to have anything interesting or articulate to say about the film or the novel. If Ryan's commentary is a 95 out of 100, then Storey's is a 40 or 45. Splitting the difference, one is left with a passable listening experience of a 70 or so. In short, more is often less. The second disk contains many good features: Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man?, a half hour long BBC Scotland documentary with interviews with the director's friends and collaborators; an interview with Lois Sutcliffe Smith, Anderson's friend and a producer; Meet the Pioneers, Anderson's first documentary short, from 1948; Wakefield Express, a 1952 short subject; Is That All There Is?, Anderson's fictively autobiographical, final 50 minute long film, from 1993; as well as a booklet with essays by film scholar Neil Sinyard and Anderson's 1963 article on film, "Stand Up! Stand Up!" Neither writing wows the reader, but, overall, a bevy of quality features that could buoy the experience of the package even if the film, itself were mediocre. Since it is a great film, it's a terrific overall package for cineastes.

This Sporting Life is not the most seamlessly made film, but like Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler (whose ambiguous ending it presages), it claws and scratches its way to great art, led by the two most basic tools of the medium: a great script and great acting. Roberts is almost the equal of Harris as the repressed widow Hammond, heightened by the fact that their relationship grows and changes over the course of the 135 minute long film. Unlike the recent Revolutionary Road, the viewer grows to understand these characters and their relationship over time, and are not just plunged into a maelstrom. This is because Anderson and Storey understood narrative, and that it is the basis of any good screenplay, which is the basis of a good film. Taking that to its logical next step, any great film will likely have a great screenplay. And, despite its visual nature, film is far closer to literature (specifically poetry, at its best) than to photography. The mere movement of images means nothing without the development of story, from character, from acting, from a screenplay. Simple, yet not. Just like Frank Machin.

©2010 Dan Schneider
CineScene