Judge Ben Saylor would like to see a remake of This Sporting Life set in the white-knuckle world of kickball.
Mrs. Hammond: "You're just a great ape on a football field."
The late 1950s and early 60s was a fertile period for British cinema, a time when "kitchen-sink realism," in the form of films such as Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, among others, depicted the bleak lives of lower-class men and women. This Sporting Life, which was released in 1963, as this cycle of films (also known as the British New Wave) was on the wane, is a unique, superlative example of what was happening in British cinema during this time, and it simultaneously marked the arrival of director Lindsay Anderson and star Richard Harris. The Criterion Collection has seen fit to honor this film (and particularly its director) with another top-flight set.
Facts of the Case
Miner Frank Machin (Richard Harris, Gladiator) sees a way out of his hardscrabble existence by getting into a rugby club. With the help of scout "Dad" Johnson (William Hartnell), Frank manages to secure a place on a club and begins accumulating money. However, his newfound fame and fortune help him little in the pursuit of the object of his affection, his landlady Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts, Picnic at Hanging Rock). A widow who still very much carries a torch for her late husband, Mrs. Hammond initially rejects Frank's advances before embarking on an affair with him, one that results in disaster for both.
This is a great time to be a Lindsay Anderson fan. Last year saw the DVD release of the filmmaker's revolutionary 1968 film If…, which also received the two-disc Criterion treatment. Later in the year, Warner Home Video released the epic O Lucky Man!, the second installment in Anderson's loose "Mick Travis trilogy" (which also includes If… and 1982's Britannia Hospital). In addition, a documentary entitled Never Apologize: A Personal Visit With Lindsay Anderson played at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
It's not surprising that despite the fact that This Sporting Life came out in 1963 and marked Anderson's feature film debut, If… made it to DVD first. If… is the film that brought Anderson fame (and for some, infamy, given its controversial nature), and went on to become a cult classic. But while I very much admire If…, This Sporting Life is an extremely noteworthy film in Anderson's canon.
This Sporting Life is a very well-directed film, especially considering it marked Anderson's feature debut after years of working in documentaries. Anderson handles his cast very well, despite the difficulties he had (namely, with Richard Harris, which is discussed on the commentary track). Even with screenwriter David Storey's incendiary exchanges, Anderson does an excellent job making sure his actors don't take things too far, and when the emotions do spill over (especially in the third act), it generally feels earned.
Visually, Anderson brings a very intimate feel to the film, recording the lives of his characters just as carefully as he did the people and places in his documentaries. Anderson's empathy for these characters is evident in every frame, but that doesn't mean he lets Frank (or other characters) off the hook. I especially enjoyed the rugby scenes, where the camera gets down and dirty, with plenty of low angles to record the action. In the film's many domestic scenes, careful framing turns Mrs. Hammond's home (namely, the kitchen) into a claustrophobic battleground nearly as brutal as the rugby pitch. Cinematographer Denys Coop (who also shot Billy Liar) gives the film its beautifully depressing look; Coop's grimy portrait of Northern England adds to the film's already bleak tone. He and Anderson vary things somewhat in the hospital scene near the end of the movie, where the lighting looks very German Expressionistic.
One of the aspects of This Sporting Life that makes it stand out from other British New Wave films is its nonlinear structure (although The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner also employed this technique). Significant portions of the film play out in flashbacks as Frank is having emergency dental surgery. In the commentary, it is explained that this structure is faithful to Storey's original novel. Anderson and editor Peter Taylor expertly weave the story together, and the result is a narrative that is made even more intense by being told out of order.
Both Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts received Oscar nominations for their performances, and justly so. More than 40 years after the film's release, their work still holds up. As Frank, Harris is brute force personified. One can see echoes of Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski and harbingers of Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in Harris's performance. Harris expertly displays Frank's volatile nature, with flashes of tenderness thrown in as well. He wants and needs Mrs. Hammond, but his brutish nature prevents him from having a healthy relationship with her. For every blissful moment of Frank playing with Mrs. Hammond's two young children, there's an ugly scene like Frank's boorish behavior when he takes Mrs. Hammond to a posh restaurant.
Roberts more than holds her own with the raging Harris. The actress, who was also good in a much different role in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, plays a very complex character here. Mrs. Hammond is clearly having difficulty dealing with the death of her husband; carefully, ritualistically, she polishes his boots and leaves them by the fire, even when she knows full well he's never coming home. Frank's attentions only confuse and frustrate Mrs. Hammond, adding further distress to her life as a single mother of two young children. Her response to Frank's clumsy advances is to light into him nearly every time he speaks. While some of her diatribes are justified, some of them are quite hurtful, and like blows on the rugby pitch, only provoke Frank further. Roberts handles her character's conflicted feelings with aplomb.
The supporting cast is terrific as well. William Hartnell (whose performance here led to his being cast as the first Doctor Who) is heartbreaking as "Dad" Johnson, the man who secures Frank a rugby club tryout, but whom Frank abandons once he has become successful. It's easy to see that Johnson is living vicariously through players like Frank, since he himself has no life of his own. In fact, his devotion to Frank borders on something more than friendship, as Mrs. Hammond observes rather bluntly when she tells Frank that Johnson looks at him as if he were a woman. Colin Blakely (who had a tiny role in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) is also excellent as Frank's rugby teammate Maurice. Maurice gets married toward the end of This Sporting Life, and he represents the kind of life Frank wants but can't have.
The actors are aided by Storey's great script. His screenplay not only creates rich, fully realized characters, but it also says some interesting things about fame and fortune and the class system. It's particularly fascinating to see Frank's upward ascent thwarted not only by his bad behavior, but also by his ignorance of the rules of the kind of society he's trying to muscle his way into. When the saucy wife of one of the team's owners (Vanda Godsell) invites Frank to her house for a private drink, Frank knows what she wants, but when he gets there, he hesitates, becoming suddenly nervous. He's not smart enough to realize what his refusal of Mrs. Weaver's attentions means. As much of a monster as Frank can be, it's sad to see him used by people who are "above" him.
The Criterion Collection has turned out yet another fine DVD. Picture quality is superb; the details of Coop's cinematography are well represented here. Sound quality is not far behind; for a more-than 40-year-old film, everything sounds good. Most of the special features are more directly related to Anderson than they are to This Sporting Life. Disc One, however, has a silly trailer for the film, as well as a feature commentary track with David Storey and Paul Ryan, editor of Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson. The tracks, while recorded separately, are expertly edited together to create a complementary, cohesive track that pretty much runs nonstop. Ryan touches on a wide variety of topics including the context of film, Anderson's personal life, and the troubles of the film's production. Storey talks about his own experience in writing the book and working with Anderson, with whom he would collaborate several times after This Sporting Life. As far as commentaries go, this is about as comprehensive a track as you're likely to find. On Disc Two, there is a short (29 minutes) documentary from BBC Scotland called "Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man?," featuring interviews with Malcolm McDowell, Martin Scorsese, Paul Ryan, filmmaker Stephen Frears (who worked on If…), Brian Cox, and others. In addition, there are two short documentaries directed by Anderson. The first, "Meet the Pioneers," is a 1948 film about a mining engineering firm. The second, "Wakefield Express," is about the titular town as seen through the production of its newspaper. Each of these short documentaries is worth watching; I particularly enjoyed "Wakefield Express," which is incredibly detailed for such a relatively short running time (approximately 32 minutes). I'm a bit biased because I work for a weekly newspaper, but this is a well-made documentary that shows Anderson's command of the filmmaking craft. The image and sound quality on both are certainly not pristine (understandable given their age), but don't let that stop you from watching them. If you watch "Meet the Pioneers," be sure to catch the interview with Lois Sutcliffe Smith included on the DVD. Smith is the one who suggested that Anderson be hired to make "Meet the Pioneers," thus launching his career. While short (roughly 19 minutes), Smith proves to be a funny and warm interviewee. Finally, the disc includes Is That All There Is?, Anderson's final film. Made in 1993, the film, which runs approximately 52 minutes, is an interesting (and presumably fictionalized) look at Anderson's daily life.
With its DVD release of This Sporting Life, the Criterion Collection has helped illuminate not only a seminal period of world film, but also one of the medium's singular talents, director Lindsay Anderson. For that, it deserves to be commended twice over.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature commentary with Paul Ryan, editor of Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson, and David Storey, screenwriter and author of This Sporting Life
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