Viewers who only know Richard Harris from his English Bob to Albus Dumbledore phase might not realize in his youth, the Limerick lad was quite the bruiser. Broad-shouldered, rough-hewn, he had the same athletic physique as the Great Scotsman Sean Connery (the two were born just over a month apart) but used his brawny frame to tap into a much rawer, earthier vein on screen.
It's fitting then that Harris' first starring role was as Frank Machin, a miner turned rugby player in "This Sporting Life" (1963). Machin is one of the most memorable of the "angry young men" that characterized the British New Wave. He's a man who knows what he wants and goes after it with no restraint. On the field, he always finds the most direct route to his goals: when a teammate refuses to pass the ball he sucker punches him in a scrum, leaving the man bloodied and out of a job. Off the field, things get a bit more complex, and that's where the real drama of the story unfolds.
Machin rents a room in the house of the recently widowed Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts). Machin makes no secret of his love for her, but Margaret lives shuttered away in her private world of grief, and not even a manly man like the big rugby star can wrest her away from it. He showers with gifts as soon as he signs his first big contract, but no go. He tells her he loves her, but she spits in his face. When all else fails, he shouts then shouts even louder, but she just won't respond the way he wants her to. This causes no end of trouble to poor Machin who has not yet learned to differentiate between his own desires and those of other people.
"This Sporting Life" was also the first feature film by Lindsay Anderson, probably best-know today for "If…." (1968), about a revolution in a British boarding school. Anderson is a legendary figure in British cinema with legions of admirers who sing his praises: actor Malcolm McDowell calls him the greatest director he ever worked with, and McDowell has worked with some pretty good ones. Yet he directed only six feature films, only a few of which were either critical or box office successes in their day. Anderson also directed several short documentaries and worked in television, but his influence stems not just from his film output but also his contribution as a critic and thinker.
Anderson was one of the pioneers of the Free Cinema movement, a group of documentaries made outside of the studio which emphasized poetics and personal vision and focused on depictions of the working class. The movement directly into the "kitchen sink realism" of the British New Wave. "This Sporting Life" is one of the prime examples of this movement, though it was released towards the end of this very brief cycle which started approximately with Jack Clayton's "Room at the Top" (1959) and had already ended by 1964 when more escapist fare like "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) took British cinema by storm.
Adapted from the David Storey novel (Storey also wrote the screenplay), the film is set in the working class town of Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Though the film focuses closely on the troubled romantic relationship between its two leads, the town plays a crucial role in the story as well even when it is merely an ominous off-screen presence. Though Margaret has pulled into a shell, she still obsesses over knowing her place in society and worries about the disapproval of her neighbors. Machin, on the other hand, sees himself as a heroic figure, a wolf among the sheep who merely graze while he tears life's meat from the bone. Machin overcompensates for his insecurity, knowing that he is one injury away from being relegated to a life as a hard working grunt no different than all the rest.
Harris' performance is powerful, as you might expect, even though it feels stilted and theatrical at times. His anger pulsates, a perpetual motion machine that powers not only itself but each and every scene of the film. Rachel Roberts brings her brand of anger to the film as well, simmering and turned inward like a textbook depressive. When their mutual storm fronts clash, there's real electricity in the air, though the spark fizzles out in a disappointingly clichéd and awkwardly staged ending.
Anderson used players from the Wakefield Trinity Rugby League club to add verisimilitude to the sporting scenes, but the director doesn't seem to have a real eye for athletes in action. The rugby scenes are lackluster and unconvincing, in large part because there's so much focus on the lone figure or Machin racing down the field.
This is only a minor quibble, however. "This Sporting Life" is, in my opinion, Lindsay Anderson's greatest film. Frank Machin is one of the most indelible characters of the British New Wave, rivaled only by Colin Smith of "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1962). If the drama gets a bit overwrought at times, it is easily forgotten in the sheer pleasure of Harris' and Roberts' performances.
A note to keen-eyed viewers: William Hartnell turns in a very strong, if somewhat limited, performance as Machin's surrogate father figure in the film. I the very same year (1963), Hartnell landed the lead role in a brand-new science fiction show by the name of "Dr. Who."
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is almost perfect. ‘Nuff said. Really, that's all I can say. Gorgeous.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
This two-disc set is loaded with the most welcome of all possible features on such a disc, the films of Lindsay Anderson!
Disc Two offers three of Anderson's lesser-seen films:
"Meet the Pioneers" (1948, 33 min.) is Anderson's first film. Anderson, then working as a film critic, took on the thankless task of shooting a documentary about a coal mining conveyance system. The film is hardly a masterpiece, but Anderson finds to focus on the workers as well as the machines they operate, presaging his contributions to Free Cinema. The film is accompanied by an interview (18 min) with Lois Sutcliffe Smith, one of the producers who gave Anderson his first shot at directing. She remained a friend of Anderson's.
"Wakefield Express" (1952, 32 min.) is one of Anderson's Free Cinema documentaries. It presents a day in the life of the working class in Wakefield, the same town that serves as the setting for "This Sporting Life" a decade leader.
"Is That All There Is?" (1993, 52 min) is the best of the lot. Produced for the BBC series "The Director's Place," Anderson's final film turns the camera on the filmmaker. The film opens with a frail, elderly (70 years old) Anderson waking up alone in bed in his tiny apartment and follows him as he makes his rounds in town and entertains a series of visitors who are assisting him on current projects that he knows will never be realized. Despite his reputation, Anderson had trouble finding work for many years and struggled not only to make films but simply to make ends meet. This is a poignant and occasional disturbing portrait of a lonely and vulnerable man who tries to balance his considerable legacy with a much less-promising present. Anderson died in 1994.
Disc Two also includes "Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man?" (29 min.), an interesting if somewhat shallow documentary filmed in 2004 for BBC Scotland. Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and several other of Anderson's friends and co-workers reminisce about the late director.
Disc One offers a full-length audio commentary by Paul Ryan, editor of "Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson," and author David Storey who wrote both the novel and screenplay adaptation of "This Sporting Life."
The 32-page insert booklet includes an essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard and a 1963 article by Anderson, originally printed in the Feb 1963 issue of "Films and Filming."
Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts each received Oscar nominations for their performances in "This Sporting Life," and it's easy to understand why. Often when I write a sentence like that, it's intended as an insult, since the Academy tends to favor big, blustery, scenery-chewing performances (Daniel Day-Lewis is a mortal lock this year for "This Will Be Blood") at the expense of more restrained ones. Harris is certainly full of bluster as Frank Machin, but he's also completely convincing as the working class man who reaches for the stars. Roberts sizzles too, and their relationship makes "This Sporting Life" one the best films of the British New Wave. Strongly recommended.