Skip to main content

A great ape on a football field. That's what she called me.

This Sporting Life
(1963)

(SPOILERS) In a piece for The Guardian last year, critic Peter Bradshaw rightly feted This Sporting Life, Lindsay Anderson’s film of David Storey's novel (which Storey also adapted). Confusingly, however, his last line claimed Richard Harris' rugby league player Frank Machin, was "a great working-class hero for the screen". Which made me wonder if we saw the same picture.


Class is infused into the picture's bones, into how Yorkshire coal miner Frank responds to those around him and them to him, but extolling him as a hero is to blithely disregard the scrupulously detailed portrait of deeply flawed, angry and emotionally inarticulate character; you might call him an anti-hero, but even that, in this context, feels like a superficially reductive peg. Frank's a man afflicted by a lack of self-awareness, not so much unwilling as unable to find that quality in himself. He’s aware of the value of his skillset, of course, and so can expound that what he's doing is for no one but himself; and in that regard, it's just for the money. On one level, this makes money a great leveller; on another, it's merely a different tiered system all of its own, the power to give and take away ensuring he’s a kept man (of Arthur Lowe's club chairman Charles Slomer) when he falls out of favour with the man who ensured his signing, team owner Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel). 


Accompanying the commoditisation of Frank's physicality – for a game kicking a ball – is the recognition that he's also a commodity in other respects. Predatory behaviour is everywhere, in different forms, from the apparently ineffectual to the potential harmful. The apparent altruism of Dad Johnson (William Hartnell), the scout who gets Frank noticed, is called into question by landlady Margaret ("The way he ogles you. He looks at you like a girl"), which may or may not feed into her assertion that "He's never worked a day in his life"; when a jubilant Frank, a cheque for a grand in his hand, asks Dad to name the share he wants, Dad protests "I didn't do it for the money". What did Dad do it for? The next time we see him, Frank has very much dispensed with his services, offering a dismissive "Hi Dad" as he departs for his next spot of carousing. 

 
Then there's Weaver, who puts his hand on Frank's knee in a manner that ensures the new signing's attention, and who is clearly aware of his wife's proclivities towards the players (if Slomer is, he's sure to be). Which suggests a knowing game played by the pair of them, whenever a fresh young play arrives on the scene. Gerald's wife Anne (Vanda Godsell) sees Frank as a toy boy until his bashed features meet with her mocking disdain. Ultimately, he has to rely on Slomer's vouchsafe to ensure he remains a fixture ("Still, you'll be alright as long as I’m here. You understand what I mean?") 


Frank likes to think his cachet as a player ensures he needs show fealty to no one, and initially at least this holds true – witness his triumph in extracting exactly the price he demands from the board. At least, barring the inaccessible Margaret (Rachel Roberts), who professes no interest in his sporting life. It transpires that her attitude is the more accurate reflection of his permanence on the pitch. Ultimately, when he's no longer the most prized specimen, when he can be bested and so is just another (fading) player, he becomes that "great ape on a football field" he earlier rails against being seen as, his features battered and coarsened.


The real intensity of the film comes not on the pitch, in the boardroom, locker room or pub, however, but in the domestic frustrations between Frank and Margaret. Does he love her? He believes he does, but is it just a saviour complex on his part? At a loss when asked to show himself capable of genuine warmth, understanding and empathy, he's useless to Margaret if she's to have any hope of escaping the curse of her environment (a single mother who cannot move past the burden of a husband who – probably – committed suicide); even when she yields to his desire to share a bed, she remains remote from him, unwilling to be ensnared for naught.


I wouldn't quite say Harris is a revelation here, in that he's always been fiercely commanding, but he's certainly surprising in terms of the young star quality he exudes; his is very much the instant matinee idol presence – Anderson admitted to being infatuated with his lead – and the comparisons to a young Brando are entirely on point. As such, there's a sense of the portrayal being slightly atypical compared to his (just a few years) later, more characteristically dissolute work. As for the character, Frank's nascent self-destructive drive feels strongly like a precursor to Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull


Roberts is every bit Harris' equal, even if his is, by its nature, the more attention-grabbing performance; I know Roberts mainly for more austere, later matriarchal roles (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Murder on the Orient Express) but the raw, weary, wounded despair beneath her resistance to Frank is palpable throughout. It's unsurprising – but nevertheless gratifying – that both received Oscar nominations for their work.


Hartnell, Lowe, Badel and Colin Blakely (as Frank's pal in the team) all acquit themselves with honours. Hartnell and Lowe particularly impress, more used as we likely are to their best-known TV roles; the former's a fragile figure living vicariously through his young discovery, the latter familiarly authoritative but without the accompanying foolishness. Notable too are Jack Watson, George Sewell and Leonard Rossiter, the latter on good form as a smarmy reporter.


As the Criterion review of the film suggests, there's something bizarrely over-symbolic about Margaret's deathbed scene, complete with gratuitously crushed spider, but I think it simultaneously meshes with the kitchen sink theatricality of the home scenes and austere, foreboding black and white photography. Aided by editor Peter Taylor, Anderson delivered a stylistically innovative film, ensuring it carries a freshness and vitality today that isn't necessarily true of some of its "angry young men" bedfellows. Indeed, while the flashback structure may not now seem such a remarkable choice, it still impresses for just how confident Anderson is that his audience doesn't need handholding. If the picture wasn’t a success at the time, it probably wasn't because its audience found it inaccessible on that score, but rather because its dourness was deemed a turn off (it was considered to have drawn a line under the kitchen sink genre). And while it's been called one of the great sporting films, it really only feels like it belongs in that genre in the loosest sense; This Sporting Life remains a great film, regardless of bracket.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I am you, and you are me, and we are here. I am the dreamer. You are the dream.

Communion (1989)
(SPOILERS) Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story was published in 1987, at which point the author (who would also pen Communion’s screenplay) had seen two of his novels adapted for the cinema (Wolfen and The Hunger), so he could hardly claim ignorance of the way Hollywood – or filmmaking generally – worked. So why then, did he entrust the translation of a highly personal work, an admission of/ confrontation with hidden demons/ experiences, to the auteur who unleashed Howling II and The Marsupials: Howling III upon an undeserving world? The answer seems to be that Strieber already knew director Philippe Mora, and the latter was genuinely interested in the authors’ uncanny encounters. Which is well and good and honourable, but the film entirely fails to deliver the stuff of cinematic legend. Except maybe in a negative sense.

Strieber professes dismay at the results, citing improvised scenes and additional themes, and Walken’s rendition of Whitley Strieber, protagonist…

I’m not the Jedi I should be.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
(SPOILERS) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the only series entry (thus far) I haven’t seen at the cinema. After the first two prequels I felt no great urgency, and it isn’t an omission I’d be hugely disposed to redress for (say) a 12-hour movie marathon, were such a thing held in my vicinity. In the bare bones of Revenge of the Sith, however,George Lucas has probably the strongest, most confident of all Star Wars plots to date.

This is, after all, the reason we have the prequels in the first place; the genesis of Darth Vader, and the confrontation between Anakin and Obi Wan. That it ends up as a no more than middling movie is mostly due to Lucas’ gluttonous appetite for CGI (continuing reference to its corruptive influence is, alas, unavoidable here). But Episode III is also Exhibit A in a fundamental failure of casting and character work; this was the last chance to give Anakin Skywalker substance, to reveal his potential …

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.