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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.