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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

So the moral of the story is, better Red Riding Hood than dead Riding Hood. You read me?

The Fortune Cookie (1966)
(SPOILERS) Despite its pedigree – director and writer Billy Wilder reteaming with Jack Lemmon, the first teaming of Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a clutch of Oscar nominations – The Fortune Cookie isn’t up there with the best of Wilder’s Lemmon collaborations. Which were, at this point, in the past.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!

Mickey One (1965)
(SPOILERS) Apparently this early – as in, two years before the one that made them both highly sought-after trailblazers of “New Hollywood” – teaming between Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn has undergone a re-evaluation since its initial commercial and critical drubbing. I’m not sure about all that. Mickey One still seems fatally half-cocked to me, with Penn making a meal of imitating the stylistic qualities that came relatively naturally – or at least, Gallically – to the New Wave.