THIS SPORTING LIFE offers more superbly etched misery from the bitter harvest of ‘angry young man’/’kitchen sink’ dramas that boiled out of Britain in the early 60s. Like the rest in the dour lot, this 1963 scrum doesn’t get anywhere near the feel-good zone, but the acting, writing, direction and editing make for a compelling view. In his first bat at directing a feature, social documentarian and prickly film critic Lindsay Anderson worked from a script written by David Storey.
“You’re just a great ape on a football field”.
Wakefield in Yorkshire, England. ‘Frank Machin’ (Richard Harris) leaves coal mining behind to carve a name for himself as a rugby player, making up for a lack of experience with his ferocious drive. Frank’s aggressive attitude propels him into some measure of celebrity, but there are tripwires to contentment, not least his own blunt-force manner. Besides gaining fans and making money, he stakes a lot on winning acceptance from his landlady, Margaret Hammond’ (Rachel Roberts), a caustic, bitter widow with two young children. Delicacy and tact are not Frank’s strong suit, and Margaret has built a wall that would stall a saint.
Storey adapted the script from his own celebrated 1960 novel, based on a world he knew well, having been a pro league rugby player while putting himself through fine arts college. Anderson stages it superbly, although it runs on a wee too long: at 134 minutes the relentless, intimate pain finally gets wearying. Harris is a man on fire, attacking the role with no holds barred. He only errs by occasionally indulging in some ‘Brando’ moments, and made the unfortunate choice of accenting his look with some eye makeup, an affectation the infatuated director ought to have nixed. The Marlon moves are self-owning irony: Harris had idolized Brando—until he had to work with him on Mutiny On The Bounty (another tale for another time), and the script doesn’t help it with a “Stella!” moment at one key point. The performance is certainly powerful, but it’s also qualified. There’s no doubting the the strength and honesty of Roberts blistering portrayal, making Margaret’s self-torment trap so real you’ll wince: she’s magnificent. Further excellence comes from Alan Badel as the slick, ruthless club owner, Vonda Godsell as his player-testing jaguar of a wife and William Hartnell as ‘Dad’, unctuous flatterer and hanger-on. The rugby sequences are bone-jarring. *
Critics swooned, and Oscar nominations went up for Harris and Roberts as Best Actor and Actress. Yet however strong it was, that was too much grim reality for audience acceptance: made for £230,000 (in 2022 that’s around £4,350,500) it was a financial dud in Britain and over in the States 77th place only yielded $2,600,000. As suddenly as it had washed in, the grey tide of the British New Wave receded to make way for another surge, one that renewed spirit, offered by a cool superspy and a battalion of rock and roll upstarts.
Though director Anderson got (took) the lion’s share of praise, at least as much credit is due editor Peter Taylor, whose other credits include The Bridge On The River Kwai. More aid came from the offbeat score, one of just two done by influential Spanish composer Roberto Gerhard.
With Colin Blakely, Jack Watson, Arthur Lowe, Leonard Rossiter. Laser eyes will spot Edward Fox, lineless as a bartender.
* Though way more people saw him in the epic, underrated Mutiny On The Bounty, accolades for this landlocked, decidedly unromantic drama made hellion Harris a star at 32, with just eight film roles under his belt. Three dozen more would follow, more misses than hits, though he did score another Oscar nomination for 1990’s The Field. One of his fellow nominee’s in ’63 was Rachel Roberts husband Rex Harrison, in Cleopatra.
David Storey: “We chose Richard because of his emotional volatility, he was very accessible emotionally and had none of those traits of a conventional actor, or even a conventional leading actor. And his enthusiasm was total, he was completely committed, verging on the edge of insanity in some respects, and that became infused in the film itself.”
Roberts’ Oscar nomination put her in a lineup of more-established actresses, all playing women stuck in lousy situations of one sort or another: Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room, Natalie Wood incurring Love With The Proper Stranger, Shirley MacLaine making do as Irma La Douce, and winner Patricia Neal enduring Hud. At 35, this was Roberts career high point: she didn’t make another movie for five years, and thereafter stayed in supporting roles until her grisly suicide in 1980.