DVD Review of This Sporting Life
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/16/10
Throughout the dozen or so film roles I had seen him in I was never particularly impressed with the film work of Richard Harris. Not that there was anything of particularly bad quality to it, but neither was there anything of particularly great quality either. Then I watched This Sporting Life, the 1963 black and white debut film of Lindsay Anderson, starring Harris as rugby star Frank Machin and….WOW! What a revelation. Yes, the comparisons to Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta in Raging Bull are apt. Save for one thing. Harris gives an even better performance than those two iconic actors in those two iconic roles. Why? Simple. His performance is realer. Really. Watch Brando again, and compare his scene where he famously rages Stella to that where Harris pleads his love to Margaret in this film. Harris never loses total control, plus he has a tenderness and vulnerability inside of the rage. Now, watch De Niro when a bloated La Motta is in jail and pumping his fists against concrete, and compare it to the scene where Harris punches a hospital wall, and crushes a spider hovering over Margaret during her death scene. Yes, in one film Harris outdoes signature performances held up as some of the greatest in film history.
Now ask why? Because he is not indulging in the Method madness. His acting flows from the character and the moment, as wrought by a great screenplay and a great actor converging, not from some need to revel in the supposed ‘reality’ of a fictive character’s angst. And credit the screenplay to David Storey, who adapted his own novel of the same name. On top of Harris’s bravura performance there’s a restrained performance of slow death (literal and emotional) from Rachel Roberts, as well, plus the fact that the film is a sports film that successfully subverts all the conventions of a sports film.
It follows the rise and fall of a Yorkshire coal miner, Frank Machin (Harris). His rise is from a nobody to local sports hero, and told mostly in flashbacks, after Machin gets his knocked out in a scrum. We see assorted episodes of Machin’s rise, such as when he singlehandedly takes on the stars of a local rugby team outside a nightclub and his sexual pursuit of a comely young widow, Margaret Hammond (Roberts, who looks uncannily like actress Elizabeth Montgomery), whose husband Eric seemingly suicided not long before. She has a young boy and a girl that have taken to Machin, who boards a room with her. The film basically becomes a study of Machin’s inability to deal with his athletic success and romantic failure. On the field, he is a big, bullying, raging menace, but off the field his bluster does not work with Margaret. They eventually become lovers, in a scene that hints at brutality, but there is never intimacy, as the duo have sex in his room, and never make love in hers; as that is her sanctuary into the past, with her dead husband. The owner of his rugby team treats Frank like a commodity, and so does the old man’s wife (Vanda Goodsell), who fails to seduce him. After the wedding of one of his teammates, Machin finds out Margaret’s true feelings for her, and they are disgust; she feels like a whore, that she and he are scorned for living in sin. When the argument continues, at home, Machin looses his fury at thee world, claiming that she is too swayed by what others think, and that the world is filled with cowards, not real men, like him. In these moments, both Machin and his portrayer shine. Yet, to Margaret, he will only be ‘just a great ape on a football field.’ He can never compare to her dead husband, and when he declares his need and love for her she spits on him.
But, Margaret is too scared of love, too tied to her past, and too influenced by social norms,. And tosses him out. Machin heads to a boarding home, seeking out an old man (William Hartnell) who supported him, a man named Johnson, that he called ‘Dad,’ but whom he ignored once he got money and fame. But, the old man is gone. He heads back to Margaret’s, for a final showdown, only to learn she has been hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage. He consoles her, in her room, begging her to wake. Instead, she spits up blood and dies. He punches a wall with a spider, symbol of death, hovering over her. He is so disconsolate that he merely walks by Margaret’s children and their babysitter in the hospital corridor, and returns to her home to brood. The film then ends with a shot of Machin getting up off the ground, and heading back to another scrum. Due to the shuffle of flashbacks on the field, it is hard to determine if this is him getting up from the initial tackle that opens the film, or is merely another in an endless series of the same thing- being a star athlete is, in its own way, little different than being just another coal miner. He is still owned by another. And. either way, life and sport must continue.
This Sporting Life was the first feature film directed by Anderson, and while it won awards and garnered high critical acclaim, it did not do too well at the box office, and Anderson would have to wait five more years before If.… got him his first taste of financial success. Previously, Anderson had been a well regarded documentary filmmaker; his Thursday’s Children (1953), had won an Oscar for best short subject documentary, and he had also been well known and regarded in English theater, directing performances of plays like Willis Hall’s The Long And The Short And The Tall. The film was considered one of the last socially conscious ‘Kitchen Sink’ dramas (Britain’s version of Italian Neo-Realism, but it has also been called a film that was part of the British New Wave of films; a movement that was sweeping many European film cultures. Anderson had previously been involved with the Free Cinema documentary movement of the 1950s, and, throughout his life, was drawn to –isms of art, often even writing absurd manifestos for them.
The film’s scoring is quite evocative of the brute nature of man and the sport of rugby. It was crafted by Roberto Gerhard, but its almost otherworldly nature reminds me most of Jerry Goldsmith’s breakthrough score for the 1968 science fiction classic The Planet Of The Apes. Yet it fits in perfectly here, coming and going at odd moments, subliminally evoking the idea that Machin, via his brutal sports, is often in a different reality than others, on a perpetual ‘Queer Street,’ if you will. The flashback structure and the cinematography by Denys Coop is very good, as well- strict black and white compositions, but every so often a jarring off kilter shot that visually reflects the feelings the musical cues by Gerhard invoke- scenes of Machin at a rail yard at night evoke this, when he stares at a train headed seemingly at him, but it passes, offscreen, on another track; a shot that visually synchs up with a similar scene in Satyajit Ray’s The World Of Apu. Later, there is a scene of frank on a hillside, standing at near 180 degrees, as the hill curves sharply away from him. These all reflect Frank’s difference from the other characters about him. Only Margaret is likewise de-synched from normality, but he cannot realize that just because both of them are different from the masses does not mean they are like each other. Their difference is different.
Yet, Frank Machin is not a dim-witted brute, like the characters portrayed by Brando and De Niro; he has his own brital wisdom of self-reliance. When Margaret moans that life is unfair, and others have lives made for them, he replies: ‘That’s right, Mrs. Hammond, and some people make it for themselves.’ And when his team’s owner’s wife tries to seduce him, and is obviously making small talk to flatter him, he replies with his own take on how life works: ‘It’s like this, Mrs. Weaver: you see something, and you go out and you get it. It’s as simple as that.’ Machin is a no bullshit sort of character, and this pervades his being- he is the same way in whatever situation, bathing nude with his teammates as they wrestle in the showers, ordering food at a hoidy toidy restaurant with Margaret, or when schooling her on life. When he and she have their final argument, and she declares him a fraud for acting above his station, he responds: ‘You want me to be like them. You want me to crawl about just like the rest. Well, just have a look at the rest. Take a good look at the bloody people around you. There isn’t a bleeding man amongst them: you’re flat on your back from the go, crawling about you. Because they haven’t got the guts. Do you understand that? They haven’t got the guts to stand up and walk about like me.’
The DVD is from The Criterion Collection, and it’s among the better packages offered since the company started skimping on audio commentaries after they switched to the new semi-circle C logo a few years back. It contains two disks, and the first disk has a restored audio and video version of the film, and it is sparkling. Also on it are the original theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary with Paul Ryan, editor of Never Apologise: The Collected Writings Of Lindsay Anderson, and David Storey, the screenwriter and author of the novel, This Sporting Life. The two seem to have recorded their parts at separate times, and Ryan is by far the more interesting speaker. He is knowledgeable about the film, the place and time of the film’s setting, and on general aspects of film, in general, and this one is particular. He also relates some entertaining and informative anecdotes about the film’s director, Lindsay Anderson. One wishes the whole commentary could have been Ryan alone, for when Storey speaks, the commentary dies. Even though the story is a fictive version of many of the events of his own life, Storey lacks any real insights into his own private ‘Machin moments,’ nor does he seem to have anything interesting or articulate to say about the film or the novel. If Ryan’s commentary is a 95 out of 100, then Storey’s is a 40 or 45. Splitting the difference, one is left with a passable listening experience of a 70 or so. In short, more is often less. The second disk contains many good features: Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man?, a half hour long BBC Scotland documentary with interviews with the director’s friends and collaborators; an interview with Lois Sutcliffe Smith, Anderson’s friend and a producer; Meet the Pioneers, Anderson s first documentary short, from 1948; Wakefield Express a 1952 short subject; Is That All There Is? Anderson’s fictively autobiographical, final 50 minute long film, from 1993; as well as a booklet with essays by film scholar Neil Sinyard and Anderson’s 1963 article on film, Stand Up! Stand Up! Neither writing wows the reader. But, overall, a bevy of quality features that could buoy the experience of the package even if the film, itself, were mediocre. Since it is a great film, it’s a terrific overall package for cineastes.
This Sporting Life is not the most seamlessly made film, but like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (whose ambiguous ending it presages), it claws and scratches its way to great art, led by the two most basic tools of the medium: a great script and great acting. Rachel Roberts is almost the equal of Harris as the repressed widow Hammond. There are moments one thinks she is about to give in to Machin, but then she represses, and one gets the sense that her months of repression may have physically affected her, because she seems otherwise perfectly healthy, and women in their early to mid thirties do not just drop dead from brain hemorrhages without a great internal struggle. And this is all heightened by the fact that their relationship grows and changes over the course of the 135 minute long film. Unlike the recent Revolutionary Road, the viewer grows to understand these characters and their relationship over time, and are not just plunged into a maelstrom. This is because Anderson and Storey understood narrative, and that it is the basis of any good screenplay, which is the basis of a good film. Taking that to its logical next step, any great film (which This Sporting Life is) will likely have a great screenplay. And, despite its visual nature, film is far closer to literature (specifically poetry, at its best) than to photography. The mere movement of images means nothing without the development of story, from character, from acting, from a screenplay. Simple, yet not. Just like Frank Machin.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Cinescene website.]
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