British Classic Film This Sporting LifeWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
© Words Matteo Sedazzari
Based on the 1960 novel of the same title by Wakefield born and bred David Storey, a writer and former Rugby League player, drawing on his past experiences, to produce a masterpiece fit for the cinema. In addition, This Sporting Life was the directorial debut of Lindsey Anderson in 1963, who would only go on to direct a further seven feature films, including the cult British classic films If, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital, all starring Malcolm McDowell in different incarnations of the rebellious Mick Travis.
Anderson, a former film critic and documentary film maker, whose later films would contain an element of fantasy mixed with social realism, with the main focus on the central character. Therefore, in This Sporting Life as the story progresses, more layers of the lead are revealed throughout the film, creating a strong emotional attachment for the viewer as the story is told in a series of events (sometimes in flashbacks) until the film reaches a conclusion, giving an understanding of why the characters acted in such a way. Furthermore, This Sporting Life clearly illustrates (minus the fantasy) a story about a hard, edgy and confident Wakefield miner Frank Machin (Richard Harris, The Guns of Navarone, A Man Called Horse, Unforgiven). Knocked out during a rugby game, he is taken to an out-of-hour’s dentist to have his teeth replaced. Whilst under gas anaesthesia, Machin reflects on his journey to this point, although not as a collection of flashbacks, the dental surgery acts as half way, and another part of his life’s voyage begins when he has had his teeth replaced.
Harris himself was known as a hell raiser, with a strong fondness for booze. According to Reggie Kray (in his autobiography) one night in London, Kray bumped into Harris, who was worse the wear for drink. Harris apparently was abusive and threatening to the famous underworld twin. Reggie walked away and sent Harris a letter the next day, stating it was a good job that it was him he had threatened and not his more psychotic brother Ronnie. Harris, humbled, apologised whilst breathing a massive sigh of relief no doubt.
Machin, due to sheer strength and sporting ability, is ideal to play Rugby League. He gets a trial for the local Rugby team (which seemed to be highly successful in the league and immensely popular with the community). Yet his selection for a place in the team is rather unorthodox as he and his friends barge into the local nightclub where the team is celebrating a victory. Machin challenges the captain of the team to a fight, resulting in a punch up between Machin, the captain and other members of the team round the back of the club. Machin ends up on top, and uses the moment to ask local scout 'Dad' Johnson William Hartnell (Dr Who, Carry On Sergeant, The Mouse That Roared - it was Hartnell’s performance in This Sporting Life that got him noticed by BBC producer Verity Lambert, who was setting up a new science fiction series called Dr Who, and Hartnell was first choice to play The Doctor) for a trial. An interesting feature is Johnson’s obsession with Machin, whether it is latent homosexuality or he sees him as a son, Johnson is always by his side and Machin doesn’t encourage him, yet will support Johnson and is kind to him, showing a tender and caring side to the rough and ready Yorkshire man.
Hartnell is not the only supporting actor familiar to the British TV viewing public. Arthur Lowe as the pompous chairman Charles Slomer, and Leonard Rossiter as the cocky sports writer Phillips. Both actors who would establish themselves in the British Hall of Television Comedy forever, in Dad’s Army and Rising Damp respectively.
This Sporting Life is an intelligent and poignant film, which evolves at a slow pace. However, that is needed, as the story is multifaceted which reflects human interaction and social situations. It is far from a story about being a successful Rugby player. It is also a love story, as the only woman Machin wants is his landlady, Mrs Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, The Weak and the Wicked, Picnic at Hanging Rock). A recent widow, whose husband’s death may or may not have been suicide. His death was the result of an ‘accident’ at the workplace, a factory owned by Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel, Three Cases of Murder, The Medusa Touch, The Day of the Jackal). A ruthless man, who knows how to manipulate people, and happens to own the local rugby club.
It is Weaver that signs up Machin, and at first seems to give him his full support. But as the film develops, it is clear that Machin is just a pawn in his game. What is interesting about This Sporting Life is the focus on the political side of the board behind the club, the men in power and how their players are only as important as their last game. Something that was perhaps never exposed or studied before in British cinema. Machin even backs off from the advances of Weaver’s flirtatious and man eater wife Anne Weaver (Vanda Godsell , A Shot in the Dark , The Wrong Box, Dateline Diamonds) and a rugby league groupie, at the Weaver’s annual Christmas party, because the only woman for him is Margaret. After his signing they begin an on-off affair, which is mainly in the bedroom yet neither of them can change to make the relationship work. Hammond is still grieving, and Machin is still drinking. One scene that clearly underlines this, is a visit to an upmarket restaurant, Hammond in a fur coat and feeling uncomfortable in her attire, surroundings and company, as Machin is drunk being loud, aggressive and abusive to the staff and clientele, witnessed by Weaver and his now scorned wife.
That is one of the outlining features of the film, that happiness is within their grasp, yet both Hammond and Machin choose to suffer and resent each other, not believing they can improve their life and social standing. This gives a feeling of sorrow and frustration, yet it is something that perhaps we have all been guilty of in the past, not letting go or refusing to change. Therefore, This Sporting Life goes beyond having a visual social realism feel, the film taps into our emotions, and perhaps when we are presented with an opportunity to change, do we really seize it with both hands?
Harris and Roberts give a power house performance, as with each scene the ‘chemistry’ and ‘sexual tension’ is pushed and tested, both nominated for an Oscar in 1964 for this film, and Roberts rightly won a BAFTA and Harris was nominated in 1964. However at the time, the critics and public panned This Sporting Life, which was part of The British New Wave (A Kind of Loving, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning) social realism films with the focus on the struggle of the working class. The film is seen as the end of the movement, and the press seemed to cite that the public had had enough of these features. With Swinging London just round the corner, and comedy romps on the horizon, like Tom Jones starring Albert Finney, and even Billy Liar, This Sporting Life was seen as a more upbeat film than its predecessors, yet cinema genres like fashion and music, will always change. So change in the viewing public was inevitable, however, it may not have been as natural as we think as the US, who funded a lot of British films, may not have wanted the British working class educating themselves. After all, it was the CIA that made sure Doctor Zhivago (the novel) got rave reviews in the press, why not the same with the cinema.
This Sporting Life covers social climbing, fear, anger, love, relationships and failure. Shifting from the rugby stand, the club house and the dwellings of Machin and Hammond, the internal and external scenery is bleak and grey, yet like the plot, there is an element of light, but not easily recognisable. A lot of the camera work features on the facial expressions of the key characters and main supporting cast, faces that seem lost and confused. Drinking is paramount throughout the film, and drunken situations and conversations that many of us have experienced and participated in, will seem familiar. The script is well written, with sharp dialogue delivered by the cast, and Harris using his voice well to deliver lines like “Don’t try to wake me in the morning 'cause I might be dead”, which Morrissey alternated for The Smiths’ song Asleep “Don't try to wake me in the morning 'cause I will be gone”. It is no secret Morrissey is a huge fan of fifties and sixties kitchen sink drama. Overall This Sporting Life is a brutal, deep, reflective and passionate film, and will make you value any choices or chances you get in life. That is genius film making.
This Sporting Life Available from Network DVD's website.
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