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This Sporting Life (1963)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of This Sporting Life (1963)
DirectorLindsay Anderson
Production CompanyIndependent Artists
ProducerKarel Reisz
Screenplay and original novelDavid Storey
Director of PhotographyDenys Coop
MusicRoberto Gerhard

Cast: Richard Harris (Frank Machin); Rachel Roberts (Mrs Margaret Hammond); Alan Badel (Weaver); William Hartnell (Johnson); Colin Blakely (Maurice Braithwaite)

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Frank Machin, a tough miner, becomes a rugby league star. He tries to have a relationship with his widowed landlady but she regards him with a mixture of fear and disgust.

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This Sporting Life (1963) is the film which signalled the end of the British 'new wave'. While its methods and style remained influential, its box office failure meant that producers were unwilling to invest their money in more gritty, realist topics. It was felt that audiences wanted escapism again.

It's easy to see why This Sporting Life wasn't a commercial success. Unlike the short and punchy earlier new wave films, it is over two hours long. Where Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960) or A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1961) deal with difficult issues and paint a gritty picture of England they do also offer some hope, some belief that the spirit can triumph. By contrast, This Sporting Life is utterly, relentlessly bleak.

This is not to say that the film is in any way a failure. Indeed after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning it is probably the most regarded new wave film with current critics. It is perhaps the most unflinching look at the misery of the human condition that British film culture has ever contrived. At times the pace, expressionistic aesthetic and obsession with emotional trauma seem more like the Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman than anything to do with British social realism.

Lindsay Anderson said at the time the film should not be seen as " a North Country working class story", although class frustrations do underlie how the characters sometimes behave. Rather it is about the impossibility of happiness and the inability of people to communicate with each other.

Frank grips Maurice's hand and tells him "I can give love" as he maintains that Margaret is the one thing that makes him feel wanted. The tragedy is that his emotions are so misplaced. Margaret feels unable to give love at all and certainly not to someone like Frank, who cannot articulate his feelings other than by force. Sport is used as a symbol to provide a contrast to Frank's emotional pain - as the team's hard man he takes a pride in inflicting physical pain on his opponents. On the field he has power and is in control; away from the scrum he has none. Weaver and his wife treat him as a piece of meat and he has neither the sensitivity nor intelligence to help Margaret overcome her unhappiness. At the end, after Margaret's death his greatest fears are confirmed; battered by an opposing player, covered in mud, he really is "just a great ape on a football field".

The film's critical reputation is stronger now perhaps because Anderson is the one new wave filmmaker who is rated as an 'auteur'. His films tend to have similar concerns and stand together as a body of work. His irascible character and his own reputation as a critic have made him a more respected figure than Tony Richardson or Karel Reisz; ironic given the disappointments of his lifetime that Gavin Lambert outlined in his book Mainly about Lindsay Anderson.

Phil Wickham

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Video Clips
1. Frank's team trial (2:16)
2. Frank and Mrs Weaver (4:16)
3. About Margaret (2:54)
4. Death and a spider (4:28)
Costume designs
Production stills
Publicity materials
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Blakely, Colin (1930-1987)
Harris, Richard (1933-2002)
Hartnell, William (1908-1975)
Jackson, Glenda (1936-)
Lamont, Peter (1929-)
Lowe, Arthur (1915-1982)
Priestley, Tom (1932-)
Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)
Roberts, Rachel (1927-1980)
Storey, David (1933-)
British New Wave
Social Realism