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This Sporting Life

This Sporting Life
1963 / B&W / 1:66 anamorphic widescreen / 134 min. / Street Date January 22, 2008 / 39.95
Starring Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, William Hartnell, Colin Blakely, Vanda Godsell
Cinematography Denys Coop
Art Direction Alan Withy
Film Editor Peter Taylor
Original Music Roberto Gerhard
Written by David Storey from his novel
Produced by Karel Reisz
Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

English director and critic Lindsay Anderson is now best known for his Malcolm McDowell movies If... and O Lucky Man!, but his most accomplished film is surely his first. 1963's This Sporting Life is a powerful addition to the British New Wave; Richard Harris' working-class Rugby star Frank Machin may be the angriest 'angry young man' of them all.


Tough coal miner Frank Machin (Richard Harris) rooms in the house of the widowed Mrs. Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts) and is frustrated by her indifference to his advances: she remains devoted to her dead husband. Frank bulls his way into a lucrative spot on a professional Rugby team and meets several new people. The club scout "Dad" Johnson (William Hartnell, TV's original Dr. Who) dotes on Frank. Club owners Gerald Weaver and Charles Slomer (Alan Badel & Arthur Lowe) consider how best to exploit him. Teammates Maurice Braithwaite and Len Miller (Colin Blakely and Jack Watson) find it difficult to consider a life beyond the playing field and all-night parties. Frank tries his best to win Margaret's affections. She's unimpressed by his new car but slowly allows Frank into her personal life -- which only leads to more unhappiness.

The determined Frank Machin is quick to resort to brute force. Envious of the celebrity status of Rugby stars, he secures his team audition by starting a fight with one of the players. In his trial game, Frank realizes that a teammate is ruining his chance to shine, so he decks him with a sucker punch and lets someone from the opposing team take the blame. Toughness is an asset on the playing field, but Frank finds himself ill equipped to deal with Margaret Hammond. The emotionally numbed woman keeps her dead husband's shoes polished and refuses to acknowledge any kind of personal connection with her tenant.

Wakefield is an industrial town with few options for advancement. The Rugby games are bruising, muddy combat, and Frank is never allowed to forget that he's a highly paid 'pet' of the mill owners. Although those same mill owners denied Margaret a decent pension, Frank is not a helpless victim of the system, as is Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Author / screenwriter David Storey does not frame This Sporting Life as an allegory about class inequity. If Frank Machin's big opportunity turns out to be a dead end, it is mostly Frank's doing.

Frank's associates cannot penetrate his tough exterior even though Anderson often presents the team as an idealistic unit. They roughhouse in the baths and the pubs. Dad Johnson, the lonely team hanger-on, tries but fails to form a lasting friendship with Frank. Teammate Maurice provides an example of stability by marrying his longtime girlfriend, but Frank is too wild to consider marriage. Sex is also at the root of Frank's professional troubles. The wife of one of the team owners, Anne Weaver (Vanda Goodsell), tries to seduce him. When he turns her down, Anne poisons Frank's relationship with her husband and threatens his livelihood. Brute methods don't help in solving personal and business problems, and Frank ends up squandering his big chance at happiness.

Irishman Richard Harris is not as versatile an actor as Albert Finney but he's better suited for this highly physical role. Frank reads a dog-eared copy of Someone Up There Likes Me for personal inspiration. Goaded into singing at a pub, he shows signs of unexpected vulnerability. The dramatic encounters between Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts are almost painfully acute. She's the true wonder of the movie, and we wish she had played more leading film roles. Margaret cannot take the strain of being Frank's 'kept woman' and is further repulsed by his newfound arrogance as a celebrity. Her bitterness and his anger are a bad combination, and his material success only makes things worse. Their relationship crumbles under frustration and shame.

Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life is nothing like his later satires and black comedies. It's an intense tragedy with highly original characters. People with Margaret Hammond's problems don't normally appear in movies, not even the progressive dramas of the British New Wave. This Sporting Life doesn't compromise at any level, not even with the conventions of other 'kitchen sink' films.

Criterion's DVD of This Sporting Life presents this gritty drama in a fine enhanced B&W transfer. Disc producer Karen Stetler's extras reach deep into Lindsay Anderson's background. Anderson biographer Paul Ryan joins author David Storey on a particularly good commentary. Besides learning about Anderson's background as a stage director, we find out that Storey's novel was written from first-hand experience -- he became a Rugby player as a way of making a living so he could write and paint. Producer Karel Reisz was a heavy influence on the film, as he'd already scored with the 'kitchen sink' hit Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

The first disc also contains an original trailer. Disc two begins with Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man?, a thorough career docu that uses some of the same interviews seen in Warner Home Video's extras on their recent O Lucky Man! DVD.

Meet the Pioneers is Anderson's first job of direction, an industrial film about a company that manufactures mining equipment. It's impressively organized and filmed, and much more interesting than its subject suggests. Pioneers is accompanied by a new interview with Lois Sutcliffe Smith, a movie enthusiast who knew Anderson as a film critic. When her father, the owner of the mining company needed a film made, Smith suggested that Anderson be given the job.

Wakefield Express captures a snapshot of English life in 1952 by examining the workings of a newspaper in an industrial town. Anderson later returned to Wakefield when he needed a setting for This Sporting Life.

Lindsay Anderson's final film Is That All There Is? is a semi-docu that follows the director on a typical day of marketing and receiving visitors in his modest apartment. A visit from producer David Sherwin looks authentic but other invented moments play very awkwardly. Anderson takes a bath, watches television, makes plans for future movies and goes over research materials for a friend's show on John Ford. The ending finds Lindsay and his friends & collaborators on a boat party on the Thames. Musician Alan Price sings as the celebrants spread the ashes of actresses Rachel Roberts and Jill Bennett on the waters.

Criterion's fat insert booklet has an article by Anderson on his film, and a new essay from film scholar Neil Sinyard.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, This Sporting Life rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Raul Ryan and David Storey; trailer, Docu on Lindsay Anderson's career, three of his industrial and TV films.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 31, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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