Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris excel in brutal kitchen-sink drama This Sporting Life
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Cast: Richard Harris (Frank Machin), Rachel Roberts (Margaret Hammond), Alan Badel (Weaver), William Hartnell (“Dad” Johnson), Colin Blakely (Maurice Braithwaite), Arthur Lowe (Slomer), Vanda Godsell (Mrs Weaver), Jack Watson (Lennox), Harry Markham (Wade), George Sewell (Jeff), Leonard Rossiter (Phillips), Anne Cunningham (Judith)
The British New Wave of the early 1960s embraced working-class stories. They centred on chippy, confident, crowd-pleasing working-class young men (it was always men) from regional towns, doing blue collar work, thumbing their nose at the establishment and fighting to find their own way. This Sporting Life takes a similar route – but its central character, Frank Machin, is a furious, resentful and selfish man, who seems hellbent on destroying everything he touches. Unlike Arthur Seaton or Billy Fisher, he’s hard to like – and the film hits as hard as scrum of rugby players.
Frank Machin (Richard Harris) is a miner turned professional rugby player – not that he has any love for the game (“I only enjoy it if I get paid for it!” he contemptuously states). Machin is an articulate brute of a man, a pugilistic whirligig of resentments, barely expressed or understood desires, and a deep-rooted and chronic insecurity that cries out for love while pushing it away. He’s in love with his landlady, widowed mother of two young children Margaret Hammond (Rachael Roberts). They begin an affair of sorts – but it can barely survive her trauma and Machlin’s self-destructive rage.
Lindsay Anderson’s films are notable for their anger and bitter satire, so it’s no surprise he directed the least crowd-pleasing, angriest angry-young-man film of all – or that This Sporting Life killed the genre. The film is a series of hits, aimed far and wide, from the deference of the players to the owners who treat the clubs like playthings (the “amateur fair play” British attitudes to sport from the patronising owners gets a kicking), to the hypocritical judgemental attitudes of the working class. Even its romantic story features two characters so unable to engage with or understand their feelings that they only really seem able to communicate fully when raging at each other.
Anderson’s new-wave, kitchen sink aesthetic creates a film that feels like a series of battles. From Machlin moving in local clubs to visiting the home of creepy closeted club owner Weaver (a smooth and unsettlingly cruel Alan Badel), whether rebuffing the advances of Weaver’s wife or at a Christmas party, he always seems ready for violence. The rugby matches are filmed like mud covered fights, with players piling into each other like sledgehammers. Even the “romantic” (and I use that word advisedly) scenes between Roberts and Harris feel like conflicts (they frequently tip into nerve-shreddingly raw emotional outbursts).
Anderson’s film takes everything you expect from the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning expectations and amps up the danger, anger and tension. Machlin barrels through scenes, conversations and relationships in the same way he charges through the rugby pitch. The whole film is a sharp warning of the danger of unrestrained masculinity, pushing all softer emotions to one side. Machlin wants so desperately to be a man that everything must be a battle, at all times displaying his most manly qualities. The tragedy is that you can tell there is a far more sensitive and intriguing personality below the surface.
All this comes together in Richard Harris’ searing performance in the lead role. His career break – he won the Best Actor award at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar – Harris was possibly never better. He’s a brooding force of nature in this film, utterly convincing as a man who bottles up his feelings until it is way too late. He hits out at everything, but you feel he is really running scared from the vulnerability in his own personality. With children, Machlin is tender and gentle, but with adults he is unable to express his feelings. His emotions for Margaret are based around suggestions of a need for a mother figure, sexual desire – and a desire for an answer to the emptiness he feels in himself. Harris is like an Irish Brando here, a marvellous, emotional, dangerous, brutal figure.
Rachel Roberts (also Oscar-nominated) is just as good, giving another extraordinary performance (to match the similarish role she played in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) as Margaret. Grieving her husband, terrified of commitment, aware of her own position, as incapable in her own way of expressing her emotions and feelings as Machlin is, Margaret is as much a damaged and combative character. Roberts’ performance suggests years of disappointment and struggle behind the eyes, and she has a rawness and humane anguish in her scenes with Harris that sear the eyeballs. The scenes between these two are difficult to watch but engrossing.
The film is stuffed with excellent performances. William Hartnell is heartbreakingly tragic as the closeted talent scout who spots Machlin, only to be dropped by the new star. Colin Blakely is excellent as Machlin’s more grounded and engaging teammate. Vanda Godsell is the face of female corruption as Weaver’s sexually possessive wife. Arthur Lowe (who went on to work with Anderson several times) is very good as a stuffy but shrewd board member. All of this is beautifully filmed in black and white, with an urgency mixed with flashes of impressionistic grimness.
Anderson’s film, though, is primarily a working-class tragedy, about a man unable (until far too late) to really understand what he wants. Why is this? Because of failings in himself, but also failings in his upbringing, where qualities of self-understanding and expression are not encouraged, where pressure is placed on men to be men, where class and stuffy attitudes look to stamp out any real sense of self-knowledge. It’s an angry young man film that is truly, really angry. No wonder it flopped at the box office. But no wonder it lasts in many ways better than other films from this genre. It feels like a film that wants to say something, that has an urgent message. And it has at two extraordinary performances.