Lawrence Russell

This Sporting Life (1963) dir. Lindsay Anderson writ. David Storey (from his novel) cine. Denys Coop edt. Peter Taylor music Roberto Gerhard star. Richard Harris (Frank Machin), Rachel Roberts (Margaret Hammond), Alan Badel (Weaver), William Hartnell (Johnson), Colin Blakely (Maurice), Vanda Godsell (Anne Weaver), Anne Cunninghamm (Judith), Arthur Lowe (Slomer), Jack Watson (Len)


an ape on a football field

Rugby football: what is it? A game for ruffians played by gentlemen? While it's generally played by young middle-class males (as opposed to soccer which (was) working-class), there is/was a type of rugby known as "Rugby League" played by ruffians of all classes. This is a professional league which exists or existed in the industrial midlands of England, around Manchester, Leeds and Wakefield. Unlike its derivative American Football, the League game neither allows the "forward pass", nor helmets and protective padding. Serious injuries were common, its brutal decorum a perfect expression of the ugly industrial landscape that surrounded its stadiums.

Frank Machin (Richard Harris) is a coal miner who makes it into the Rugby League culture, becomes a big star. This is in the early nineteen sixties, just before the Beatles break and the new Britain of the post-war Macmillan era begins to shake free of its economic doldrum. In Wakefield, things are still grim, a landscape of worn row houses blackened by smoke and acid rain, so that they personify the misery of the workers who slave underground in the mines. The only happy spaces are the bombed spaces (from the Nazi blitz) between the housing estates and the muddy fields of the rugby clubs.

Machin is boarding with a widow, Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), whose husband was killed by his lathe while working for Mr. Big, a local patrician called Weaver (Alan Badel) who smokes Sobranis, wears cashmere overcoats and drives a Bentley. Weaver is also a major shareholder in the Wakefield professional rugby club known as "The City". It's Machin's masochistic love for Mrs. Hammond and his class-driven clash with the manipulative industrialist Weaver that drives the story, while the implicit class struggle is dramatised by the rugby montage that frames most of the action.

The players scrum down in the mud, struggle like two giant crabs locked in combat. Scrum-half Machin sticks his head into the scrum, expecting to receive the ball, but gets an anonymous fist in the mouth, smashing his teeth. The nicotine crowd roars in hatred and satisfaction, a rough blend of opposing desires. Machin lies stunned and bleeding on the ground. The montage cuts to Machin drilling into a coal seam, his mouth rolling rapidly as he chews gum. He leans into the heavy drill like an animal in the throes of sexual congress. He's tough, he's confident, he's a man heading for the top, cutting through anyone and anything that stands in his way.

Later he's supported off the field and taken to an off-hours dentist. A gas mask is stuck on his face, his eyes close -- and the nightmare continues. Thus the director Lindsay Anderson uses the gas dream as a point of reference wherein Machin's tragic story unfolds as a series of flashbacks. It's a brilliant move, one which really set the definition for British cinema in the sixties. Anderson may have been a stage director, but his grasp of cinematic montage was excellent.

The use of black and white becomes a statement of class warfare. While Machin (read "machine") actually emulates his benefactor/oppressor Weaver -- buys a Bentley, wool overcoat, stud suit and snazzy shoes -- he lacks the cool to handle success. His boorish behaviour might be a result of Margaret Hammond's cold embrace, or the brutish world of the pit and the rugby field... or simply he's a victim of his environment and the rigid tradition of a vertical society. Yet Machin's insolent ascent to stardom presages the sixties revolution in Britain, where rock stars redefined the culture of power. While he's a rough version of "the angry young man", Machin's swaggering confidence marks him as one of the new group of subversives that included Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) in Room At The Top and Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

Sexual charisma isn't everything, however, especially when possession doesn't mean love. Machin's futile relationship with his landlady is like that of a man who knows he should emigrate but can't leave the familiarity of his birthing grounds, no matter how hostile they might be. Margaret Hammond represents the past, a rigidity of class consciousness and maternal fixation. She kneels before her coal fireplace, polishing her dead husband's work boots, ritualizing a shrine. His failure and death is the embrace that Machin assumes when he takes up with her, but when she dies of a brain hemorrhage in a stroke of fate that explains nothing, Machin is left to wander the rugby field as a bigger slave of loneliness. You last see him in the long view, staggering back to join the pack, the two huge industrial precipitators like monuments in the background.

the secret of Margaret Hammond

Rachel Roberts as the cold pouting widow Margaret Hammond is the sort of woman that some men can't resist. In the normal scheme of things a young brute like Machin would be playing the field rather than obsessing after a grieving widow. You can see by the parties he attends that he has lots of opportunities and perhaps in the off-camera action he sometimes succumbs. The film gives him no history, no past, so he appears to be a man in search of an instant family -- which is what Margaret and her children give him. The social code of the neighbourhood is a difficult code to break, however. Margaret's coldness is really part and parcel of the working-class discipline that is her cross to bear. To become her lodger's fancy woman is to become a whore. She's a character crushed between the politics of the past and the politics of the future. The sentiment that her husband's death was a suicide leaves the implication that the reason was sexual.

What could it be? You can only guess. She recognizes Machin's groupie -- the rugby scout Johnson -- to be a homosexual. "He has soft hands, like a woman's," she says, as if she would know. Johnson knew her husband... but how well is left unexplored. Sex triangle? Thus the enigma of her husband's death becomes part of the enigma of her own death. Machin only strikes her once... yet it's shortly after this that she dies from a brain hemorrhage. No blame is laid, yet the possibility is there, another differential in the mechanism of her doom.

When This Sporting Life was first released in 1963, it was generally felt that Harris was doing a Brando Streetcar imitation. Needless to say, history has rendered this judgement meaningless, and Richard Harris quite rightly considers this to be his finest film role. Graduating smoothly from his acclaimed stage persona of Sebastion Dangerfield in The Ginger Man, Harris is superb as "a big ape on a football field" (Mrs. Hammond's description). Whether reading a photo-novel called Cry Tough, or singing "Here In My Heart (I'm so lonely)" off-key at a post-game bar party, Harris is absolutely convincing.

The influence of the documentary style of Italian neo-realism is evident. Anderson was an exponent of the Free Cinema movement in Britain which advocated a less doctrinaire approach to subject with a looser form of narrative. Perhaps the symbolism of the spider is a bit crude, and perhaps the final sequences seem stagey and inconclusive. Yet behind the hard walls of the social realism exists a subtext whose mystery tantalizes. Besides the rugger footage, who can forget the scene where Mrs. Weaver (Vanda Godsell) attempts to seduce Machin? It's like Queen Elizabeth trying to get it on with a stable hand. Political sex and class warfare mark the end of this industrial revolution.

© LR 1/2001


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Film Court | copyright 2001 | Lawrence Russell