The Drop Box

January 30, 2008

This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life

Men collide into one another on a rugby pitch, a confusion of bodies and sounds; someone’s punched in the face, falls bloody to the ground, gets carried off – a distraction. The Hobbesian poetry of this opening scene could stand in for the entire film: full of violence, turmoil and confusion, ending in devastation. Directed by Lindsay Anderson, This Sporting Life is considered the last of the major British New Wave films; containing both an angry young man and a kitchen sink, the film was the Rank Organisation‘s late entry into the field, and when it failed financially, the social realist trend in British cinema essentially died.


Though a flop at the box office, the film itself is a real force. Richard Harris (who received Best Actor at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for his performance) plays Frank Machin, the victim of that face-shattering punch. Rushed from the field to emergency surgery, Frank’s put under gas, and in that netherworld of half-consciousness, he begins to relive his recent life and emotional upheaval while, via flashback, we are brought up to speed.

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life

A real brute, Frank is all violence, pride and inchoate desire: “you see something and you go out and get it,” he sputters succinctly. One of these “somethings” is a spot on the local rugby team: jealous of the attention its players receive, Frank – almost for a laugh – challenges the top man to a fight; when he sends the guy sprawling, the team jumps in, and the ensuing melee impresses their scout enough that Frank is offered a try-out. On the field, he is viciousness in motion, and he quickly impresses the team’s owners, too, including those who would sniff at his style of play; soon enough he’s become top man himself.

His icy landlady, Margaret (Rachel Roberts), is another “something” he craves. She refuses his advances, however, lingering instead on her dead husband’s memory – perhaps too much, as she’s still shining his boots years after his death. That pair of boots drives Frank mad, a constant rebuke to his affection. Frank wants her – loves her, so he claims – and he can’t fathom the fact that even the thought of his love would be impossible to her. Any idea that she has an emotional life of her own is one Frank can’t grasp; and so he pushes himself on her constantly, despite her rejections; he attacks her derision as an obstacle to be demolished; he rapes her, and if for a brief moment we think she may have consented, that thought is soon entirely out of our heads. His savagery drives Margaret to the breaking point – “Leave me alone!” she screams, “Leave!” – and then it breaks her: physically, emotionally, totally.

Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts in This Sporting Life

Only Marlon Brando could hulk across a screen more convincingly: Harris’ heavy brow, his powerful jaw, his flat nose – all of which confirm Margaret’s description of Frank as “a great ape on the football field” – place him in a line that includes Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong and Brando’s Stanley Kowalski (a type we don’t see much of anymore – Kinski was the last). Harris’ portrait of glowering emotional imbecility is everything it should be – painful to watch yet totally watchable. As great as he is, we risk overlooking Rachel Roberts, so quietly intense here, so filled with bitterness, spite, hatred.

It’s no wonder This Sporting Life put an end to British social realism – it’s the logical conclusion of the dark tendencies that Look Back in Anger unleashed. The archetypes here achieve full expression, and in achieving it they are destroyed; there’s literally no going further. The humor, lust for life and occasional frivolity of other Angry Young Man films – The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar – are totally suppressed in This Sporting Life. The following year, they will be founding principles of Britain’s Swingin’ Sixties, beginning with A Hard Day’s Night.

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life


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