This Sporting Life: Criterion Collection
February 14, 2008
Based on the novel by David Storey (who wrote the screenplay himself), This Sporting Life (1963) marked the feature film debut of Lindsay Anderson and features a ferocious performance by Richard Harris as Frank Machin, a professional rugby player. We are introduced to him in his element – a rough game where he gets a bunch of his teeth knocked. Over the course of the day (and night) as he receives treatment and it causes him to reflect on the recent past, specifically the tumultuous relationship with Mrs. Hammond (Roberts), his landlady who won’t give him the time of day.
We see how passionately Frank plays on the pitch, including injuring one of his own players when he selfishly hogs the ball. He expresses how he feels physically. In one scene, for example, he becomes jealous of a rival rugby player’s status at a local dancehall, so he challenges the man to a fight. In another scene, a friend makes him guess the identity of a rugby scout so he twists the man’s wrist until he tells him who it is. In this respect, the depiction of Frank’s life on and off the pitch, and how he treats those around him, was a precursor to how Martin Scorsese chose to depict boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980).
Richard Harris carries himself like a young Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954) and looks like contemporary footballer Robbie Keane. In his off-hours, Frank reads dime-store pulp novels called Cry Tough. Harris creates a complex portrait of a man who treats Mrs. Hammond like dirt and yet is gentle and kind towards her two children. Harris delivers a visceral, physical performance – one that earned him an Academy Award nomination and saw him win Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.
This Sporting Life is a fascinating character study of brutish man who doesn’t always know why he does things because he acts on a purely instinctive level. It is also one of the finest examples of “kitchen-sink realism,” a gritty depiction of the working class. Even though Frank is a professional rugby player, he hardly lives a posh life and Anderson depicts his existence with unflinching honesty, refusing to romanticize him in any way. This includes the exciting way he films the rugby scenes, putting right inside a scrum or has the camera running alongside Frank as he evades tackles. This was an impressive feature film debut for Anderson who would go on to create several other cinematic masterpieces, most notably If…. (1969) and O Lucky Man! (1973), both with Malcolm McDowell.
On the first disc, there is an audio commentary by Paul Ryan, editor of Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson, and author and screenwriter David Storey. Both men knew Anderson personally and offer their recollections of the man. Ryan gives us brief biographical sketches of key cast and crew members while Storey talks about the origins of the novel. He paid for school by playing rugby but really wanted to be an artist. He decided to write a book about this dichotomy and the result was This Sporting Life. He also tells the story of how Anderson discovered the book and got the rights to make it into a film. Ryan provides hard facts and puts the film in the perspective of Anderson’s career. This is a solid, informative track.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
The second disc features “Lindsay Anderson: Lucky Man?”, a 30-minute documentary made for BBC Scotland in 2004. Friends, family and colleagues are interviewed. It starts off with If… which launched Anderson internationally. Martin Scorsese praises the film’s radical nature while its star, Malcolm McDowell, talks about its surprise success. There are also excerpts from an interview with the filmmaker from 1992. From there, the documentary backtracks to his childhood and early life. Other notable celebrities like Brian Cox and Helen Mirren chime in with their thoughts and recollections of working with Anderson.
“Meet the Pioneers” is Anderson’s first film, a 33-minute documentary made 1948, is about the origins and processes of the Richard Sutcliffe Ltd., an underground-conveyor company. It’s a jaunty, up-tempo film that provides fascinating insight to this industry. Lois Smith, who gave Anderson his first break into film, is interviewed.
“Wakefield Express” is a short film that Anderson made in 1952 for a film series for the National Film Theatre. It documents the day in the life of Wakefield’s working class and the production of their weekly newspaper. This city also provided the setting for This Sporting Life.
Finally, there is “Is That All There Is?”, the last film Anderson made – an autobiographical look at his daily life and sheds light on his character and unique personality.