Review: “This Sporting Life” (1963)

This Sporting Life (1963, UK) dir. Lindsay Anderson. feature film. B&W, 35mm.

Review

I’m a big fan of British cinema in general, but I particularly love 1960s British films, and even more specifically those inspired by the “Free Cinema” movement. In addition, I love Lindsay Anderson’s work, which I first discovered with if….. So, when Criterion finally released This Sporting Life (Anderson’s first feature film), I was compelled to see it.

This Sporting Life, based on a novel, tells the story of the rise and fall of a rugby player named Frank Machin who boards at the house of a rugby player’s widow, Margaret. Machin loves Margaret but she treats him with extreme coldness, though her two children get along well with Machin.  Machin becomes somewhat of a celebrity in the rugby world, and we see how this change begins to affect him (and his relationship with Margaret).

Even looking at this film from a more modern feminist perspective, Margaret is awfully cruel sometimes. The same goes for Machin, who can be quite aggravating. The emotional intensity of these two characters will make you feel for them, whether you become angry, sad, or annoyed, a great testament to the simple yet emotionally powerful “kitchen sink dramas” of the “British New Wave. This kind of melodrama probably doesn’t hold up for multiple viewings, though, and Machin’s treatment of Margaret is quite appalling. The plot drags a little bit, especially towards the end of the film, but this is still a film that held my attention for its entire 2 hours-plus running time.

The film marks the first starring role for Richard Harris (who was a rugby player in his youth), and his acting is wonderful. Machin is an emotional bombshell who can be happy-go-lucky, cruel, desperate, or angry. Harris does a good job of conveying the intensity of each of these emotions, as well as the many changes his character goes through during his rise to fame.

I’m not particularly interested in rugby or sports films, yet I found myself fascinated by this film’s story, which begins in the middle – Machin gets a bunch of teeth knocked out at a match and has to go to the dentist. When he goes under the gas, we glimpse his troubled unconscious, which replays the events leading up to that point. He later leaves the dentist and goes to a party, where his drunken dreams continue the story. It’s a very origina framing device that makes the narrative unpredictable, yet still understandable. The editing in this film is very creative as well.  One sonic edit in particular, in which Machin’s toothache is expressed by a “flashback scene” of Machin working in the coal mines with a noisy drill, is also brilliant.

A wonderful, artistic ambiguity arises when Machin is going through an emotional breakdown at one point in the film. We cut to what may be a flashback (or flash-forward, meaning everything else is flashback in his mind) of Machin struggling to keep up in a very muddy rugby match.

Bodies in the muddy rugby match

It’s extremely effective. Anderson seems to have a great deal of interest in bodies in this film, which may or may not have to do with the fact that he was homosexual (no one knew until after his death).  In fact, Anderson wrote in his diary that his attraction to Richard Harris was interfering with his directorial objectivity. However, this film has a truly emotional investment in its main character, and Anderson’s feelings may have strengthened this powerful portrayal.

Interest in bodies - Machin and a teammate fight over a beer in a tub in the locker room

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the visual treatment of bodies in this film is quite stunning.

This film has absolutely gorgeous cinematography. In the ’60s, black and white film stock had been around for a very long time and people had really figured out how to use it well. The visuals do a wonderful job of conveying Machin’s emotional changes and moods.

Whether you’re a Lindsay Anderson/rugby/British movie fan or not, This Sporting Life is a solid film that will likely hold your interest. I especially recommend this film for fans of Richard Harris – this was his big break, and his acting is superb. Fans of good cinematography will also enjoy this film.

Rating: 8/10

Availability: Region 1 DVD from Criterion, VHS, Region 2 UK DVD, All-region DVD from Image.

Trailer (it’s really corny):

This trailer really plays up the sexual aspects of the film, and the “romance” plot. Not that many good visuals. The shot they show to introduce Richard Harris is of him getting drenched by a hose in the shower room – who exactly were they trying to market to? >: D And then they have to go and show a piece of one scene that makes it look like he’s trying to rape Margaret. Yeah, there may have been strict censorship back then, but that didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to play up and sensationalize what WAS there.

—Recca 6/27/08

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