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Director Tony Richardson was one of the leaders of this subversive new subgenre seeking the gritty truth below the bright promises of England's future. Coming rather late in the cycle, his The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner states writer Alan Sillitoe's case for social injustice in clear terms, due in no small part to the excellent acting of the newly discovered Tom Courtenay.
Synopsis: Small-time thief Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) thinks he's outfoxed the law, but he's caught with money stolen from a bakery and sent to do time in Ruxton Towers Reformatory for criminal youth. The prison seeks to reform its charges through a punishment-reward system: rebels are beaten, broken and passed up for release. The Governor (Michael Redgrave) is only interested in competitive sports and singles out Colin for his ability to run. This gives Colin a number of privileges, including the right to train for the marathon while running free and unsupervised. But the more Colin broods about injustice -- the Governor is keen on winning a track match against some privileged public school boys -- the less he wants to contribute to the hypocrisy.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is Tony Richardson's "kitchen-sink" answer to the high-flown oratory of Dalton Trumbo's Spartacus: Sometimes just opposing one's oppressors is an end unto itself. That dubious lesson makes for good legends but certainly doesn't help young Colin Smith, a bitter working class punk.
Richardson tells most of Colin's story through flashbacks to his miserable family life. Colin's father dies refusing doctors and pills, and his unhappy mother (wonderful work from Avis Bunnage) is equally angry when she accepts his company's death benefit payout. Within no time mum has a new 'fancy man' in the house, spending her money and edging Colin out of his new role as head of the family. The pompous BBC speakers and mindless consumer ads on the family's new 'telly' are in themselves enough to drive Colin into the streets with his pal Mike (James Bolam). Stealing a car, they pick up the equally bored Gladys and Audrey (Julia Foster & Topsy Jane). Colin and Mike are soon pulling off petty burglaries to finance weekends at the beach with their new girlfriends.
The anti-establishment Loneliness forgives Colin his mean-spirited attitude but shows no mercy for society at large. Colin makes no distinction between the condescending factory representative and the imperious Borstal Governor. Both overseers patronize the disadvantaged working class with empty platitudes and then tap it for cheap labor. The Governor's sports programs pit the boys against one another. Colin's ascent to 'top runner' means demotion for another hopeful, Stacy (Philip Martin). Losing his chance for early release in the Governor's system of rewards, Stacy flips out, tries to escape and is beaten by the sadistic wardens.
Ruxton Towers has a new House Master (Alec McCowen of Travels with my Aunt) who puts Colin through a frustrating session of word association games. Colin's confused reactions prove only that intellectual approaches to juvenile delinquency are a farce. Colin would be happy to say what's on his mind if he thought the information would not be used against him. Ruxton's staff is organized on military lines, with the coach Roach (Joe Robinson, the muscle boy from Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings) clearly deriving a personal satisfaction from his physical superiority to his undernourished charges.
The scrawny-looking Colin ends up an ideal candidate for endurance running. With the help of John Addison's music, director Richardson makes Colin's training runs through the clean country air into little pieces of bliss. They seem to clarify the young man's thoughts. Unfortunately, Colin's ideas of justice have been determined by environmental factors. He tells his girlfriend Gladys that he thinks the whole system is unfair and needs to be pulled down. But what can he do about it?
The rebel attitude in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is nothing new. Film critics compare it to the spirit of youthful rebellion expressed in Jean Vigo's early talkie Zero for Conduct. The torch was later taken up by Lindsay Anderson's surreal If ..., a revolution-chic cult film. Nobody seems to realize that young hipsters didn't invent anti-authoritarian attitudes --every kid resents authority at one time or another. When Colin enters the Borstal for the first time, he says his name is Smith. He's told to answer with "Sir," whereupon he sneers, "Sir Smith." If you look at the cute, family-safe 1938 version of Tom Sawyer, young Tom has the exact same dialogue exchange with a pompous church deacon.
The big finale of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner again shows the aloof upper class pitting their inferiors against one another: The Ruxton Boys are set to compete with the boys from Ranley, a Public School. The division between the middle and working classes is such that the better-fed Ranley boys are taller and healthier-looking. Colin's opposite number is a fair-minded boy named Gunthorpe, (James Fox of The Chase and Performance). Colin easily pulls ahead of Gunthorpe as the crowd cheers. The Governor beams in anticipation of the personal prestige he will enjoy. Colin's Ruxton peers want him to win. He knows that his victory will mean an early release, and he'll be able to return to Gladys. But Colin's desire not to benefit his oppressors is strong...
Tom Courtenay is marvelous. Scratch this angry young man and what comes out is a kind of rebellious, self-destructive nobility. Michael Redgrave need only be officious to play the Governor and Alec McCowen's depressingly optimistic underling is nicely sketched. The other cast standout is Julia Foster, who is radiant as Colin's adventurous sweetheart. She's also a heartbreaker in Lewis Gilbert's Alfie, made three years later.
Warner DVD's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is an excellent enhanced transfer of this acclaimed English movie; the B&W image reproduces cameraman Walter Lassally's often purposely grainy images. The soundtrack is accurate; the distortion in the mournful hymn Jerusalem is intentional, when Richardson expresses the idea that his nation's entire working class hungers for a land free of oppression. Warners' English subtitles are a great aid in deciphering some of the less-clear dialogue. A trailer is included as an extra.
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by Glenn Erickson