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This Sporting Life
Remind Me

This Sporting Life

Often regarded as the capstone of the British New Wave of the late 1950s and early '60s, Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963) is a stark depiction of life in an industrial town, focusing on the personal and professional struggles of a brutish rugby player.

Richard Harris stars as Frank Machin, a rugged coal miner who quits the pits to compete in a local rugby league. The narrative is comprised largely of flashbacks, woven from a dentist's chair where Machin awaits the replacement of six teeth dislodged by a brutal punch while huddled in a rugby scrum. He recalls his rise through the league, attracting the attention of a wealthy industrialist, Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel), who sponsors the professional team. He recalls his clumsy efforts to woo Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts), the lonely widow in whose house he boards, and who still pines for her late husband (in one poignant scene, placing his freshly polished boots on the hearth, as if he might come claim them in the morning).

What Machin lacks in sophistication, he makes up for in raw ambition. "You see something and you go out and you get it," he says, "It's as simple as that." This philosophy serves him well on the field, but he soon rises out of his element and falls into the clutches of the team owner's man-hungry wife (Vanda Godsell). Despite the white sports car and the fur coat he purchases for Mrs. Hammond, Machin remains a boor, beautifully illustrated when he makes a spectacle of himself in a swank restaurant as the Weavers look on. When Mrs. Hammond characterizes him as "a great ape on the football field," she is perhaps more insightful than she realizes.

Anderson began his career as a film critic in the 1940s, contributing articles to Sight and Sound and The New Statesman, and co-founding the magazine Sequence. In the 1950s, he directed a series of documentary shorts, including Wakefield Express (1952) and Thursday's Children (1954). These were presented by the National Film Theatre, along with similar works by Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti, collected under the banner of "Free Cinema" (a term which Anderson reportedly coined). As this group of filmmakers (including cinematographer Walter Lassally) turned from documentary to fiction film, they would form the backbone of the British New Wave, which retained the Free Cinema's crisp black-and-white aesthetic and uncompromising social criticism.

Anderson's cinematic style grew more playful and provocative in the coming years, but he never neglected the issues of class and caste that made This Sporting Life so powerful. His 1968 film If... was a critical and commercial smash, a shocking examination of the hypocrisies of the educational system, the church and the military. In the years that followed, Anderson was never able to top these achievements. He created whimsical farces that exposed the ills of society -- such as O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982) -- but his style of freewheeling, sharp-toothed filmmaking seemed better situated in decades of youthful rebellion. Anderson died on August 30, 1994.

Some historians consider This Sporting Life the end of the New Wave. Because of the film's disappointing box-office performance, producers began to shy away from the realist aesthetic and emotional rawness that had characterized such films as Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (1959) and Bryan Forbes's The L-Shaped Room (1962).

Even if it brought the British New Wave to an end, This Sporting Life was a launching pad for Richard Harris. A Best Actor Award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor led the 32-year-old actor out of supporting roles and into stardom. Upon hearing of his Oscar® nomination, Harris reportedly replied, "I've struck a blow for the Irish rebellion!"

Born in Limerick, Ireland, Harris had been a rugby player long before appearing in This Sporting Life. He played for Munster Schools (Crescent College) but after contracting tuberculosis as a teenager, his athletic career was derailed, and he became interested in acting instead. A Shakespearean actor by training, Harris always wanted to play Hamlet on film, but never did. However, he did refer to This Sporting Life as "his" Hamlet. Even after achieving notoriety on the stage and screen, Harris still missed the rugby field. "Rugby has always been there for me. I grew up with the game in Limerick and have enjoyed its many pleasures, both as a player and a spectator," he told an interviewer just prior to the 2002 Heineken Cup final. "I would give up all the accolades -- people have occasionally written and said nice things -- of my showbiz career to play just once for Ireland or to appear in the senior Munster team. I will never win an Oscar® now, but even if I did I would swap it instantly for one sip of champagne from the Heineken Cup." Harris died of Hodgkin's Disease later that year, October 25, 2002.

Harris would best be remembered for his leading roles in Camelot (1967) and A Man Called Horse (1970). His later supporting roles include the villainous English Bob in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) and Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films (2001, 2002). He received a second Oscar® nomination for his performance in Jim Sheridan's The Field (1990).

While conventional sports films tend to treat the viewer as a spectator (with obligatory shots of scoreboards and using sports commentators to explain the rules of the game and progress of the match), This Sporting Life thrusts the viewer onto the field with no such hand-holding. With jagged edits and topsy-turvy camerawork, the rugby matches are depicted as maelstroms of cold, muddy brutality, with no attempt to romanticize or valorize the players. Nor does Anderson downplay the homoeroticism of the sport. Instead, he depicts with refreshing frankness the sweaty scrums, steamy post-game showers and scenes of rowdy teammates being generous with their physical affection.

The production employed the use of wooden figures to supplement the crowd in the scenes shot at Belle Vue Stadium in Wakefield. Belle Vue is home to the Wakefield Trinity team (the Wildcats), which has been playing on the field since it was purchased in 1895 (the team itself had been in existence since 1873). Among Wakefield Trinity's most famous players is Derek Turner, who appears in This Sporting Life as the player who delivers the crushing blow that sends Machin to the dentist and sets the plot in motion.

Producer: Karel Reisz
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Screenplay: David Storey
Cinematography: Denys N. Coop
Film Editing: Peter Taylor
Art Direction: Alan Withy
Music: Roberto Gerhard
Cast: Richard Harris (Frank Machin), Rachel Roberts (Mrs. Margaret Hammond), Alan Badel (Gerald Weaver), William Hartnell ('Dad' Johnson), Colin Blakely (Maurice Braithwaite), Vanda Godsell (Mrs. Anne Weaver).
BW-134m. Letterboxed.

by Bret Wood