The power of emotion and physicality at the heart of This Sporting Life.
In Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film This Sporting Life, Richard Harris plays Frank Machin, a Yorkshire coal miner and ruthless rugby league player, a rising star of the game who, despite his success on the field, feels his life is empty. We witness his inner turmoil bubble to the surface as he attempts to find love with his widowed landlady Margaret Hammond, played by Rachel Roberts. But his impetuousness and rage create a barrier between them.
The film was adapted for the screen by writer David Storey from his own novel, in turn based on his own experience as a rugby league player in his youth, and it remains faithful to its working class origins. It fits within the movement of the British New Wave, all those frustrated and cocky young men trying to be on the up, but this film stands apart.
It’s an intelligent but deeply powerful film, with a rawness and sense of urgency rarely felt in British cinema, and it hits you like a punch to the stomach.
The film doesn’t hold back in its portrayal of a man on the emotional and physical edge. Harris commits himself to the role of Machin with total physicality. Not just in the realistic scenes on the rugby field, his pent-up frustration and anger ooze out of him in every scene. He’s a man you don’t want to mess with, arrogant, fierce, authentic, perhaps the epitome of the angry young man, but where others showed only surface, he is all feeling, with layers so deep you could search his soul for a week and still not find answers.
Machin is gifted on the field of play, a working class lad, but he’s also successful, an early version of a sporting celebrity and the trappings it could bring, and its hypocrisies. This annoys the men in suits. He’s patronised and messed around, they don’t like his success, he should know his place.
The film was shot on location in Wakefield, with the action played out on a real rugby field, with real players and crowds. The scenes on the pitch are visceral, you feel every movement from the players, every throw of the ball, and wince with every thud as the masculine bodies hit the muddy ground. You can almost taste the tang of blood in your mouth as players collide. There’s realism perhaps never matched in a sports film since.
But there is also real passion shown in the torrid love affair between Machin and Hammond. The scenes between them are as raw and intense as the rugby, and just as emotionally brutal. Theirs is a love to be completely believed, if not emulated.
The portrayal of women in the British New Wave films has always fascinated me, and Roberts’ performance in this film makes Hammond one of the most rounded and interesting characters. She’s emotionally damaged, a shadow of herself. Her understated portrayal of a woman troubled tells a thousand stories of betrayal and loss, and quiet resignation.
This Sporting Life is social realist filmmaking in all gritty glory, and ultimately its raw, claustrophobic energy perhaps signalled the end of the British New Wave. But what a way to go out, it’s an uncomfortable and challenging watch but it’s a vital one.