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This Sporting Life
This Sporting Life is a 1963 British drama film directed by Lindsay Anderson. Based on the 1960 novel of the same name by David Storey, which won the 1960 Macmillan Fiction Award, it recounts the story of a rugby league footballer, Frank Machin, in Wakefield, a mining town in Yorkshire, whose romantic life is not as successful as his sporting life. Storey, a former professional rugby league footballer, also wrote the screenplay.
The film stars Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, William Hartnell and Alan Badel. The film was Harris's first starring role, and won him the Best Actor Award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. He was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Roberts won her second BAFTA award for This Sporting Life and an Oscar nomination for best actress. Harris was nominated for the BAFTA that year as well. The film opened at the Odeon Leicester Square in London's West End on 7 February 1963.
Set in Wakefield, the film concerns Frank Machin (Harris) a bitter young coal miner from the West Riding of Yorkshire. Following a nightclub altercation, in which he takes on the captain of the local rugby league club and punches a couple of the others, he is recruited by the team's manager, who sees profit in his aggressive streak.
Although at first somewhat uncoordinated at league, he impresses the team's owner, Gerald Weaver (Badel), with the spirit and brutality of his playing style during the trial. He is signed up to the top team as a loose forward (number 13) and impresses all with his aggressive forward play. He often punches or elbows the opposing players.
Off the field, Frank is much less successful. His recently widowed landlady, Mrs Margaret Hammond (Roberts), a mother of two young children, lost her husband in an accident at Weaver's engineering firm but received no financial compensation, because the death was ruled a suicide. Frank eventually has sexual relations with Margaret but in her grief she cannot return any affection. She sometimes insults him, referring to him as "just a great ape" and finds his boorish behaviour at a smart restaurant off-putting. He is occasionally violent towards her. He leaves and stays at a homeless men's shelter after a row over her late husband. He has another quarrel with Weaver and his predatory wife, whose advances he rejects much to her chagrin. Intending a reconciliation with Margaret, he finds that she is in a hospital. She is unconscious, having suffered a brain haemorrhage shortly after their split and she dies without regaining consciousness. In the end he is seen as "just a great ape on a football field", vulnerable to the ravages of time and injury.
This was Anderson's first feature film as director, although he had won an Oscar for his short documentary, Thursday's Children (1954), one of the documentaries he had made in the previous decade. The project had first been discussed by The Rank Organisation as a possible project for Joseph Losey and then Karel Reisz who, reluctant to direct another film with a similar setting and theme to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) suggested that Lindsay Anderson direct it with himself serving as producer.
Among the supporting cast is William Hartnell, who shortly afterwards began his role as Doctor Who. It was his role in This Sporting Life that brought Hartnell to the attention of Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert. The film also features Arthur Lowe, later to star in Dad's Army, who appeared in four later films directed by Anderson.
Many of the scenes in This Sporting Life were filmed at Wakefield Trinity's stadium, Belle Vue and at the Halifax stadium Thrum Hall. The scene where Frank (Richard Harris) leaps from a bus to buy a newspaper, then leaps back onto the bus was filmed at the top of Westgate, Wakefield. The location is still instantly recognisable and has changed little in the decades since. The houses used for filming the outdoor scenes in This Sporting Life were in Servia Terrace in Leeds. The riverside location where Frank takes the family for an outing in his new car is Bolton Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales.
Anthony Sloman wrote
A description of the editing says
Anderson wrote in his diary on 23 April 1962, after the first month or so of production, "the most striking feature of it all, I suppose, has been the splendour and misery of my work and relationship with Richard". He felt that Harris was acting better than ever before in his career, but feared his feelings for Harris, whose combination of physicality, affection and cruelty fascinated him, meant that he lacked the detachment he needed as a director. "I ought to be calm and detached with him. Instead I am impulsive, affectionate, infinitely susceptible."
Critical reception and box-office
The response from critics was favourable. In the United States, copy from the Reuters news agency described it as being praised unanimously by the critics for New York City publications. Variety praised its "gutsy vitality" and praised the production of Reisz and the directorial feature début of Anderson, who "brings the keen, observant eye of a documentary man to many vivid episodes without sacrificing the story line".
However, on first release the film was a commercial flop with British audiences, and did not recoup its cost. The Chairman of the Rank Organisation, John Davis, announced that the company would not venture further with "kitchen sink" film projects. Nor would his company make such a "squalid" film again. More generally, it ended producers willingness to back such British New Wave films.
John Russell Taylor in 1980 thought it a mistake to link This Sporting Life with the "kitchen sink" films released in the preceding few years, because its "emotionalism" made it "unique", apart from Anderson's other work
On 22 January 2008, the film was released as a Region 1 DVD by The Criterion Collection.