This Sporting Life: Theatrical Social Drama

2009 July 22
by Zachary McCune
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Lindsay Anderson’s “This Sporting Life” is a theatrical social drama. It follows the story of a coal miner named Frank (played by Richard Harris) who attempts to escape his working class background by becoming a professional rugby player. But despite his success on the pitch, and his ability to achieve his dream of becoming a rugby star, Frank is ultimately unable to escape his working class roots, or to impress his working class love interest enough to woo her. He becomes caught in a tragic isolation between two classes- the first which will not accept him, and the second which will not have him back. Suspended between classes, Frank becomes violent and despondent, disenchanted with a life that had seemed so promising.

In the Kitchen: British Social Realism

Anderson’s motives in this film are almost certainly tied to the mission of the “kitchen sink realists” who had hoped to utilize the cinema as a agent for social change. A part of Britain’s brief New Wave of film, “This Sporting Life” seems to chaste society itself for consuming people like Frank as sports icons, but in the process denying them a human life. Anderson also seems critical of the middle class in this film, who use their power and wealth to transform athletes like Frank into objects or commodities. Finally, the film criticizes the pig-headedness of the proleteriat, whose jealousy over Frank’s success becomes a vengeful willing for his misfortune. Desperately clinging to an idea of their noble impoverishment, the working class (represented by Mrs. Hammond) is unable to validate Frank’s success, seeing him as a “ape on the football field” rather than a man who has made his own fortune. In all of these situations, Frank is inherently de-humanized. This seems to be a theme of the film. From every side, Frank is denied his humanity, which is to say his ability to feel pain, to love, to hope, to desire, to be vulnerable, and in short, to emote.

Against the American Athletic Hero

Watching this film from an American standpoint is particularly interesting. This is because, in the US, the story of the athlete who rose from the working class and became wealthy, is ALWAYS presented as something good. Something amazing. Something to cheer about, like the sporting events these athletes realize. In films like “Jerry Maguire” or “Miracle” or “A League of their own” or “Mystery, Alaska” or even “Space Jam” part of the narrative is always the social transformation of a poor talented athlete into a potent, bourgeoisie sports icon. The cliche is so embedded in American culture, that it would disorienting for the average American film goer to see a sports film where the protagonist is wealthy to start with. Sports are synomous in American lore with social mobility. They represent a will to succeed. They are the modernization of the Horatio Alger story.

But in “This Sporting Life” we read that for the British sports are not a way out of the proletriat. At least, not in 1960. Frank is trapped, and an anxiety hangs over the film as the spectator yearns for something to give. For a scene or two, it seems that Mrs. Hammond will relent on her hatred for Frank and warm-up. But then she goes cold again. At other times, it seems that Frank is finally breaking through, and that he will soon stop clinging to the comfort of the working class world he knows so well.

Angst & Anxiety

Like all social dramas, “This Sporting Life” encourages the spectator to see ways out for the protagonist. But the divide between the cinema and the spectator disallows our transgression into that space to call out “just leave her Frank!”or  “move out!” Anderson intentionally draws out these moments when the spectator most wants to enter the fiction and assist the protagonists. So we become hostage to the drama, voyeurs of the spectacle which is all to familiar. We come to pity Frank, as he seems to want to do the right thing, but ultimately we cannot forgive his violence and lack of understanding. It is his will to succeed that both allows him to achieve his rugby dreams and fails to allow him the compassion to see Mrs. Hammond’s plight. Like a true modern drama, Frank is not a victim of over-reaching, but simply a victim of his own success. He becomes a painful mascot of the working class struggle, as he represents a life where even the successes are doomed to become failures.

Unable to escape his habits of the stage,  Anderson shot this movie as though it were on a stage. The lighting and blocking are straight from the theatre, and the acting is likewise overblown. Harris, himself a stage actor originally, is still projecting his voice. He and Anderson have not yet realized what the film camera is capable of in terms of subtlety. Fortunately, Frank’s loud, boisterous demeanor is complimented by Harris’ theatrical overacting, and the social drama of this film is brought firmly to life by its theatricality.

Conclusions

In all, “This Sporting Life” is of more interest to political cinema as a contextual document than as a end in and of itself. And what the context presented? A certain social observation- a view that may seen as a foundation for work like Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” or Anderson’s second feature “If….”. Viewed from this film, both of those works can be read as nuanced interrogations of class and social structures. Without the context of “This Sporting Life” however, one might miss the forest for the trees- “If….” for instance almost never escapes the context of the upper class, boarding school experience. But that doesn’t mean it is not there. Instead, we must see the setting and the narrative of the film as something that is inherently other from the working class struggle, but part of the same world. The question “why can’t they co-exist?” is one that is answered by their stark seperation: because that is the nature of British society.

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