Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
Sometimes, you can see a progression of a particular type of movie across the years. In the case of This Sporting Life, there is a line that starts in a movie like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, goes directly through this, and ends at Raging Bull. It’s almost impossible to watch This Sporting Life and not see the influence both on Scorsese and on De Niro’s portrayal of Jake La Motta. Sure, the sport in this case is rugby rather than boxing, but the personalities are similar in a lot of ways.
Frank Machin (Richard Harris) is a coal miner in Yorkshire who picks a fight with some local rugby players one night at a bar. This aggressiveness is a prized commodity on the rugby pitch, and he’s recruited by the local team. Frank soon becomes a rising star on the rugby team, changing his lifestyle at least in terms of available money if not in his actual surroundings.
Those surroundings are important here. Frank lives with Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), a young widow, and her two children. Margaret is desperately poor in no small part because her husband’s death was ruled a suicide. As it happens, Margaret’s husband worked for the same man who owns the local rugby team, meaning that Frank is now being paid by the person who refused to pay her for her husband’s demise. Her husband’s death has caused Margaret to be emotionally closed off, so while Frank makes clumsy attempts to romance her, those attempts don’t get much of a response, at least initially.
Frank’s problem is that despite his success on the rugby field, he can’t seem to rise above his surroundings or his upbringing. He’s crude and brash and constantly angry because of his own perceived crudeness. He is violent, sometimes toward Margaret and more often to nayone who happens to be around him. There’s an animalistic streak to Frank, who seems unable to communicate in significant ways outside of his own physicality.
This might not sound like much of a story, and perhaps it isn’t, but what we’re given is fascinating in the extreme. Frank’s blunt simplicity exists only on the surface. Rugby has given him fame and a measure of fortune, but it hasn’t fixed any of the problems in his life. He finds that he desperately needs the affection of Margaret, but she is still too consumed with grief over the loss of her husband to reciprocate any feelings for him. And, since he has no real way to respond, his aggressiveness leaks out. Despite this, there is a real depth to Frank, who is simply desperate for things to be better. While looking and acting like little more than a thug, he’s actually quite good with Margaret’s kids, and he’s even reasonably faithful to her. When the wife of the team owner (Vanda Godsell) attempts to seduce him, he resists, turning her—and through her influence, the owner—against him.
There aren’t going to be any happy endings in This Sporting Life. This is a tragedy through and through. Some of that comes from the world itself and some of it comes from Frank’s inherent vulnerability and his constant need to demonstrate that he has no vulnerabilities to anything.
There are a number of reasons why This Sporting Life is worth watching, but those reasons absolutely start with a monster performance from Richard Harris, who is at is most compelling in this role. There is a sort of fascination in watching Frank, who is something of a caged tiger, a man who demands that he be taken seriously when the only think that can be taken seriously about him is his violent nature turned to an end of entertaining the masses. Frank wants what he can’t have, and what he can have turns out to not give him what he wants. He fights because of his overwhelming frustration with his life. That gets him a shot on the rugby pitch, but leaves him needing to continue to fight and unable to cope with the rest of his life. Because of this, he seethes. He paces. He looks constantly trapped and cornered.
Harris fits the part perfectly. It’s easy to remember him as the first, frail version of Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. It’s surprising to see him this young and vibrant and filled with this huge physicality (that's him and not a young Roy Scheider in the picture at the top). There’s not a moment on screen where he looks anything other than what he’s portraying. If, in a few scenes after his front teeth are knocked out, we can see the tooth black covering his actual teeth, well, Harris is capable of making us ignore that and believe that his teeth are really missing.
For as good as Harris is here, it’s easy to forget the performance of Rachel Roberts, who was also nominated. Roberts has a much different task. She is emotionally numb to everything going on around her and stays numb for most of the movie, enduring Frank’s physical abuse and physical demands until she reaches her breaking point near the end and explodes. It’s a much quieter performance, but one that forces her to work on a much more interior level.
This Sporting Life is also notable as Lindsay Anderson’s first feature film. It’s a pretty astonishing directorial debut, and one that I don’t hear about enough in that context.
It’s hard to say that I enjoyed watching This Sporting Life in much the same way that I can’t say I like watching Raging Bull. However, it’s very easy to say that it’s worth watching for exactly the same reasons, and that’s some pretty high praise.
Why to watch This Sporting Life: Richard Harris gives the performance of his life.
Why not to watch: It’s surprisingly grueling.