Even though New Zealand’s beloved All Blacks needed more effort than anyone would have thought to defeat a rather mediocre France squad for their second Rugby Union World Cup, celebrations in Auckland and Wellington did not abate. In honor of New Zealand’s sporting triumph, I thought that I would recommend the best rugby film ever: This Sporting Life (1963).
Directed by Lindsay Anderson, This Sporting Life chronicles the story of Frank Machin (Richard Harris), who quickly rises as a star for a Northern English rugby league team. Manchin, played brilliantly and brutally by a young Richard Harris, lives the dream of any aspiring athlete. Through grit, determination, and athletic skill, he rises out of working class roots to become a sporting idol. Yet this really is not a dream, or a very good dream. Machin never escapes the gritty reality of who he was and from where he came. He might be proud of his accomplishments and glad that he has a more sizeable paycheck, but his constantly furrowed brow and pursed lips indicate a lack of happiness. Even though Harris’s performance is spot on, his constant anger and disappointment deprive the viewer of one of his most wonderful attributes: a beaming smile. A well-timed Richard Harris smile could light up a dark cavern.
For those who only remember and recognize Harris as the first Dumbledore, This Sporting Life shows a darker, lithe, and nimble actor whose broad shoulders could cover the entire horizon. He is convincing as a rugby player, and the rugby scenes, if not “realistic,” do an excellent job of portraying the violence and art of the game. I have written it before, but I will mention it again: the initial scenes of a rugby match in This Sporting Life seem to resonate with Martin Scorsese’s boxing sequences in Raging Bull (1980). They are stylized not to duplicate the sport but to cinematically represent it. Every time I watch it, I grow more impressed by the maturity and deftness of the editing and framing.
This Sporting Life, to the best of my knowledge, was Anderson’s first foray into full length feature cinema, and he shows a rather veteran hand. His prior work had been in shorts, particularly documentary shorts. And his documentary gaze appears frequently in the crowd shots during the rugby league matches. However, his documentary style does not conflict with or disrupt the narrative. It makes the film and Machin’s story more visceral. Anderson seems to desire to display the working class struggles of men and women who have little if any options, and documentary snippets help Anderson achieve that end.
Apart from battling opponents on the rugby pitch, Machin battles his own demons. He remains desperate to succeed, but he can never find solace in his accomplishments. The constant threat that everything might vanish looms over Machin’s mind as do the black and white shadows over Harris’s face. This Sporting Life does a rather excellent job of deconstructing the athlete’s mind. From the outside, people assume that succesful athletes have it made as they play a game for money. Yet, as Machin shows, having what they so desperately desire only fuels their fears and insecurities. The idea that what they have could vanish fuels an angry mania.
Opposed to Harris is Rachel Roberts, who died far too young and was never given the opportunities that her turn in This Sporting Life should have earned for her. She does, however, have one of the leads in another of my favorite films, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Roberts was charged with the immensely difficult task of simultaneously allowing Harris to move through the narrative as the central figure while still controlling and dictating many of his emotional responses. Roberts’s Mrs. Margaret Hammond, a widower who rents a room to Machin, is a wonderfully nimble character. She avoids all stereotypes, and Machin, despite all his skill and power on the rugby pitch, cannot manoeuver his way around her.
If you are in New Zealand and recovering from a wicked hangover, skip work and watch This Sporting Life. Actually, This Sporting Life should be watched no matter the location of or reason for a hangover.