From the vault: 1963

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

This Sporting Life

Starring: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, William Hartnell

Director: Lindsay Anderson

The film: With several documentaries (one of them an Oscar winner) to his name by 1963, and a reputation as one of England's most progressive film critics, Lindsay Anderson was also responsible for the Free Cinema movement, which led to the British new wave of realist feature films.

One of the best of these was his directorial feature debut, This Sporting Life, which came late in a series of 'kitchen sink' dramas that included Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and John Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving (both 1962).

Set in a Yorkshire mining town, it stars Richard Harris (fresh from shooting Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando) as Frank Machin, a violent, highly strung and self-obsessed coal miner whose skills on the rugby field earn him a full-time, lucrative place on his local rugby league team. Despite his success and newfound celebrity status in the town, his attempts at wooing his recently widowed landlady (Rachel Roberts) continue to fall flat and so ensues a battle of wills between two of the strongest characters ever to emerge from British cinema.

Both Harris (below) and Roberts received Oscar nods for their efforts, and took best actor awards at Cannes and the Baftas respectively. Also outstanding as an ageing talent scout is William Hartnell, whose efforts earned him the role of TV's first Dr Who later the same year.

Constructed mostly in flashback (as was the source novel), this is an unusually European-looking film considering its intentionally dull northern England locations, and Anderson's influences from his time as a film writer are apparent, with strong hints of Polanski, Antonioni, Bergman and a number of others.

In turn, This Sporting Life was itself an influence on later directors, including Martin Scorsese, whose Raging Bull borrows freely from the explosive character of Machin.

The extras: A stack of useful extras supplied with this new Criterion double-disc package starts off with a well-planned commentary by Paul Ryan and David Storey, who wrote the original novel and screenplay. Ryan was a friend of the late director and his comments combined with Storey's input are well worth a listen.

Disc two starts with a 30-minute BBC documentary on Anderson, featuring interviews with Scorsese, Malcolm McDowell and others, then we get three more shorts by Anderson: Meet the Pioneers (1948, 33 minutes), Wakefield Express (1952, 32 minutes); and his last film, Is That all There Is? (1993, 52 minutes).

Also included is a 20-minute interview with Anderson's first producer and lifelong friend, Lois Sutcliffe Smith. A 32-page illustrated booklet contains essays by Anderson and film scholar Neil Sinyard. Picture quality on this 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent even by Criterion's usual high standards, with exemplary greyscale and contrast.