Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1) , released in 1963, appeared during the waning years of the Free Cinema (2) movement in Britain, but has endured as one of the most influential (3) films of the period and, perhaps, the most beloved. Its influence can be partially attributed to the breakout performances of both Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, but it is the film’s narrative structure (4) and social/psychological discourse that has maintained its reputation. The complex ‘flashback’ structure works to facilitate the psychological confliction of Frank (5) Machin (Harris), a coal miner desperate to escape the daily grind and make a name for himself playing Rugby. Yet, as the film reveals, Frank is hindered by both his unfulfilled need for sexual release and the sport which consumes and exploits him.
Frank’s connection with his environment is seen immediately following the opening credits sequence; he is hit in the face by another footballer, which causes his nose to gush blood. Almost immediately, there is a cut to a large drill, powered by Frank himself, mining for oil. The scene reveals two separate elements to Frank’s character; the black and white photography (and the thickness of the blood pouring from his nose) makes no distinction between blood and oil. Though it can be assumed Frank does not bleed oil, the likeness of the two does suggest he is linked with industry and the Earth. This quick cross-cut also juxtaposes Frank’s blood with a giant, phallic drill, a paradoxical instrument which has the ability to both penetrate and castrate. The drill symbolizes his overstated masculinity, as well as his fear of maternal repression.
The manifestation of this maternal repression is Mrs. Hammond (Roberts), a young, widowed mother who rents a room to Frank. He is sexually attracted to her, but she resists and represses herself because of the death (and apparent suicide) of her husband. Frank is the ‘return of the repressed’ figure for her, but he also remains sexually repressed and frustrated due to her emotional coldness and sexual frigidity.(6) This is seen in the film after Frank has received a 1000 pound check for signing with an elite rugby team. He shows her the check and she states plainly, “It’s very good…it’s a bit more than I got when my husband died.” Frank responds with indignation and delves into a speech, “Some people make [life] for themselves,” and follows by smashing a table and throwing its contents to the floor. His act of aggression is a response to his castration by the mother figure. He is conflicted by his sexual feelings for Mrs. Hammond, but is also undermined by her lack of maternal acceptance. He wants to be her lover, but she treats him like he’s one of her children.
If Mrs. Hammond is the repressive figure on the micro level, the sport of rugby is the repressive entity on the macro. Before signing with the upper league team, Frank confronts the captain of the team in a night club. “Do you want a thumpin’ love?” asks the captain. “Aye,” responds Frank, a further indication of his confusion with violence and sex. (7) There is certainly a sadomasochistic level to his response, especially given the word choice of the captain. Once Frank does sign on, he becomes an objectification and commodity for both men and women. Mr. Weaver drives him home after signing him on; he tells Frank that if anyone asks, he is now, “property of the city.” He then grabs Frank’s knee in a cutaway that frames the synecdochical act of possession. Frank eyes the hand on his knee curiously. The lack of a voice-over narration or any way to contextualize Frank’s thoughts only add to his perceived confusion. Is it a sexual advance? Is it a friendly gesture? There’s no way of knowing what Frank’s facial response is meant to suggest due to his inability for self-articulation, but given his propensity to use violent action as a catharsis for psychological distress, he likely views it as a means of expression, the physical act substituting for repressed sexual inclination.
Most ambivalent about the film is how sexual suggestion manages to creep its way into most, if not all, of the scenes in the film, even if only by intimation rather than explicit action. After Frank has his teeth knocked out, men wrestle and laugh happily naked in the bathtubs. Sexual proclivity is masked by an act of playful physical aggression, just like Mr. Weaver’s hand-on-the-knee. Frank is also constantly surrounded by water; he uses it to cleanse his face after having his teeth worked on; he takes Mrs. Hammond’s children to play in a pond at the park (8); most explicitly, Frank is sprayed with a hose by a teammate as he play wrestles with Maurice in the bath. He is called a ‘fairy’ and stands smiling and singing as the water pours over him. He is on the receiving end of a metaphorical ejaculation, the hose serving as the phallic object. The hose does exactly what Frank cannot, due to his psychological confusion and repression. Naturally, Frank punches as the scene ends, which keeps intact his decision to exhibit aggression in the face of sexuality. The water, which serves as a place of maternal comfort, is mixed with implications of sexuality, both hetero and homosexual.
Frank confronts his sexual angst in an attempted rape on Mrs. Hammond. However, in keeping with the sense of sexual ambiguity, Frank approaches her from behind, grasping her hips, then turning her and controlling her body with his physical strength. They are interrupted by Mrs. Hammond’s daughter. She commands her to “go away” in the same manner that she commands Frank to “stop.” Though the scene loses focus before any sex act takes place, the next shot is of Frank’s hand (in present time), grasping a thick, phallic-like bedpost and moaning at the discomfort of his teeth. The juxtaposition is the most explicitly homosexual of the film; one can’t help but be reminded of the nearly identical shot of Mr. Weaver grasping Frank’s knee. It aligns Frank’s inability to distinguish pain from pleasure. (9) The rape of Mrs. Hammond is a faux-sexual release; Frank may engage it with the belief that it will alleviate his confusion and repression, but the subsequent shot indicates the converse, that it has only served as a catalyst for it.
The sexuality is also linked with material possession; upon entering a room after recovering from the removal of his teeth, Frank finds Mr. and Mrs. Weaver sitting with Mr. Slomer. Slomer’s line is quite telling: “Come on in Frank, we won’t eat you.” The connotation of his word choice is both consumptive and sexual. Frank is a commodity, an object meant for spectacle and visual digestion. He, like the nightclub singer he objectifies (“Show us your personality”), is on the receiving end of not just the female gaze, but the male gaze as well. Frank is an investment for Mr. Weaver and it’s the investment that he cares for, not Frank as a person. There is a shot in the film which shows the enormous crowd of people who have come to watch the rugby match; behind the stands are two, large smoke towers. The malicious nature of industry looms over the spectacle. Thus, industry turns men into objects of commoditization (10), just as ‘this sporting life’ does. Frank follows the nightclub singer with a song of his own, singing “Here is My Heart – I’m Alone and So Lonely.” Unaware of the implication, Frank is no different than the nightclub singer as a voyeuristic objectification. He walks home afterward, along crossing railroad tracks. The pathetic fallacy is telling of his psychological divide.
Also somewhat hard to quantify is the positioning of Frank as a Christ-like figure (11), who is beaten and endures pain for the benefit of others. The party which Frank attends after having his teeth knocked out is a Christmas party, an irony considering ‘the birth’ juxtaposes the start of Frank’s fall from grace. Maurice holds his wedding on Easter; Frank and Mrs. Hammond attend and stand in a graveyard beside the church, talking about their future together. This not only addresses the irony of any chance of a ‘resurrection,’ but foreshadows the eventual death of Mrs. Hammond. If these instances only suggest a connection, the image of Frank, hanging to a ceiling rod, arms extended horizontally and screaming “Margaret!” following her death caused by a brain hemorrhage, solidifies it. Frank is the bearer of physical pain while he takes the brunt of a hit on the football field. But he also endures the emotional loss of Mrs. Hammond and his cathartic scream is the sexual release he has craved, yet it comes at a steep price.
He remains conflicted, though; while he is rid of his domineering maternal presence, he is not relieved of his burden as “property of the city,” nor of his now repressed belief that he is directly responsible for Mrs. Hammond’s illness and demise. Frank returns to the pitch at the film’s end, turning from the camera and running away. He is helpless to the consumption of the industrialized masses and remains stripped of individual agency. (12)
1. The film is based on the novel by David Storey, who also wrote the screenplay. Storey based the novel on his own life as a part time ‘footballer’ and art student. As Storey says, “The footballers thought I was a homosexual because I was an artist and the artists thought I was a [jock] because I was a footballer” (CC commentary). This dynamic can be seen in the film, as Frank masks his emotional threshold (and possibly latent homosexuality) with acts of physical aggression and violence.
2. Anderson was quoted as saying, “What is required is a cinema in which people can write films with as much freedom as if they were writing poems, painting pictures or composing string quartets” (Solution 9).
3. Anderson’s direct influence on Martin Scorsese can be seen in several of his films, namely Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Film scholar Neil Sinyard notes this, comparing Frank Machin’s narcissistic boxing himself in a mirror to Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?” routine. Raging Bull, with its neo-realistic tableau and comparable lead character, seems like a direct homage to This Sporting Life. Also, Scorsese has admitted that Travis Bickle was named after Mick Travis from Anderson’s If…. (Sinyard 11).
4. The flashback structure in the film is a great accomplishment. It foregoes any voice-over narration and forces the viewer to take note of the change in chronology. There are no subtitles to indicate it; in fact, time often changes three times in three subsequent shots. This is emblematic Anderson’s desire to create an art cinema for Britain, full of personal films. It fits the qualifications David Bordwell lays out for the art film: “The art film is nonclassical in that it creates permanent narrational gaps and calls attention to the process of fabula construction. But these very deviations are placed within new extrinsic norms, resituated as realism or authorial commentary. Eventually, the art-film narration solicits not only denotative comprehension, but connotative reading, a higher level interpretation” (212). This Sporting Life certainly subverts traditional narration in favor of a style to mirror its protagonist’s inner struggle.
5. The name in the novel was Arthur Machin, but it was changed to Frank to avoid complications and comparisons with the Albert Finney character from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, named Arthur Seaton (Graham 59).
6. In his biography Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, Gavin Lambert explores the idea that Mrs. Hammond is a double for Anderson himself, because of Anderson’s own infatuation with Richard Harris. Anderson describes it in a diary entry: “Emotionally [Richard’s] warmth and willfulness can sabotage me in a moment. And of course instinctively he knows this and exploits it. I ought to be calm and detached with him. Instead I am impulsive, affectionate, infinitely susceptible. We embrace and fight like lovers: but in Richard I sense the ruthlessness that would drop me or destroy me without compunction if I seemed to fail him” (Diaries 75). This also contributes to Anderson’s psychological ‘battle’ with his own homosexuality; after all, in the early 1960’s, “psychiatrists agreed…that homosexuality was a disease in need of a cure…the law classified homosexuals as criminals…Anderson’s psychiatrists assured him that he ‘couldn’t really be homosexual’” (Lambert 116-23).
7. Graham notes this ‘anomaly’ writing: “Never…in this series of ‘socially’ realistic films had a character been thrust out onto the screen with absolutely no resources except his physicality” (57-8). This is expressed, perhaps unconsciously, by Frank himself, when he talks about why he plays ‘football’: “We don’t have stars in this sport. That’s soccer.” The ‘football’ field is a place for Frank to fulfill his need to give physical punishment as well as receive it.
8. In the scene, Frank waddles into the water and comes out; his pants are wet all the way up his legs but his crotch is still dry. This is a visual signifier for his continued sexual frustration and confusion over the relationship he should assume with Mrs. Hammond.
9. The sequence is almost abstract in its implications, yet it can easily be paralleled with the well documented homosexual angst Anderson was feeling during the making of the film.
10. Graham cites Mr. Weaver telling Frank of Eric Hammond’s suicide as, “a fitting omen, for being one of Weaver’s workers is a form of suicide” (71).
11. The comparison of sporting figures to Christ has not become uncommon since this film. Scorsese’s Raging Bull is full of Catholic imagery associating Jake La Motta with Christ. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler even makes it explicit; a character remarks how Randy “The Ram” Robinson continually takes pain, just like Christ does in the film The Passion of the Christ. “Tough dude” responds Robinson.
12. In this sense, the film can be seen to mirror Anderson’s own fear as a filmmaker, to not have “as much freedom as if they were writing poems…” Frank cannot balance his own expectations with that of his society, and it leads to simultaneous self-effacement and the destruction of others. Anderson likely shared this fear of losing the control he felt was needed to sustain his own artistic expression.
Anderson, Lindsay. "A Possible Solution." Sequence. 9.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Routledge, 1987.
Graham, Allison. Lindsay Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Hedling, Erik. "Lindsay Anderson and the Development of the British Art Cinema." The British Cinema Book. 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 2001. 241-45.
Lambert, Gavin. Mainly About Lindsay Anderson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Sinyard, Neil. "The Lonely Heart." This Sporting Life - an essay for the Criterion Collection: 4-13.
Sutton, Paul, ed. The Diaries: Lindsay Anderson. London: Methuen, 2005.
This Sporting Life. Dir. Lindsay Anderson. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2007.