Robert Vas

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092

[In This Sporting Life] Lindsay Anderson is the first to free himself from what seven years ago he was the first to aim at: the direct attack, the deliberate harnessing of poetry to propaganda, which came then as a shot in the arm but which has gradually been left behind by the complexity of life itself, so that it now seems a constricting rather than a liberating attitude. Here Anderson demonstrates that his social consciousness is not, and never really was, a programme: it is the sine qua non of the existence of his world. He doesn't need to pull out and dwell on all those now fashionable aspects of English life—the North, the rainy Sunday, the tired face of the Establishment. His world simply exists within this context. Freed from the anxious guidance of a reporter/sociologist director, the characters are encouraged to discover their own feelings as they go along…. It is, simply and naturally, a film of the senses. (pp. 56-7)

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[The] sudden, subjective glimpses at the beginning, counter-pointed by the tough realism of the setting, stir up our interest in the character and encourage us to look out for his interior drama. Our continuity will obviously be a loose one, drawing the "molecules" of the hero's thoughts and emotions into a slowly thickening texture. Everything that happens is going to be seen from his point of view.

Just how consistently this interior quality is present throughout the film (although in different forms) emerges clearly from one scene—in fact the weakest in the entire work—when it is not present. This is the evening out at the restaurant, where Machin behaves as he never really would—at least, not at that stage of the story…. Here the subjective view is abandoned, and the film takes the standpoint of a detached onlooker. (p. 57)

At its best, however, the "portrait of a man" blends with the "story of a man": interior and at the same time narrative cinema…. We approach the story through the interior drama, and soon realise that in fact the interior drama is the story. The result is a thick texture, carrying the complexity of life itself, defying us to give a straight answer to the question of what the film is finally about.

We may approach This Sporting Life as a study in human behaviour or, as its creators prefer to call it, in temperament…. [Frank Machin's] is the typical fate of tragic heroes who strive to achieve something worthwhile but go about it the wrong way, and cannot help getting into a mess which they are then unable to explain. His real purpose is a frantic search for his own identity. His character may bear a literary, almost intellectual charge in its tragic emphasis, but his best means of expression are his bare fists.

The blow of the fist comes like a visual motif in this film …, in which emotions and behaviour find their expression in physical terms. (pp. 57-8)

The film-makers' aim was to avoid sociological generalisations, to present a character who is larger than life and for that reason better fitted to stand for a wider, more hazardous poetic truth…. Here everything takes a compressed and dramatically heightened form. The Machin actually visible on the screen will be much bigger than in the pages of [David Storey's book on which the film is based]; so his behaviour and Mrs. Hammond's reactions assume additional size, a further edge of intensity.

It is Mrs. Hammond's character (seen in contrast with his, and yet from his point of view) which fully brings out the scope of the film. Her strange and silently suffering nobility, her dignified misery, her full-time self-destruction, would make her a perfect Chekhovian character, if her suppression of self were not at the same time so perversely stupid and unnatural. (p. 58)

Although she becomes [Machin's] mistress she cannot let her feelings go along with it. By then we cannot even judge which does most harm: his aggressive demands or her unnatural renunciation of life. Instead of the best the relationship brings out the worst in both of them. The sense of approaching tragedy is heightened by his inability to put his feelings into words; by the fact that his only way of expression, the physical, is exactly the one by which he alienates her. The huis clos feeling of their inability to communicate brings with it the explosion: the violent, final break.

It is at this moment of his "tragic guilt" that the account of the relationship reverts to Frank's personal story, and the picture gains a frightening, almost abstract charge…. Here, living up to the size and power of its hero, This Sporting Life achieves that universality of tragedy which has so far eluded the new British directors. Here pain is called pain, and the feeling is one of liberation … (pp. 58-9)

[An earlier shot of Mrs. Hammond's profile summarizes the film-maker's attitudes; it is] a pathetic amalgam of the robust and tender, eruptive and suppressed, demanding and accepting—and out of these many contrasts emerges something of the duality of contemporary Britain, the mixture of aggression and withdrawal, anger and passivity….

The main protest here is not, as one critic holds, a consciously social one: "gladiatorial slaves and suave, unscrupulous tycoons." It lies rather in the heat of the emotions, in an outcry against "not taking things too seriously," being ashamed to feel. To ask for "coolness" and "detachment" (as did another critic) from a film which intends to be and is "hot" seems a very English miscalculation. And through this heat is communicated, in the words of its author—"the whole tragedy of living, of being alive" today, in Britain, in the world….

To reach this point, Lindsay Anderson had to get rid of a certain kind of facile romanticism which mingles with the genuinely humane in Every Day Except Christmas. He emerges as a talent with strong reserves, able to encompass the small psychological glimpses as well as the overall emotional sweep….

All in all, it is not so much a film d'auteur as, rather, a film with an author….

It is an exploratory work, and this involves numerous falterings, mistakes, impurities in style and content. But it is an arrival as much as a departure; a breakthrough perhaps to a more demanding audience, and more courage in production; a password to the unashamed expression of emotion. (p. 59)

Robert Vas, "Arrival and Departure," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1963 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1963, pp. 56-9.

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