Adapted by David Storey from his partly autobiographical novel, This Sporting Life is a film that keeps telling us how powerful it is but whose power never materializes. It immediately plunges us into a maelstrom of violence on a Yorkshire rugby field; thereafter, Frank, a hospitalized bloodied player, is jabbed by fleeting bits of memory of his recent life. We are thus introduced to his volatile relationship with his landlady, Margaret Hammond, whom he professes to love and whose kitchen table he is prone to assault. Margaret, a widow obsessed with the memory of her dead husband, is also hospitalized eventually, for a brain hemorrhage. Blood flowing becomes a motif as life constantly hovers near death.
Rugby as sport is a means for working-class youth to attain local celebrity and, as Storey and director Lindsay Anderson employ it, a metaphor for the struggle of working-class people to survive. (Previously, Frank had been a coal-miner.) Gerald Weaver owns both the local factory and the rugby team. Margaret’s husband died at the factory; Weaver tells Frank it was a suicide, but we suspect the cover-up of an accident for which Weaver would have had to pay the widow much more than he got away with. Frank’s last name, Machin, suggests “machine”; he also is a tool of Weaver’s, the suggestion being that capitalists exploit workers for their own benefit. Right before Margaret’s expiration at hospital, a spider appears on the wall above her bed: a symbol of this exploitation. Frank punches it.
This is Anderson’s feature debut; the film’s social import is murky and abstract. (Joseph Losey was first approached to direct.) At thirty Richard Harris (best actor, Cannes) seems old to be addressed as “Lad” and monotonously explosive; Rachel Roberts, however, is excellent as Margaret.
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