Not rated, but it does have some rear nudity and an instance of off camera rape. It's a pretty intense movie, but it is also a British film in 1963. While nothing is glaringly in your face, the content is still pretty intense. It isn't an easy movie to get through. There's rugby related violence in it and some non-rugby related violence...although even that violence has a tertiary relationship to rugby. Still, take from that what you will. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Lindsay Anderson
FILMSTRUCK WAS DYING! I needed to watch everything before it disappeared. Wait? Why am I apologizing? This Sporting Life has always been on my list. But that also kicked my butt into gear and finally got me to watch it. That being said, I just accidentally found it on YouTube and that upsets me a bit. I know it is famous on its own merits, but I really discovered it through my Doctor Who love. William Hartnell, a problematic figure to be sure, made it through this film. Watch An Adventure in Time and Space and this is the movie that put him on the map and made him almost unhirable. He's not huge in this movie, but he's a moderately substantial part. It's weird though. I'm making all these excuse for why I watched this movie is that I can't stand sports. There are some decent sports movies, but I abhor sports. They are the worst. So I have to question if This Sporting Life, despite having the word "sport" embedded in the title, is in the title.
I mean, the short answer is "yeah." The long answer is "no, but..." The movie almost makes sports the antagonist. It is the corrupting factor in the story. That's an oversimplfication because Richard Harris's Frank isn't too healthy of a character to start with. But the narrative really stresses, and part of me thinks this might be unintentional, that sports exacerbate already troubling personality traits. I know that this movie isn't meant to be an anti-sports movie, but I can kind of hold it as such. Frank's life is terrible from the beginning. He's an abusive jerk, but his fame only gives him ephemeral moments of goodness. A lot of this is tied to financial issues that are linked with celebrity. It might be more fair to say that this is a criticism of celebrity, that it doesn't change people in the way that they want to change. It may mask some of the behavioral issues and make them more acceptable, but they are still fundamentally the same person. I have to think of Frank at the beginning. He looks angry as can be at the rugby players. I tried reading up on this and maybe I just misunderstood this. Is he angry at the City team because he thinks that he could do better? I mean, he just picks a fight with the biggest guy there because he can. (The wacky chronology doesn't help me understand that. I'll try to talk about that later.) He then, against all odds, gets a tryout for the team and then plays dirty to impress. He's not a nice guy. If anything, he is all about taking shortcuts. A lot of that comes, again, from his financial situation. He works hard in the coal mines and deems himself worthy of more. That's pretty noble, I guess, but his attitude of entitlement is really bizarre for his character. He has the same degree of entitlement with Rachel Roberts's Margaret. I know that we aren't the first generation to be woke. But we are way more mass woke than we were back in 1963. The message of abuse is pretty palpable in this story.
Every single description of This Sporting Life mentions the phrase "kitchen-sink drama". The abuse element is the kitchen-sink stuff. I always read "kitchen-sink drama" as small world soap opera. But Frank really does gain a bit of celebrity, doesn't he? He is a pretty big fish. At best, you could say that it is a small pond, but that's probably not even that accurate. But the narrative doesn't really lie with "Will Frank succeed in his career and find happiness?" Nah, it's about growth. The movie teases growth within Frank. He's sexually frustrated for the bulk of the movie. Like many males imbued with elements of toxic masculinity, he sees himself as the victim of his relationship with Margaret. Margaret doesn't love him, at least not romantically. Rather, she is in mourning and Frank can't handle that. He takes all of her valid emotions and makes them about him. It's so dark where it goes. I'm not going to talk about that kind of stuff because that is a bit of a surprise for the majority of the film, but be aware that Frank is the sole reason for what happens to Margaret. There's this temptation, and this might be cultural / for the time period, to blame Margaret for some of the things that happen. Margaret is initially introduced as caustic. But I have the vibe that This Sporting Life is aware of the narrative it is portraying. That temptation might ring true for many with the vulnerable male ego. If you aren't watching carefully, Margaret's attitude towards Frank can read as a woman who keeps pushing his buttons. But what she's saying is her true intentions. She wants Frank gone. She is happy that he is nice to her kids, but that doesn't change her feelings for him. She maneuvers this emotional minefield with grace and poise. There's nothing that she can do that would be right, so she does whatever she can to just keep her head above water. And he keeps thinking he gets better. It's all about him and his ego. This Sporting Life, for as much of a melodrama as it is, gets it. Frank keeps destroying and breaking the people he loves. He breaks them like he breaks his teeth. On a lesser extent, you can see this with his relationship with Dad. He's physically violent with him at one point. It's odd to see Dad, who seems genuinely nice throughout the novel, react to pain in a way that is way nicer than I would have been . But there aren't people in his life that he doesn't wreck. It may come from the fact that he needs actual, honest-to-God therapy. But again, this is 21st century blogger talking about this. It doesn't change the fact that the themes in this movie are universal.
The chronology is amazing, but confusing. If you really tried and re-edited this film into a traditional narrative, I'm sure it would be boring as all get out. Okay, that's a bit harsh. The jumping in the timeline does confuse me, especially in reaction to Frank's relationships with others. I don't know who hates him at what moment. I'm ashamed to say that I tried Wikipediaing the plot because I got lost at times. Don't do that. You will easily spoil the ending. Also, the Wikipedia plot makes everything chronological, meaning you won't know what you are spoiling. But Lindsay Anderson did this for a reason. Seeing Frank all over the map creates a real sense of juxtaposition. It shows the mood swings and the tantrums in full scope of what is causing them. Frank becomes this lens for injustice and sadness. I'm not saying that there aren't happy moments in the story. There definitely are. As much as I continue criticizing him and will continue to do so, Anderson and Harris focus on Frank's potential to be a good man. When he is playing with the kids in the stream, there's an honestly vulnerable moment that is positively gorgeous. We root for Frank. We hope that Margaret will love him, but you can't just make someone love someone else. That moment by the creek is a stop on the destination and not the destination in itself and that's an interesting moment to explore. Frank really thinks that he is a good man for a lot of the story and the jump in time really locks that in. At times, he's the most responsible one at the party. But then he's also allowing a woman to attempt to seduce him. He sees himself as deserving of attention, even as he sabotages himself from moment to moment. Really, this movie isn't about sports. This is a story of male entitlement and it isn't me grafting this interpretation onto the film. Yeah, it's a macho film and it probably needs to be macho to reach its audience. But it is also critical of toxic masculinity. I really liked it.
The reason that I wouldn't lump this in with sports films is because the games don't matter. It's about Frank and his various interpretations of success. He's not a good man, despite the fact that he thinks he does. The more successful he is, the more access he has to vice. Sure, he's not a guy who punches strangers for attention. But he is a guy who rapes the woman he loves because she won't love him back. He continually does these terrible things and probably justifies them because he is entitled. It's a really excellent exploration of what men think of themselves. I'm not a self-flagellating male. I think that there are times that I think that I'm justified to stuff because I think I'm a good guy. It's stuff like this that reminds me that I'm not really entitled to all that much. My responsibility is to my fellow men and women. Replace sports with any other successful enterprise and you could tell the same story. But this story is great. Anderson chooses the violence of rugby because of its brutality. There's a shot at the end with Frank covered in mud. If that isn't an image for corruption, I don't know what is.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.