The 'Loneliness' of the Angry Young Sportsman.
The war between the classes has never been joined in British films as openly as it was this week. In the forties the working class were idiom-talking idiots, loyal or baleful. In the fifties they grew rightly articulate and angry. Now we get what may be the prototype for the sixties: Colin Smith, borstal boy hero of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a youth beyond anger, almost beyond speech, joining battle (cited in Hill, 1986: 213).
So wrote the Sunday Telegraph film critic P. Williams in a review of the Tony Richardson film of aforementioned title upon its British cinema release in September 1962. The film--based on the 1959 novella of same name by Alan Sillitoe (the screenplay for the film version was also written by Sillitoe)--was produced by the independent film company Woodfall, started by Richardson and playwright John Osborne as an avenue for the making of films affording 'artistic control' to directors. According to Richardson, 'It is absolutely vital to get into British films the same sort of impact and sense of life that what you can loosely call the Angry Young Man cult has had in the theatre and literary worlds' (Hill, 1986: 40).
This paper examines The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a key film within the extension of the Angry Young Man 'genre' to British cinema in the early 1960s. Of particular interest is the film's portrayal of the tension between class background and individualistic temperament through sport in both metaphoric and lived institutional contexts. This paper commences with a discussion of Sillitoe's work within the Angry Young Man literary genre before moving on to consider the emergence of Angry Young Men within film, once the novels of Sillitoe and other related writers were translated into screenplays. The paper goes on to consider the rather unique location of sport within the film, and attempts to tease out the implications of the treatment and depiction of sport for relevant discussion of the film by sport and film historians and cultural historians more generally.
Looking back at 'angry young men'
The term Angry Young Man was originally applied to John Osborne, by the English Stage Company publicist George Fearon, following the 1956 stage release of Look Back in Anger (Rebellato, 1999: 116). This was to associate Osborne with the key protagonist in the play, Jimmy Porter, an articulate yet highly disgruntled young man who relentlessly lambastes what he perceives as social hypocrisy in a series of vituperative tirades delivered within his own living room. The term Angry Young Man was subsequently associated with a number of young male writers whose works featured opinionated and sometimes belligerent lead characters. Most of the characters are working class in background and invariably dissatisfied with their lot in life. Some, particularly Joe Lampton in John Braine's Room at the Top, are socially ambitious and seek upward mobility on the British class ladder. Others tend to hyper-frustration and despite possessing facility for sharp criticism are unable to transcend their working class milieu. Such is the case with the characters in Alan Sillitoe's two best-known works Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Arthur Seaton) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Colin Smith).
Although dissatisfied and restless, neither Arthur Seaton nor Colin Smith exhibits the inclination to shake their class moorings. Indeed, they exhibit class fixity balanced in tension between a sense of belonging--a begrudging class loyalty--and a feeling of suffocation. Their escape from the working class is not up the class ladder but an imagined or realised trip to the country or seaside. In the film version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Colin Smith visits the east England coastal town Skegness with his best friend and their recently met girlfriends. The temporary escape by first class rail passage is funded by Colin's share of a small inheritance following his father's death from a work related chronic illness. The return by third class passage, once the money has dwindled, is a stark reminder to Colin of the inferior status of his working-class existence.
Unlike other well-known writers of his generation such as Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe is working class born and bred and, although his success as a writer provided escape from that background, an indelibility of working class consciousness and memory pervades his writing. With regard to imagery, the grey working class suburbs of Sillitoe's native Nottingham provide evocative backdrop to a number of his books and essays, including Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Biographer, Stanley Atherton (1979: 111) suggests that Sillitoe's novels give a kind of auto-ethnographic insight into the hardships of working-class life with which Sillitoe was all too familiar. Sillitoe left school in his early teens and worked in an engineering plant in the same type of machinist job as that performed by Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. In summary of the Angry Young Man novelists, Humphrey Carpenter (2002: 203) contends that the 'brutality' of Seaton makes contemporaneous protagonists such as Joe Lampton (in John Braine's Room at the Top) and Jim Dixon (in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim) 'seem prim and timid by comparison'. Colin Smith is not as brutal a character as Seaton, but like Seaton he displays a seething and ingrained bitterness that prohibits possibility of lifestyle change toward upward mobility.
The Angry Young Man is at best a term of loose application to characterize novelists of a particular time and mood. Cultural historian Robert Hewison (1981: 130) believes the term to be a myth, but even if there was no unity in anger so that we might speak decisively of a school or genre of Angry Young Man works, the term remains undoubtedly useful to ongoing discussion and debate as to which works aspire to this mythical canon. In Representations of Working-Class Life 1957-1964 Stuart Laing (1986) suggests that Sillitoe's characters sit at the end of an Angry Young Man continuum. This is not just because of the sheer angriness expressed by Seaton and Smith, but because of the way in which the anger and resentment of these characters is targeted at post-war cultural change in Britain. This is particularly the case in regard to the conspicuous consumption that emerged in tandem with the arrival of the so-called 'affluent society'--the term coined by economist J.K. Galbraith--of the 1950s. The film versions of the novels, particularly, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, extend this dimension of cultural criticism. In an especially poignant scene Colin Smith burns a bank note that has come from his father's compensation money. This follows a scene where Colin's mother goes on a shopping spree for new household items with the recently acquired payout. While the rest of the family sit gleefully in front of the new television, Colin trudges sulkily back to his bedroom mumbling that he wants no part in this frittering of the tragic inheritance, an amount he believes to be a pittance given his father's years of service to a health injurious occupation.
The 'New Wave': the 'angry young man' on film
The representation of conspicuous consumption in the film version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner expands the level of social criticism beyond the novella, where the reader is restricted to an engagement with Colin's internal monologue. In the film, viewers witness Colin's interactions with a range of characters from his best friend to the governor of the borstal. In so doing, although getting a view of Colin's social world from his perspective, we are also able to see this world through an at once removed sociological lens from which we can place Colin's life into a broader social canvas of the period based on our own imagining. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is often placed with a number of other films of its era--including films based on the Angry Young Man literature--into the category or genre of social realism. Whereas the related writers of the time never formed a dedicated movement, a number of cinematographers of social realist disposition, principally Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, and Karel Reisz joined together in an aesthetic grouping known as Free Cinema (Richards 1997: 148).
The Free Cinema directors adopted a naturalistic and unscripted approach to filmmaking with cameras being taken out on to the streets to capture the feeling of what was going on in neighbourhood life. Free Cinema also involved a geographical shift from the main London-based studios to regional working class locations familiar to directors such as the Yorkshire born Richardson. While the Free Cinema group's most obvious alignment to social realism was with the writers on whose works their films were based, they had affinity with British painters of their generation known as the 'Kitchen Sink school' (this term is often used interchangeably with 'Angry Young Men' [Marwick, 1998: 55]). In less explicit literary connection there is something of the social reportage tradition about the Free Cinema projects. The factory shots in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and the workshop shots in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner suggest a historical connection to Orwell's depiction of exploited labor in the north of England in the 1930s in The Road to Wigan Pier. The Free Cinema ethos also bears relation to contemporaneous academic writing on culture. With the publication of The Uses of Literacy Richard Hoggart (1957) gave a not uncritical view to the cultural pursuits of the British working class in the post-war period. A contention of Hoggart was that the 'candy-floss' culture associated with new media and style copied from American youth threatened the rich yet 'concrete' tradition of working class cultural life in Britain. A similar implied cultural statement occurred in Free cinema films, particularly so in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
In filmic relations the Free Cinema continued the social realism captured in the 1930's documentaries on working class life in Britain by John Grierson (Hill, 1986: 69). Grierson was concerned with film being used as a realistic means to show what was going on in the world from the position and perspective of people in their everyday lives, working lives in particular. His commitment was to represent, as realistically as possible, the routine aspects of working class life, warts and all. Grierson also recognized that documentary making is a creative process, defining documentary as 'the creative treatment of actuality'. The Free Cinema directors, in a sense, operated with inverted ambition. They imposed a representation of social actuality onto their fictional accounts of episodes in working class life. They shared with Grierson a democratic desire to give voice to the majority of people who had historically been written out of British culture. Both Richardson and Lindsay Anderson (director of This Sporting Life) were explicit advocates of the democratic possibilities of film. According to Anderson, the mainstream tradition of British films excluded 'three quarters of the population', this he regarded as a 'ridiculous impoverishment of cinema' as well as a 'flight from contemporary reality' (Hill, 1986: 127-8). Anderson called for films reflecting the everyday activities of ordinary people and a cinema that was relevant to the life experiences of all people. Sounding rather like Grierson, he claimed a shift in filmic tradition to be 'an essential part of the creative life of the community'. Tony Richardson believed similarly that 'films should be an immensely dynamic and potent force within society' (Hill, 1986: 128).
Importantly, though, the aesthetic preoccupation of the Free Cinema directors distanced them from the social documentary tradition. Anderson clarified the difference by re-defining the achievement of the Free Cinema as 'poetic realism'. According to Anderson, 'the best realist art should not remain at the level of mere reportage but should transform its material, into "poetry"' (cited in Hill 1986: 128). The stylistic influence for the poetic transformation was derived from French art-house filmmaking. French 'new wave' techniques such as speeding up of the film, jumbling the chronology of events, and the use of contemporary jazz music were incorporated into Free Cinema films, no more so than in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The chronological sequence is broken down by the imposition of flashback recollections that Colin has while he is in training for the cross-country run. The flashbacks allow view of Colin's life before he was sent to borstal for stealing money from a bakery. In the flashbacks the viewer gets a good glimpse of Colin's home life and the resentment that he builds up following the death of his father. The speed up of film technique is cleverly deployed on a couple of occasions to show Colin's frivolous attitude towards his thievery and to satirize the spending spree on which Colin's mother embarks with the compensation money.
The effectiveness of these techniques owed as much to the camerawork of Walter Lassally as it did to the directorial abilities of Tony Richardson. Lassally, who worked as chief cameraman on a number of Free Cinema productions, was largely responsible for what could be regarded as a 'British wave', British social realism stylized through a French lens. Some critics suggested unease with this cinematic development, a New Statesman commentator declaring in review of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 'you can almost hear the clashing of the new waves, English and French' (cited in Laing, 1986: 129). However, Free Cinema films, including The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, did not attempt to reconcile the respective traditions from which they drew. The tension embedded in the films adds to their appeal and provides the important poetic ingredient. According to Lassally, the 'remarkable thing' about the 'new wave' was not its 'strictly realistic view' nor its treatment of 'working class problems' but its 'very poetic view of them' (cited in Hill, 1986: 129)--a view afforded by innovative filmic technique.
Individualism, collectivism and the sporting trope
Another tension in Free Cinema, one of theme arising from association with the Angry Young Man literature, is between individualism and collectivism. This tension is lived out by the central protagonists and is most keenly witnessed on screen in Sillitoe's anti-heroes, especially Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Smith is undoubtedly a loner, but a loner with strong attachment to his working class background marked in pedigree by his father's reputation as a trade union activist. Colin's individualist spirit and resultant actions in the borstal sit incongruously with the collectivist ideals he constantly and vituperatively espouses. While Colin shows no indication of following his father's example of militant engagement, he is prone to launch into quasi-Marxist tirades, evoking catch-cries such as "united we stand, divided we fall", a seeming indication of paternal inspiration and underlying fraternity with his class cohorts. Atherton (1979: 159) sees Sillitoe's protagonists as placed within a British literary tradition of 'working-class heroes'. For Atherton, these heroes (or anti-hero as is more appropriate in the cases of Seaton and Smith) display two basic attitudes emanating from their working-class habitus. Firstly, 'a strong sense of class solidarity' and, secondly, 'a hostility towards those who are thought to treat the working man unjustly'. In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Colin constantly grizzles against the exploitation of workers by bosses and he associates all forms of authority with exploitative power relations. His grievances against the police officer who eventually arrests him and the governor of the borstal in which he finds himself incarcerated are expressed on this basis. Both of these figures are described by Colin in the novella as "In-law blokes", upholders of the system, who maintain vigilance against "Out-law blokes", the rule breakers such as Colin and his kind (Sillitoe, 1959: 10). Again, though, Colin's highly individualist spirit militates against him forming the fraternal bonds that might facilitate the type of collective engagement that he rhetorically advocates. Colin's fight against systemic injustice is conducted alone and is ultimately doomed to represent little more than an annoyance to and a nose tweak of the officials to whom Colin is institutionally answerable. Sport provides the grounds on which Colin is able to register his symbolic protest.
In his critical biography, Stanley Atherton (1979: 105) remarks on the lack of attention to organised sport in Sillitoe's novels. Atherton suggests that given the undeniable centrality of sport to British working-class cultural life--a centrality recognised by such politically diverse cultural commentators as T.S. Eliot and Raymond Williams (Hughson et al., 2005)-- it would seem appropriate for Sillitoe to have given sport more prominence in the lives of his characters. The best-known novel of the period, and of related Angry Young Man temperament, to incorporate sport into the story line is David Storey's This Sporting Life. This Sporting Life focuses on rugby league player Frank Machin and his difficulty of coming to terms with success in professional sport and the requirement of him to submit to the hypocritical dictates of the wealthy club owner. The novel was converted into a screenplay by Storey and successfully adapted to the screen in 1963 by Lindsey Anderson. Anderson maintained that 'This Sporting Life is not a film about sport ... but a film about a man of extraordinary power and aggressiveness' (cited in Hill, 1986: 216). Be this as it may it would be trite to dismiss the cultural significance of sport to the film given David Storey's own background as a rugby league player.
In contrast to Storey, Sillitoe has no background in sport and in an essay written at the time of the 1972 Olympic Games declared an open hostility to organised sport:
I have never practised any kind of sport. It has always seemed to me that sport only serves to enslave the mind and to enslave the body. It is the main "civilising" weapon of the western world ethos, a way of enforcing collective discipline, which no self respecting savage like myself could ever take to. Society was built on "competition", and "sport" is a preliminary to this society and an accompaniment to it. It is a sort of training ground for entering into the war of life. The Olympic torch is a flame of "enslavement"--run from it as fast as you can, and that in itself will give you plenty of exercise. (Sillitoe, 1975: 84)
Sillitoe thus continues a criticism of sport that resides within English cultural commentary; best known is George Orwell's 1945 essay The Sporting Spirit, which scathingly attacks the link between sport and nationalism as it was taking shape at the dawn of the Cold War era. In his essay, Sillitoe is particularly critical of the International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage for allowing the 1972 Munich Games to continue after the death of Israeli athletes following their being held hostage by Palestinian terrorists. Sillitoe believed that Brundage's decision was indicative of the emptiness of the Olympic ideal in modern times. The continuation of the Games was viewed by Sillitoe as little more than kowtowing to corporate interests that would have lost money had the Games been abandoned. The fallacy of sporting nationalism emerges in the film version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner when the governor suggests to Colin that he might set his sights on becoming an Olympic athlete for Britain. The anti-sport message of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is most apparent in Colin's ultimate rejection to the appeal of national representation through sport. The athletically gifted Colin Smith comes to personify Sillitoe's own anti-sport ethos in the filmic context.
Sillitoe's quasi-Marxist position on class relations also disallows him from a positive reading of sport within British working class culture. In this way he is at odds with cultural commentators of working class origin such as Richard Hoggart who viewed sporting clubs and associations as a means of bolstering waning working community bonds, especially amongst youth. For Sillitoe, sport tends to have a divisive affect upon class relations, particular in regard to fan involvement with professional sports. He loathed what he saw as the fatuous separation of working class people into support of rival soccer teams and the subsequent creation of deeply embedded and long held hostilities along sport supporting axes. For Sillitoe, this type of misplaced cultural affiliation does little more than distract members of the working class from unity in more important purpose against the exploitative nature of the capitalist system. Sport is thus to be resisted within all of its institutional and organisational manifestations, from weekend park competitions to sport within the school curriculum.
The 'rebellion' of the long distance runner
The institutional location of sport within The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is particularly interesting and the rejection of it especially poignant. Sport is used ostensibly in the borstal as the prime means of reforming wayward young working class men to accept appropriate societal goals and to pursue these goals through conventional and acceptable means of attainment, principally hard work. However, as is clearly obvious in the film, sport, in the form of the annual cross-country race against the elite public school, is of more interest to the borstal governor as a means of pursuing his own glory. This is a particularly insidious situation where, in this harsh institutional context, rather than having genuine reformist purpose, sport is deployed as a means of social control over the young inmates and as a means of self-aggrandizement by their chief superintendent.
Colin's rebellion against this institutional manipulation of sport in the borstal is his heroic achievement. In the novella Colin--in internal monologue form--complains of the disciplinary function served by athletics within the borstal. Furthermore, showing insight into the reform uses of sport promulgated by often well meaning social officialdom, Colin ridicules as authoritarian sport being used as a means of diverting delinquent youth from criminal activity (Sillitoe, 1959: 10 and 8). In the film we are able to see from early on Colin's intention to undermine the authority relations in the borstal, and, because of the prominence of sport in the institution and Colin's sporting prowess, sport becomes the means through which Colin can directly challenge the governor. Shortly after Colin's incarceration his sporting potential is recognised by the governor during a training soccer match when Colin intercepts the ball, eludes defenders, and scores a goal. More impressively, Colin goes on to outrun the borstal's leading athlete, Stacey, in a cross-country trial. Colin soon surpasses Stacey as the great hope for the annual race against the visiting lads from the public school. Having caught the governor's eye, Colin is given special privileges and, having shown compliance if not deference, is allowed to leave the borstal confines to undertake unsupervised training runs on the cross-country course. It is during these runs--in the film--that Colin experiences flashback recollection of his life before borstal.
Colin's ascendancy of status within the borstal is mirrored by the equally rapid demise of Stacey from leading athlete and house-captain to recalcitrant and deviant exemplar. Having been replaced by Colin as the governor's 'blue eyed boy', purely on the grounds of sporting ability, Stacey lapses into delinquent behaviour, physically attacking Colin and eventually escaping from the borstal. From this point, Stacey's appearance in the film is reduced to a flashed scene, during musical interlude, showing him being beaten by a warder upon recapture. Subsequent reference is made to Stacey by the governor in an address to the young inmates by way of warning on how not to behave. The sporting metaphor is resplendent. Stacey has gone from 'playing the game' to total rejection and defiance of it. Colin, on the other hand, appears to have completely accepted the game and made the most of the opportunity offered to him by the governor. Colin's rebellious intention is made obvious enough throughout the film as he tells the other boys that he is merely going along with the governor's plan until it suits him. However, the boys' doubts about Colin's true intentions are brought to a head when his old friend from the streets of Nottingham, Mike, is also sent to borstal. Upon being told by the boys around the lunch table of Colin's athletic success and special status afforded by the governor, Mike questions, 'Whose side are you on?'
A viewer watching the film without having first read the book may well ask the same question, as Colin's tough talking words are not conferred in action until the penultimate scene when the annual cross country race takes place. Well ahead in the race by some distance, on approach to the finish line Colin pulls up short and watches with hands on knees as the leading runner from the public school catches him up. As the runner passes by Colin waves him through to the finish line in mock politeness. Despite his rhetoric of class solidarity Colin is no team player in life or sport, his protest in losing the race is a highly individual gesture despite its symbolism of collective action. Such is the contradictory nature of the angry young man. Running is not only a metaphor of Colin's personal solitude as can be supposed from the very title, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, it is also a metaphor of his isolation from his age and class cohorts in whom he can never hold confidence or confer trust despite striking a superficial level of identification. Colin is thus caught in a bind; he is 'on the side' of the other borstal lads even though this can never be expressed or consummated in personal terms. Nevertheless, Colin must ultimately be regarded as a rebel within the institutional context. By throwing the cross-country race he not only refuses to 'play the game', he completely subverts it.
Colin Smith, rebel with a cause?
The very final scene of the film witnesses Colin's punishment by demotion within the borstal to the menial task of assembling gas masks. By turning his back on the opportunity of a successful athletic career, that the cross-country race may have initiated, Colin conforms to the self-fulfilling prophecy that had no doubt been made for him over the years by the authority figures in his life that he so reviles. A sociological means of describing the outcome of Colin's action is through reference to the term 'reproduction' as discussed by Paul Willis in Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids get Working Class Jobs. Willis (1977: 178) discusses how institutional authority relations--pertaining to secondary school in his study--have unintended consequences of reproducing the conditions of social existence they are supposed to overcome. Willis conducted an ethnographic study in the England west midlands industrial town Wolverhampton, tracking the lives of a group of young men he referred to as the 'lads', from their final years at school and into their immediate post-school working lives. The 'lads' were the school tough guys and Willis was interested in how they established an informal oppositional culture within the school aimed at maintaining an institutional rebellion against social conformity, targeted against both teachers and compliant students. Although succeeding in creating their own subcultural environment within the school, with a set of tacit norms to which they subscribed, the 'lads' ended up with poor educational results that destined them to futures in unskilled jobs, such as those in which their fathers' had been employed.
The borstal is a less benign institution than the secondary school and such institutions in the Britain of the 1950s would have been less genuinely reform orientated than the youth remand institutions of current times. The severity of authority in the borstal in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner coerced the young inmates into accepting the disciplinary regime and there was no evidence of an oppositional subculture, although on one occasion a mass revolt broke out in the dining hall stemming from the inmates voicing dissatisfaction with the appalling standard of borstal meals. However, such disruption was highly sporadic and this was apparent enough to the perceptive Colin who decided that any more significant and eventful act of rebellion had to be planned secretly and conducted single-handedly. Colin's deception, appearing to go along with his development as an athletic representative of the borstal before revealing his rebellion in the most telling manner possible ensured not only immediate punishment but likely condemnation to a life of lower working-class drudgery and, perhaps, further episodes of incarceration.
Colin's plight is saddening, but this should not detract from the significance of his protest. Just as Willis registered the 'lads' subcultural actions within the school as resistance, we should do the same for Colin's more individual expression of anti-institutionalism. As the cultural geographer John Bale argues (2003: 169), 'by transgressing the norms of achievement sport and (literally) stepping outside of the sport's space, this [Colin deliberately losing the race] can be read as a form of resistance against the repression of "the system" of both sport and society'. When we consider the increasing metaphorical use of sport as an index of possibility for success in various social quarters, Colin's protest does take on a particular poignancy and relevance in the contemporary context. Colin's story in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner continues to offer a fascinating literary and filmic caveat to the promotion of sport as an overwhelmingly positive socialisation agent--and thus a counter to such continuing representations of sport within popular discourse. The film thus has continuing relevance to academics working with a critical sociology stance on sport.
For some American film critics, writing at the time of the film's release--the film was released in the United States under the title, Rebel with a Cause (Zucker and Babich, 1987: 289)--The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was too overt in its proproletariat pleading (Landy, 2000: 71). However, such criticism appears narrowly conservative and overly wary of a British brand of Marxism creeping into American culture via the cinema. To dismiss the film on these political grounds ignores the dimensions of contemporary social critique that were contained in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner through the linkage of the themes of class, sport, institutionalisation, masculinity and youth angst. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a pioneering film that raised questions in a rather unsettling yet necessary manner. Nationalism--more precisely, anti-nationalism--intersected with each of the themes mentioned above. As discussed earlier, Sillitoe was trenchantly opposed to nationalism and patriotic fervour. This critical sentiment is captured evocatively in the film version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner particularly through the aural juxtaposition of that most English of hymns, 'Jerusalem' (William Blake's 'Preface to Milton' set to music by Hubert Parry), with scenes, of brutality, subservience and hard labour within the borstal (Bowden 1994: 73). Colin's retreat from victory in the cross-country race is an ultimate rejection of the patriotic myth attached to 'Jerusalem'. To win the blue ribbon would have been to endorse the ideology of patriotism that it represented within the official culture of the borstal. Colin had no desire to represent England and the society that he believed had betrayed and imprisoned him (Guttmann, 1978: 155).
Sports historian Allen Guttmann (1978: 156) has claimed that The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a 'fine novel and a magnificent film'. As previously indicated, the film introduces more characters than the novella and contains a number of scenes from Colin's life before he entered borstal shown via flashback through his reminiscences while training on long distance runs. The inclusion of other characters also gives hearing to other voices, as well as the first person narrative of Colin that comes from the novel. Impressively, the film maintains a level of suspense not aroused in the novel. In the novel it is fairly clear early on that Colin intends to throw the cross-country race and upset the borstal governor's plans. However, in the film, although the impression is given that an upset is brewing it is not clear until the finale what course of action Colin will take. To anyone with a modicum of sporting instinct it is difficult to watch Colin pull up short with the finish line clearly within his reach and allow the public school champion to run past him to claim a hollow victory. While not all that surprising, Colin's 'surrender' evokes a discomfiting mixture of condolence and disappointment as the viewer negotiates their own emotional response to his defiant gesture.
In conclusion I would reaffirm the importance of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to film and sport history, as well as to related areas such as sport sociology and cultural studies. Simply put, films might be regarded as historical documents pertaining to sports in two ways: firstly, films which raise issues within their own time reflecting upon the cultural status of sport within society. Secondly, films that attempt a fictionalized account of a particular episode in the history of sport. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner fits into the first of these categories. While set in the English borstal of the 1950s it is intended to have implication for other contemporaneous settings where sport is used in an institutionally pervasive way. Indeed, an explicit swipe is taken at the English public school system when the posh lads from the local public school join the borstal lads in sporting competition. A comedic exchange between the two sets of lads in the dressing room prior to the cross-country race suggests that their respective institutions might not be all that different--variance in accents notwithstanding.
Although a film of its time, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is not a dated film. It holds a position of prominence within an undoubtedly interesting genre of British films that were made at what is arguably the high water mark period of British filmmaking. The film's importance has been recognised by the British Film Institute with its release on DVD in 2003. This is something of a godsend in that grainy and disintegrating video copies can be dispensed with and a renewed enjoyment of Walter Lassally's 'poetry in motion' camerawork can be had. The new DVD package includes a commentary by film historian Robert Murphy and a 'video essay' by Lassally, which are highly informative and useful for teaching purposes. The high quality of acting in the film is still apparent today. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was Tom Courtenay's major film debut--and one of Britain's leading actors of a generation emerged. Courtenay gives an unsettling air of intelligent menace to Colin that manages to arouse both sympathy and scorn in the viewer. Courtenay is entirely successful in providing the 'organizing consciousness' of the film, a key function of the central character in Free Cinema productions (Higson, 1996: 150). The tension between the collective ideal and the individual temperament constantly smoulders within Courtenay's angry young Smith, and sport in both metaphor and institutional province provides avenues of expression and enactment of this tension. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (in both film and literature forms) deserves and has received a wide audience. This is exemplified by the fact that a number of non-English scholars have written about the film (and novella) over the years. The release of the film on DVD should hopefully heighten interest within sport, film, and cultural history, as well as attract the interest of the viewing public more generally.
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University of Otago
John Hughson is Senior Lecturer in the History and Social Theory of Sport and Leisure at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. He is the principal author of The Uses of Sport: A Critical Study (Routledge, 2005), co-author of Confronting Culture: Sociological Vistas(Polity, 2003) and coeditor of The Sociology of Art (Palgrave, 2005). He has published various papers on the aesthetics of sport, especially soccer, and is currently writing a manuscript for a book on the cultural history of sport.
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|Title Annotation:||The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner|
|Publication:||Film & History|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2005|
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