Ranking: #43/111

Director: Lindsay Anderson (Britain)

Genre: Film Noir Social Drama/Romance

In one of the finest sports dramas of all time, and in perhaps the highpoint of the British New Wave in cinema, Lindsay Anderson has created a masterpiece of dark, social realism. A very intense and difficult love relationship underpins the main plot of the movie, overlaid by the portrait of a brutal sport which becomes a microcosm for British society in the early 1960s. It’s an uncompromising story, with tragic overtones, which conveys a bitter critique of society.

Frank Machin is a rising Rugby League player, who is tough, but tender-hearted working-class man. He is powerfully portrayed by Richard Harris as an awkward, gentle giant figure who doesn’t know how to express love.

Machin is shown to be out of his emotional depth when he falls in love with his landlady, Mrs Hammond, who has been recently widowed (she still polishes the boots of her deceased husband). He doesn’t know how to handle the rage within him because he doesn’t have the insight to understand that it is really the structures of a cut-throat society which have made him the way he is. For example, in the humiliating episode where he behaves boorishly in the restaurant trying to impress Mrs Hammond, he shows what a social misfit he really is, being uneducated and unschooled in social graces (“You’re a great ape on a football field”).

Towering five-star performances from both Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, as Mrs Hammond, ensure that the gritty script is turned into a searing, love story.

Filmed on location in the mining town of Wakefield, Yorkshire, Anderson uses stark black-and-white tones to great effect, creating a bleak, grey-skied urban setting for his social tragedy with its “kitchen sink” realism. A vaguely oppressive atmosphere prevails throughout. This is, after all, a psychologically rich social drama, as well as a hard-hitting criticism of a “dog eat dog” society.

The sport of rugby league (“It’s a rough game”) becomes a metaphor for Social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest in something approaching a class war. Raw competitiveness is the name of the game, both in the sport and in the wider society. And the class structure is made very clear – the club owners and management make the decisions and the players are little more than pawns in the games the management class play with their work force. The club owners play “God” with Frank; he is expendable to them.

Despite their difficult love-hate relationship, Frank admits that Mrs Hammond is the only person who “made me feel wanted”.  

When she dies of a brain haemorrhage, he loses the only person he has ever really loved.

This Sporting Life is an uncompromising work of film art, one of the greatest British films and one of the most poignant love stories in cinema.