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LINDSAY ANDERSON’S THIS SPORTING LIFE

October 29, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life
This Sporting Life. 1963. Great Britain. Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris in This Sporting Life. 1963. Great Britain. Directed by Lindsay Anderson

These notes accompany screenings of Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life on October 30 and 31 and November 1.

Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994) directed more than a dozen short films between 1948 and 1959, of which O Dreamland, Thursday’s Children (which received an Oscar), and Every Day Except Christmas are considered classics. During this early period, Anderson created Sequence magazine along with Gavin Lambert, Karel Reisz, and others. (We recently showed Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Lambert’s Another Sky is scheduled for January 8–10. The star of Reisz’s film, Albert Finney, was working on the stage with Anderson, and he likely brought them together.) This group, along with Tony Richardson, calling themselves “Free Cinema,” nudged British film in a new direction, one less classical and class-bound, that is generally referred to as social realism. Up to a point, this paralleled the generally proletarian instincts of the French New Wave, which was surging around the same time. The main impetus of Sequence was a reaction against the tradition of quality English films (Michael Powell, David Lean, Alexander Korda), much as the young critics at Cahiers du Cinéma who soon became directors (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette) were rebelling against postwar French films. Both groups of rebels expressed a strong preference for American films, in Anderson’s case for John Ford. Anderson summed up his personal aesthetic thusly: “I think the most important challenge is to get beyond pure naturalism into poetry.”

Anderson was an army brat born in India with a mostly Scottish background, and Reisz was a Czech refugee. So although they had traditional upper-middle-class British educations (Anderson went to Oxford), there was some sense of being outsiders. Anderson had volunteered for the army during World War II, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had served the Empire. (One of Anderson’s favorite Ford films was the PT-boat epic They Were Expendable.) When I had the privilege of spending time with him around 1980, he was a charming curmudgeon, and I suspect military discipline was not his cup of tea. During this period, Lindsay did research at MoMA’s Film Study Center for the book he was writing on Ford (dedicated to Gavin Lambert, among others). The book is erudite yet cantankerous. Unlike nearly all Fordians, Lindsay (for whom “style is the essence”) had a low opinion of the director’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, opting rather for the unpoetic and marginal Tobacco Road. In the interest of full disclosure I was touched that Lindsay quoted me at some length in my comparison of Ford’s early Just Pals with D. W. Griffith’s rural romances, agreeing with my assertion that Just Pals “exhibits some of the same brilliance at being simultaneously naturalistic and poetic.” In fact, I’m quoted elsewhere, but I’ll spare you that. In any event, Anderson remained devoted to Ford and his circle, using Harry Carey, Jr., in The Whales of August, one of his last and best films, shot on an island in Maine and featuring two great but feuding stars, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis, as feuding sisters.

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life. 1963. Great Britain. Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life. 1963. Great Britain. Directed by Lindsay Anderson

Although he had already appeared in seven films, This Sporting Life enabled Richard Harris to make his mark—his performance won a prize at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar—and establish an estimable career ranging from the barrenness of Antonioni’s The Red Desert to that of Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and from the regality of King Arthur in Joshua Logan’s Camelot to that of Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. David Storey (who would later work with Anderson on In Celebration) based his screenplay on his own novel, and Harris’s Frank Machin is a rugby player as rough off the field as on it. (Harris and Storey were rugby players in real life.) Both Joseph Losey and Karel Reisz had passed on directing the picture—Reisz wound up being the producer—but the team of Storey and Harris lent a sense of authenticity to the milieu that the non-athletic and mild-mannered Anderson could not have mustered on his own. One does, indeed, get the sense that Harris is playing someone close to his own persona. In his diary, Anderson confessed to having had a crush on his star, which, in his mind, endangered his proper level of detachment.

I hope to come back to Anderson and follow his career as it moved toward a more fantastical bent, particularly with the three near-masterpieces he made with Malcolm McDowell, If, O Lucky Man, and Britannia Hospital.

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