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Film notes on The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.Dir. Tony Richardson
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Former Programming Apprentice, Austin Film Society
“I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ had the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand. The fact is that all of us are cunning, and because of this there’s no love lost between us.”
- “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (short story)
The short story of THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (1962) identifies its “hidden” themes a bit more bluntly than the film adaptation. Told from a first person reflective standpoint, Collin Smith looks back on his days as a younger man in a Borstal (juvenile detention center), resisting authority and making mischief. The governor of the school, a fair and practical man, sees potential in Colin as a cross country runner, and so pushes him to take first place at an upcoming meet. Author Alan Sillitoe writes this in the same stylistic vein as Catcher In The Rye – using grammar as musical notation and occasionally taking advantage of phonetic spelling. Sillitoe’s own translation to the screen obviously required a lot of restraint, relying much more on the filmic qualities of mise-en-scene (everything inside the film frame) and editing to reiterate these ideas through subtleties. The short story renders the reader as a participant in the story, Collin occasionally speaking directly to the reader, “…In-law blokes like you and them, all on the watch for Out-law blokes like me and us – and waiting to ‘phone for the coppers as soon as we make a false move.” Smith assumes that you’re guilty until proven innocent, and will not hasten to speak it to your face. He’s lost faith in society, and yearns to escape it.
Tony Richardson took on the project as director, having spearheaded the “British Kitchen Sink Realism” (also referred to as British New Wave and British Realism) movement alongside Karel Reisz (SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING ) and Lindsay Anderson (THE SPORTING LIFE ). Sillitoe’s story lent itself perfectly to their cause: an angry young man seeking a self-indulgent, almost masochistic, sort of vengeance for the various injustices put upon him by the Borstal and society at large; the only problem being that he is part of that system which pushes him down time and time again, and thus the repression is nearly impossible to escape. The core problems lie in the heavily engrained class system that Britain was built upon, and the social and economic inequalities that this inevitably leads to.
As an Oxford-educated director, who owned a village of 10 houses and eventually moved to LA to live a life of lush glamour, Tony Richardson doesn’t sound like the most ideal candidate to have founded such a movement. But Richardson possessed a calm yet demanding demeanor and had reputable ambition. He formed The English Stage Company at The Royal Court Theater, where his theatrical productions, in collaboration with writer John Osborne, (notably LOOK BACK IN ANGER) became the foundation from which “British Kitchen Sink Realism” was built.
For all of the privileges in Richardson’s life, most of his childhood was spent living atop his father’s pharmacy, cooped up in a small room with his father, brother, two grandmothers, and his mother who had the duty of “incessant preparation for the next meal and the next and the next – work day in, day out, without respite and without end.” His aristocratic roots lie in one of his grandmothers who came more from the northeast where his extended family “had tennis courts and Labrador retrievers and guns.” Richardson visited them every Sunday, “but not too often – as that might be ‘taking advantage.’” Richardson grew up with a taste of both worlds - the exploited and exploiters – but those of the latter would be his ticket to Oxford, The Royal Court Theater, and eventually his friends and collaborators.
In an essay by Tony Richardson entitled, “The Two Worlds of Cinema,” Richardson also acknowledges the two different realms in which films are made: Independent and Hollywood pictures. These two worlds are not so different from the two worlds Richardson grew up in. Woodfall Productions, which Tony Richardson also founded with his first film THE ANGRY SILENCE, worked well outside the bounds of any Hollywood-like environment. Richardson used fresh actors with little experience, real locations when feasible, and small crews. After the success of SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, he went on to direct a film in Hollywood based on a William Faulkner novel entitled SANCTUARY (1961). Richardson reflects on his experiences.
I’m thrilled I went there because I know that I never want to make a film in Hollywood again… When one enters the Hollywood setup, one is always promised the earth, and you think that you can beat them at their own game and that you can handle these people. But you can’t, because the underlining is not big and dramatic. It is not as though there are great issues in which one refuses in a black and white way not to compromise, it’s in every tiny detail that the whole quality of the picture is eroded away leaving nothing.
This passage is, interestingly, a perfect insight into LONELINESS, as Richardson and Colin Smith face very similar problems. When Smith enters the Borstal, he thinks he can “beat them at their own game,” and although he succeeds in creating an impression on his keepers, nothing lasting is achieved. Smith compromises no “great issues” in his thoughts or the way he thinks about the world, but in his plans to escape the system that holds him prisoner, he fails to recognize the little details, and ultimately sinks to the bottom of the Borstal’s world at the conclusion of the film. The only things that keep him going are his ideals, arrogance, and that he’ll one day be released. Richardson, as well, would be released from the clutches of Hollywood, and return to Britain to direct A TASTE OF HONEY (1961), followed by LONELINESS, both directed within the true vein of independent filmmaking.
Italian Neo-Realism, its predecessor from the mid-1940’s, also worked outside of the mainstream, using the same minimalist techniques that Kitchen Sink Dramas used, in an attempt to give voice to the lower-classes. Since these movements hold much in common, Italian Neo-Realism is considered more significant since it was the originator of the form. In addition, The French New Wave was just getting off the ground at the same time as British New Wave. The highly acclaimed films of Truffaut, Godard, and Resnais, tended to overshadow the importance of Kitchen Sink Dramas during that time, and continue to do so today. For these reasons, British Kitchen Sink Realism continues to be a specialized subject, left mainly to academics who lack the critics to translate their texts into readable English for typical moviegoers.
The back story of LONELINESS is told through flashbacks, providing the story of how Colin got pent up in the Borstal, which is rooted in his dysfunctional home life and lower class background. More importantly, the flashbacks give Colin the opportunity to escape and free himself of his present reality. Much of LONELINESS revolves around the idea of freedom, and how one can possibly be - or become - “free” in a society that constantly cannibalizes each other for their capitalist ends. Colin’s mother uses the insurance money from the accidental death of his father to go on a four month shopping spree. The Borstal’s governor uses Colin to win a race against a respected school. Colin even thinks about playing it straight and conforming properly to the Borstal, just so he can be released early. The catch-22s and contradictions of British society (and many other societies) leave very few possibilities for escape. There are a few liberating moments in the film when this seems possible, notably when Colin and his lover go to the beach for an isolated weekend where debauchery is overlooked and there is plenty of room to run around. For the most part, though, all one can do is run. Run away from various problems, for very long distances over an extended period of time.
It is while Smith is running that he has the opportunity to think clearly. He’s so busy thinking that by the time the race is almost over, he has all the energy to blow in the world, because he’s barely realized he’s been running at all. Smith says at the beginning of the film that, “Running’s always been big in my family. Especially from the cops.” But this is the beauty of running in an organized event: it gives each player equal chance in a game with rigid rules. This is not true of, say, Smith’s education, as he can’t learn without the money to buy books, have intelligent professors, and the like. But when Smith says that, “The winning post is no end,” this clearly indicates that he has very little interest in sports. In an exchange between The Governer of the school and the new psychologist, the true nature of the school’s sports program surfaces.
Psychologist: “How do we tackle the basic aggression, which these lads obviously feel?”
Governor: “By channeling it in the right direction.”
Psychologist: “I was just wondering if life isn’t more complicated than a football match.”
The fact that The Governor exploits his students for a personal goal is exactly what makes Colin detest not only him, but most of the world. What makes this worse is that The Governor is, in effect, doing nothing to help them emotionally or psychologically as he is only “channeling” their energy, rather than understanding where their anger comes from.
Tom Courtenay, on the other hand, knows exactly where this anger derives from. Deep down, the Smith on screen holds those same subversive thoughts and fiery hatred as the literary one, but as film can’t express internal thoughts directly in the same way writing can, this has to be expressed through other means. Voice over is one technique, and is utilized to some extent, but it can only be used so much without overshadowing the unique qualities of film. Courtenay’s facial features alone have the ability to express exactly what the short story aimed for and more, with a smirk that hints strongly at contempt and a gaze that penetrates with obviously subdued arrogance, Courtenay transforms the typical “angry young man” into an even more sympathetic antihero. Richard Burton of LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1958) was the archetypal angry young man, Albert Finney came along in SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960), adding a whimsical innocence to the character, and Tom Courtenay just builds upon this character once again with his restraint.
When considering how long this movement was in the making, The Kitchen Sink Dramas seem restrained. The young, the angry, and the impoverished waited impatiently for a voice to popularize their injustices, and British New Wave delivered this lavishly. The tradition of giving a voice to those who need one most has been carried along cinema since the Lumiere Brothers, each generation represented by one movement or another.
Iron Maiden summarizes all of these thoughts and more into their succinct song “The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.” This is, surprisingly, homage to the film.
Iron Maiden is the new Tony Richardson.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
By Iron Maiden
The tough of the track
With the wind
And the rain that’s beating down on your back
Your heart’s beating loud
And goes on getting louder
And goes on even more til the
Sound is ringing in your head
With every step you tread
And every breath you take
Makes you run never stop
Got to win got to run til you drop
Keep the pace hold the race
Your mind is getting clearer
You’re over half way there
But the miles they never seem to end
As if you’re in a dream
Not getting anywhere
It seems so futile
Run on and on
Run on and on
The loneliness of the long distance runner
I’ve got to keep running the course
I’ve got to keep running and win at all costs
I’ve got to keep going be strong
Must be so determined and push myself on
Run over stiles across fields
Turn to look at who’s on your heels
Way ahead of the field
The line is getting nearer but do
You want the glory that goes
You reach the final stretch
Ideals are just a trace
You feel like throwing the race
It’s all so futile
• Claydon, Anna. The Representation of Masculinity in British Cinema of the 1960’s (Edwin Mellen Press Ltd, Lewiston, NY, 2005)
• Geduld, Harry. Film Makers on Film Making (Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1967)
• Mann, William J. Edge of Night: The Life of John Schlesinger (Billboard Books, 2005)
• Richardson, Tony. Long Distance Runner (Woodfall America inc, London, 1993).
• Sillitoe, Alan. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Signet Classics, New York, New York, 1959)