The renowned Irish actor Richard Harris had so many unforgettable screen performances in a long career. From supporting performances in the action/adventure films “The Guns of Navarone” (1961) and “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962) to the star vehicles, like King Arthur in “Camelot” (1967), the Western adventurer, John Morgan in “A Man Called Horse” (1970), the title role as the great British statesman in “Cromwell” (1970), then later, English Bob in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992) and Marcus Aurelius” in “Gladiator” (2002). Yet, to many younger filmgoers, you may only know him as the lovable Professor Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.
Harris’ breakthrough performance, and by far his best screen role, was in a
remarkable low budget British film called “This Sporting Life” (1963) by Lindsay Anderson, a noted documentary filmmaker, who was making his first feature film. This film was based on a popular 1960 novel by David Storey, and this tale concerns Frank Machin (Harris), a Yorkshire coal miner and rough young rugby player, who lives in a small mining town and treats most people with selfish cruel intent. The film is noted for its British working-class realism and dubbed by critics as one of the period’s finest “kitchen sink” dramas.
Even though the film’s rather casual opening at a local rugby match, features realistic almost documentary handheld camera techniques that capture the rough and tumble match, the tale quickly becomes more complex. Without protective pads or headgear, the players’ bodies are quickly bruised and bloodied. The battered Frank is carried off the field with an apparent concussion, which directly leads to a series of stream of consciousness flashbacks of his relationship with Margret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), a local widow and her two young children, Lynda and Ian. Frank has boarded with the Hammonds for the past five months and he holds hopes for a more intimate relationship with the young widow.
From there, additional flashbacks occur after Frank receives oral surgery for broken teeth. These scenes reveal how Frank initially impressed the recruiter and then the owner of the local rugby team Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel) to try out. His aggressive on-field performance wins him a place on the team and a 1,000 pounds signing bonus, with which he immediately buys an expensive new car.
The film’s story becomes a battle of wills; this includes not only Frank’s pursuit of a place on the town’s rugby team but for Margret’s affections. Margret, who only recently lost her husband Eric to a workplace accident, is too vulnerable and unwilling to open her heart to anyone new. At one point they come to a mutual understanding, and he begins acting like a father figure to her two children, then Frank’s inability to accept less than what he desires causes further tensions, which lead to tragic consequences.
Cinematographer Denys Coop effectively captures the gloomy mood of the story with crisp realistic, black and white images of the rustic small town. The several scenes of rugby action come to life with exciting long tracking shots that give you the visceral feel on the tough football action.
As the troubled Frank, Harris is simply impressive–strong and cocky, with his expressive brooding demeanor and strut he looks and acts a lot like a young Marlon Brando. He even effectively sings a song at a local pub, “Here in My Heart”, which reveals other more sensitive aspects of his character.
The sexual tension that develops between Frank and Roberts’ Margret is very believable. In one scene, after a night out with the boys, Frank comes home drunk and quietly asks her, “I’d like it a lot…if you’d let me call you Sunshine, Margret.” But Margret is still too reluctant to accept his advances. Later still Frank reveals to his buddy, “She’s the only thing that makes me feel wanted.” Harris would receive his first best actor Oscar nomination as Frank and he was awarded the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963.
Rachel Roberts’ brooding performance as a slightly older widowed woman is extremely sensitive as she effectively plays a woman very protective of her frail emotions; she too won an Oscar nomination as best actress.
The film also marked the screen debut of a legendary British film actress, Glenda Jackson appears in a group at a Christmas party.
With Harris’s performance as Frank in “This Sporting Life”, he was labeled by some critics as the quintessential “angry young man” of films. Harris, who was also an excellent rugby player in real life, would have pursued that career had an illness in his teen years prevented his participation in the sport.