This Sporting Life revisited: Richard Harris on his finest film

Director Lindsay Anderson’s obsession with the actor helps to explain the film’s enduring power

Richard Harris would always remember Mutiny on the Bounty as the film before which his mother died, and during which his dad died. He also remembered it as the time he met Lindsay Anderson. This meeting led to what many regard as Harris’s finest film, This Sporting Life.

Documentary filmmaker and figurehead of the Free Cinema movement in the UK, Lindsay Anderson saw Richard in the London production of The Ginger Man in 1959. ‘He gave a superb performance, a much more striking thing than he ever had a chance to do on screen,’ Anderson said. Then, in 1960, he saw in The Sunday Times a news snippet about an upcoming novel by David Storey called This Sporting Life. It told the tale of a rugby team in the north of England. Anderson was intrigued, pre-ordered the book, read it, and was particularly fascinated by its leading male character Arthur Machin. Three years later, a month before the movie was released, Lindsay published in Films and Filming an article in which he described what initially attracted him to Machin, whose name had been changed to Frank, for the movie, at Richard’s request.

‘Frank Machin was immediately striking, with an ambiguity of nature, half overbearing, half acutely sensitive, that fascinated me without being fully aware that I understood him. The same was true of his tortured, impossible affair with the woman in the story.’

That is a relatively accurate description of the character created by the novelist David Storey, who also wrote the screenplay. However, Anderson could likewise have been describing Harris, who he also tellingly remembered as ‘striking’ in The Ginger Man, and their ‘tortured impossible’ relationship, whether one wants to call it an ‘affair’ or not. A love affair with Richard Harris certainly is what Lindsay Anderson, who was homosexual, longed for.

That said, there are opposing views on whether Anderson was sexually active. In the Independent in 2006, Geoffrey McNab said Lindsay’s friend, novelist, critic, screenwriter, and biographer, Gavin Lambert, described Anderson as ‘a repressed homosexual’ who ‘fetishised the male body on film’. In the same article, Malcolm McDowell described him as a ‘celibate homosexual’ who ‘always fell in love with his leading man’ and would ‘pick someone unattainable because he was heterosexual’. McDowell then categorically states that Anderson was ‘in love with Richard Harris’.

However, this was not widely known during Anderson’s lifetime. He died in 1994. I certainly didn’t know he was gay, actively or otherwise, and in love with Harris. Consequentially, I never raised the subject with Richard. Nor, strangely enough, did Harris ever raise the matter with me. Although now that I know about their ‘tortured’ love affair, physicalised or otherwise, I have a deeper understanding of something Harris said casually to me in 1993. ‘I treated Lindsay appallingly when we worked together on This Sporting Life and afterwards. I still sometimes call him up and apologise for that. I behaved like a bastard.’

During that chat, Harris spoke about his joy when Anderson first contacted him in Tahiti.

‘I remember he sent me This Sporting Life novel and a script, and both were exactly what I needed to read because, by that stage, working on Mutiny on the Bounty had become totally soul-destroying. Not only that, I was drinking way too much, and the problems in my marriage were getting worse. But after reading David Storey’s novel and getting excited by that, I read the script and knew it was too far removed from the source. They had even cut the f***ing flashback, which, if you remember, was essential in the novel.’

Meanwhile, Anderson, tired of waiting for a response from Richard, phoned from London to ask him what he thought of the project. Harris suggested he hop on a plane and fly 12,000 miles to Tahiti so they could chat about it.

“There are many images connected with This Sporting Life which will not soon be erased from my memory,” Anderson wrote. “One of the most cherished is of being met at 5 o’clock in the morning at Tahiti airport by Richard Harris, his 18th-century seaman’s hair down to his shoulders, bursting to tell me what he thought of the script we had sent him. Within ten minutes, we were at it. We talked and argued right through the day. It was Richard who brought us back to the book. In the evenings, after his shooting on the Bounty, we sat in his bungalow going through the script and his own heavily annotated copy of the novel until either he or I would drop off to sleep. Slowly a conception emerged which began to satisfy us.’

In Hellraisers, Robert Sellers’ book, David Storey claims that ‘one of cinema’s most bizarre partnerships’ was based on ‘Richard’s Celtic bravado and wildness and Lindsay’s homosexuality, which he never really came to terms with’. Sellers also says, ‘Harris exploited the situation mercilessly. As filming began, he quickly became a “master” to Anderson’s “slave,” resorting even to physical violence to show him who was boss. It was a masochistic relationship that exploded and went over the edge several times.’

Cliff Goodwin, in his Harris biography, Behaving Badly, tells a similar story.

‘On set, Harris would suddenly turn on Anderson. “Stop smiling,” he would say through clenched teeth.” “I’ll smile if I wish to.” “You’ll smile when I tell you to,” Harris ordered, delivering a hefty punch to Anderson’s upper arm. The director admitted there was a “strange sadomasochistic element to our relationship.”’

Richard, in Actor by Accident, Gus Smith’s biography, is quoted as saying that when he first read This Sporting Life, he decided, ‘sexual dominance was Frank Machin’s controlling weapon in his relationship with his mistress, Mrs Hammond.’ One suspects he decided something similar in relation to Anderson the first time they met in Tahiti. Gavin Lambert even suggests that vis-à-vis the film, Anderson became Margaret Hammond. In his book, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, he says, ‘one result of the combination of temperaments was that in Lindsay’s case, This Sporting Life became indirectly autobiographical’ and that ‘because of his infatuation with Richard Harris, in effect, he was Mrs Hammond in the film.’

Lindsay Anderson Dairies, published in 2005, adds another layer to this labyrinthine tale. In one diary entry, after noting ‘the most striking feature of it all has been the splendour and misery of my working relationship with Richard,’ Anderson describes how overwhelming Harris was.

‘Richard is a personality too big for me to cope with. Emotionally, his warmth and wilfulness can sabotage me in a moment. And, of course, instinctively, he knows this and exploits it. I ought to be calm and detached with him. Instead, I am impulsive, affectionate, infinitely susceptible … We embrace and fight like lovers. His mixture of tenderness and sympathy with violence and cruelty is astonishing … Harris was so attractive that I found I responded to him with a wholeheartedness that made me tremble.’

But at times, the gay subtexts in This Sporting Life nearly fracture the film’s narrative. They were part of Storey’s novel, and the subject of a power struggle in a gay relationship was one he subsequently explored in his book Radcliffe. However, Anderson seemed hell-bent on celebrating as loudly as possible in the film the love that dared not speak its name.

For example, before filming began, British film censor, John Trevelyan, had said ‘full nude back shots’ should be ‘few and discreet with its scenes of men in showers and changing rooms’. They are few. But they are not discreet. Five minutes into the film, we see three nude rugby players gayly cavorting in a communal bath, and one falls gleefully onto the back of another rugby player. Later, during the movie, when Machin and another character, Maurice, are cavorting nude in the same bath, someone shouts, ‘Come out of there, you two fairies!’ And Frank Machin teasingly shouts back, ‘Come in here and show us what you have!’

Subtle, it ain’t. Similarly, near the start of the film, Weaver, one of the rugby team’s board of directors, says to an elderly character, Johnson, referring to Machin, ‘What about your dog?’ In modern parlance, he would say, ‘’How’s your bitch?’ Then, Mrs Hammond says, disapprovingly, to Machin, about Johnson, clearly a closet homosexual, ‘he ogles, looks at you like a girl’ and suggests he ‘excites’ him. In another scene, Weaver – about whom his wife says ‘he keeps all his proteges for himself’ – while driving Machin home puts his hand on the player’s knee, indicating that a sexual favour is expected in return for signing him to the team.

Also, some commentators see in Machin, as played by Harris, sexual ambiguity. Sukhdev Sandhu, writing in The Guardian in 2009, says Harris plays the role as if Machin is unsure about his sexuality. ‘Harris is magnificent in the lead role: a drink toting alpha male who dominated the rugby field but who, with his monkish hair and feminine eyelashes, seems less assured in other settings.’ The same year, another Guardian critic, Peter Bradshaw, wrote, ‘the 33-year-old Harris is given a light pancake make-up for his interior scenes, presumably to make him look younger and more boyish, but it actually gives his performance a weird expressionistic intensity.’ It does. But as with Marlon Brando’s not-so-light pancake make-up in On the Waterfront, it also heightens Harris’s feminine side.

As for Lambert’s assertion that Anderson fetishised the male body in films, there are so many lingering, languorous body shots and close-ups of Richard in This Sporting Life that the movie could have been called From Lindsay With Love and had a theme song sung by Matt Monro. That certainly would have worked a treat in the trailer, which opens with a line from Marc Antony’s speech about Julius Caesar, ‘This was a man’, followed by a line Lindsay Anderson may have written, ‘and what a man!’ Then Harris appears nude in a shower.

But there was a serious downside to all this man-to-man stuff. In Anderson’s description of his initial response to the novel This Sporting Life, he doesn’t even name ‘the woman’ in the story, Margaret Hammond. And he reduces their affair to only what it told him about Machin. Thankfully, while making the movie, Anderson did not make the mistake of similarly marginalising the woman’s role.

But in the trailer, Hammond, played by Rachel Roberts, who was far better known than Richard Harris and deservedly won widespread acclaim for her magnificent performance in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is heinously misrepresented. She doesn’t appear until halfway through the trailer when we see her snarling and hear the narrator say, ‘Rachel Roberts as Margaret Hammond, savagely embittered by life, returned his love with a burning, passionate hate.’ This is not true of the novel. Nor is it true to the film. It is misogyny; another woman being reduced to the role of a shrew. But more objectionable is the fact that the trailer ends with a close-up of Hammond’s face after Machin drags her onto a bed during the so-called ‘rape scene’.

Likewise, even though the relationship between Hammond and Machin is central to the novel This Sporting Life, Rachel Roberts does not appear on the cover of the Corgi paperback reprinted to coincide with the movie’s release. Only Harris does. She fared little better in the advertising for the film. For example, Harris’s image dominates the quad movie posters for This Sporting Life, and Roberts is reduced to a subsidiary position.

But thankfully, as I say, Anderson made no such mistake while making the film. He recognised from the start and eventually said, in that Films and Filming article, that Rachel Roberts was an actor ‘of exceptional “interior” quality, with real wildness within, and the capacity for an iron restraint.’ Likely, Richard Harris, fully aware of the power of Rachel Roberts as an actor, raised the bar in terms of his acting to match ‘the woman’.

And even though he may have decided that sexual dominance was Machin’s ‘controlling weapon’ over Hammond, in some scenes, all Roberts has to do is glance at Harris to reduce his macho posturing to the child-like soul cry it is. The scene in which she asserts to a definitive degree her position of primacy in this sexual power play occurs on Christmas Eve. Frank Machin stumbles home drunk, and, like a child who is afraid to sleep alone, he pleads with her, ‘Why don’t you come to bed with me?’ She says, ‘But only for tonight.’

The movie’s ‘rape scene’ is harder to read in a linear fashion. The censor had warned, ‘we would not want to see him moving his hands over Mrs Hammond, bearing down on her and laying on top of her.’ So, instead, we see Machin drag Hammond onto a bed; she says, ‘No, Frank, no,’ slaps him and looks at him with such disgust it makes him draw back. But when Hammond’s daughter knocks on the closed bedroom door, she shouts, ‘Go away, Lyn,’ and after the child leaves, Hammond turns to Machin and says, ‘You’re a man, a bleedin’ man’ and they have sex. In the novel, the door is open, and the child sees what is happening and asks, ‘Are you fighting, mam?’ She is told, ‘Go away Lyn; we’re only having a game.’

Both representations of this scene come perilously close to perpetuating the lie that all women secretly long to be raped. But Hammond’s line, ‘You’re a man’, followed by the angry phrase, ‘a bleedin’ man’, as delivered by Roberts in a staggering moment of internalised acting, suggests that she is at war with herself and decides, after years of loveless and sexless living since her husband’s suicide, to use Machin. Maybe he could have been any man. Or any woman. And later, during the bedroom scene, stereotypical sex roles are reversed. Machin asks Hammond why she never talks to him after sex. The way Roberts plays the scene, she looks as though she is thinking, ‘because I want to f*** you, not talk’.

And her character remains in control. After Margaret Hammond throws Frank Machin out of her home, we see him in a doss house, curled in a foetal position. In such scenes, Harris is at his best. His pained expressions are pitch-perfect. He has finally mastered the art of putting on film a visual representation of the pained poetry he had been writing since he was nine. There isn’t one scene in this movie, apart from an ill-tuned and dramaturgically irrelevant sequence in a restaurant, where Harris’s acting isn’t masterfully precise in a poetic sense.

One could also say that the scenes between Harris and Roberts, particularly the last scenes, shot in the kitchen, are some of the finest either actor ever committed to celluloid. It is as though both male/female forces are two sides of the same psychic wound, hurling out harrowing emotional truths, and the camera happens to be there to capture it on film. As actors, they are sublime. In the movie’s most gut-wrenching scene, when Machin shouts, ‘I need you,’ and Hammond yells back, ‘I want you to go,’ which triggers the brain haemorrhage that kills her, we enter the realm of gothic tragedy. The emotional power of that scene is chilling.

And if This Sporting Life is a cinematic masterpiece, which it undoubtedly is, Lindsay Anderson deserves no less praise. The poetry in his soul is evident in nearly every frame. This is not only one of the best British movies made in the 1960s, it is one of the best British movies ever made. It stands up to repeated viewings and throws out new truths every time. If that is not the definition of a timeless work of art, what is?

Richard Harris also regarded his performance in This Sporting Life as one of the best he ever gave in a film. But I never thought to ask him if he, with or without the help of Anderson, wrote the film’s final scene. It is not in the novel. We see Frank Machin, no longer a rugby hero, walking out alone onto a grim, grey football pitch, heading towards his team, playing in the distance. His jersey number is 13. Our last image is Machin fading out of sight.

After all, Richard hated the idea that he might be ordinary, just another face in the crowd, a nameless nobody. That, right or wrong, is the role Harris believed he played in his family. So, he had to see himself as extraordinary, not ordinary. This may be why, 15 minutes into our first interview, he felt it necessary to point out to me how wrong I was to suggest that Machin was easy to identify with because he reminded me of some guy who lived down my street and played rugby. I was wrong. Harris was right.

R: There is something missing in what you say. You say you can relate to him as a guy playing for the pub or the local team or whatever. But the character of Frank Machin in This Sporting Life wasn’t obviously normal. There were 13 other guys in that team in the movie, and their lives were quite strained normalcy. His wasn’t. He wasn’t common. By ‘common’, I don’t mean his nature and manners. He wasn’t ordinary at all. He was extraordinary. And the guy in Room at the Top was extraordinary. So was the character Albert Finney played in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He came from an ordinary background. So did Frank Machin. He was placed in an ordinary setting by David Storey or whoever wrote those novels, but such characters never were just ordinary. And when I played Machin, I perceived, and I played, the character as extraordinary in an ordinary setting.

‘The eye sees not itself but by reflection,’ said Shakespeare. And I suspect that Richard Harris saw more of himself in Frank Machin than he cared to admit, maybe even to himself.

This is an edited extract from Joe Jackson’s book, Richard Harris: Raising Hell and Reaching for Heaven.

Source: This Sporting Life revisited: Richard Harris on his finest film

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