“Running’s always been a big thing in our family — especially running away from the police. It’s hard to understand. All I know is that you’ve got to run, run without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post’s no end, even though barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of the long distance runner feels like.”
Like so many characters in British films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), the protagonist of 1962’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, can be succinctly described as an angry young man. After being arrested for stealing money from a bakery, Colin is sent to Ruxton Towers, a reform school. Even as he travels there in the back of a van with some of his fellow juvenile offenders, all of them handcuffed, his grimness sets him apart from the rest. “Miserable sort of bloke, i’n’t he?” one of the others remarks.
Soon, however, something else sets Colin apart: his athletic prowess. He initially catches the eye of the Governor (Michael Redgrave), the man in charge of the school, when he scores a goal during a soccer game, but his real talent is for running. As it happens, this suits the Governor’s plans perfectly. For the first time, Ruxton Towers is set to compete against a public school, Ranley, on its sports day, and the Governor is determined to win the cross country race and the special challenge cup that goes with it. Not only does he consider it a great honor to be associated with such a prestigious institution, but he also believes that athletics can and should play a key role in turning delinquents into upstanding citizens. He even uses sports metaphors when he first addresses Colin and the other newcomers: “If you’ll play ball with us, we’ll play ball with you. We want you to work hard and play hard. Good athletics, sports, interhouse competition — we believe in all that.” Recently hired housemaster Mr. Brown (Alec McCowen), a younger man, is skeptical, and he asks the Governor how they should deal with the boys’ obvious aggression. “By channeling it in the right direction,” the Governor replies with a touch of self-satisfaction, then turns his attention back to the game going on below. “I was just wondering whether life wasn’t a little more complicated than a football match,” says Brown.
Instead of athletics, Brown prefers to use psychology to get through to the boys in his charge, though Colin, at least, is resistant. When Brown gives him a word association test, Colin argues that he can’t see the point of it. His answers are intentionally opaque and unhelpful (“Car.” “Crumpet.”) until Brown says, “Father.” “Dead,” Colin replies. Pressed for details, he reveals that his father just died “the other week” and, moreover, that his mother wasn’t particularly upset about it. Although an embarrassed Brown drops the subject after hearing that, the movie proceeds to show Colin’s former life in Nottingham, alternating between these flashbacks and present-day scenes at Ruxton.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was directed by Tony Richardson and based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe, who also wrote the screenplay. Sillitoe was part of a group of post-World War II British writers known as the Angry Young Men, whose work often dealt with the frustrations of the working class. Many of these “kitchen sink dramas,” whether plays, novels or short stories, were adapted for the screen as part of the British New Wave movement, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a typical example. (This is true on a stylistic level as well as a thematic one. The film features a number of experimental touches, such as fast motion and jump cuts, that seem gratuitous at best; fortunately, these techniques are used infrequently and briefly.)
As the flashbacks illustrate, Colin’s delinquency and hostility — toward the world at large and authority figures in particular — are the natural results of his hardscrabble upbringing. Having watched his father work himself to death for a mere £9 a week, he’s come to the conclusion that something is seriously amiss with the way the system is arranged. “It’s not that I don’t like work,” he tells his girlfriend, Audrey (Topsy Jane). “It’s that I don’t like the idea of slaving me good self so the bosses can get all the profit. It seems all wrong to me. My old man used to say that the workers should get the profits.” He notes, too, that his parents had constant, vicious arguments, mostly about their financial difficulties: “Dad threatening to bash Mum’s face in because she was doing it on him with other blokes, Mum cursing Dad for not bringing enough money into the house.” It’s not surprising, then, that Mrs. Smith (Avis Bunnage) wastes no time in taking up with another man after her husband’s death, but Colin resents her for it all the same. He also disapproves of the lavish way she spends the £500 insurance payout, blithely buying presents for his younger siblings, new furnishings, a television, a fur coat; it’s as if she’s been waiting for this day her entire life. When she gives Colin a share of the money, he expresses his distaste by setting one of the pound notes on fire and watching it burn.
Trapped between an unhappy home and an unfair world, Colin fights back. His acts of rebellion are relatively mild, even harmless in some cases — mocking an out-of-touch politician’s televised speech, stealing an unlocked car for a joyride — but nonetheless, they indicate that he takes pleasure in breaking the rules, in acting out against the injustice he sees all around him. He maintains this attitude at Ruxton, in sharp contrast to another young man there, Stacy (Philip Martin). The leader of one of the houses, Stacy has determined that obedience will both benefit him and set him free, as he explains to Colin and the other new boys:
Stacy: You’ll find it pays to play the Governor’s game here. All of us is graded, and you don’t get out ’til you make top grade. I’m not taking any risks or losing any privileges ’cause one of you bleeders kicks up a stink and gives the house a bad name. And always remember, they’ve got the whip hand.
Colin: Do you know what I’d do if I had the whip hand? I’d get all the coppers, governors, posh whores, army officers and Members of Parliament and stick ’em up against this wall and let ’em have it, because that’s what they’d like to do to blokes like us.
Stacy: Well, you’ll learn.
Colin: We’ll see.
Stacy also happens to be the school’s star runner, but once Colin arrives and usurps this role, he discovers just how fragile his privileged position is. Playing along with the Governor’s rules, it seems, is no guarantee of success.
Meanwhile, without any great effort on his part, Colin finds himself receiving special treatment. The Governor speaks of the Olympics, of a great future as a professional athlete. Colin and the other boys joke about it, but they’re clearly bewitched by the idea. They talk about his retiring with an old age pension at thirty-two, buying Jaguars and getting mobbed in the street. Only Mike (James Bolam), Colin’s old friend from Nottingham who’s newly arrived at Ruxton, is unimpressed. “Whose bloody side are you on all of a sudden?” he asks, to which another inmate replies, “He’s the Governor’s blue-eyed boy now.” Running is supposed to be an individual sport, even a means of liberation, but in Colin’s case, it threatens to entrench him in a system that he despises.
This post is part of the Athletes in Film Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Wide Screen World. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.