“Running’s always been a big thing in our family. Especially running away from the police.”
Colin Smith (a young Tom Courtenay) is the epitome of the angry young man and the working class anti-hero. We join Smith as he enters Ruxton Towers Reformatory, a centre for juvenile offenders. His talent for long distance running quickly attracts the attention of the Governor (Michael Redgrave) who sees in Smith an opportunity to beat the local private school in an upcoming sports day. The Governor gives Smith preferential treatment allowing him to practice running and training him “like a greyhound” ready for the big race.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn about the series of unfortunate events that brought Smith to the penitentiary. Growing up in near-poverty in Nottingham, opportunities were simply not there for a bright young man like Smith. He watches his father die young after spending his days working in grimy industrial factories. Smith chooses life, turning down a job at his father’s factory. Smith’s mother wastes no time in moving her “fancy man” into the family home adding to Smith’s frustrations. Bored and aimless, Smith takes up petty crime, stealing cars and breaking into a bakery which leads to his eventual arrest.
The screenplay for The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is by Alan Sillitoe, adapted from his own short story of the same name following the successful adaptation of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.
Though the film is now well over 40 years old, it still holds pertinence for a modern audience. The rehabilitation debate is played out through the opposing approaches of the old-fashioned Governor and the borstal’s young psychiatrist. The Governor believes that discipline, occupation and, above all, sport will mould young offenders into model citizens, but the psychiatrist believes talking and understanding holds the key. For Smith, neither approach cuts it, he rejects all forms of authority and resents becoming the athletic showpiece for the institution. He bides his time before finally taking a stand with a significant and defiant gesture.
Colin Smith is an endlessly fascinating character. Tom Courtenay is perfect in the role, bringing a sinewy and restless quality to Sillitoe’s creation. We see Smith’s embryonic political consciousness begin to develop; he doesn’t yet know what to believe in, he only knows what he doesn’t believe in. In one scene Smith burns some money after seeing the corrupting influence it can have. He finds running therapeutic, allowing him the time and freedom to think and if he keeps on running and running he attains blurry oblivion.
Director Tony Richardson was a key figure in the British New Wave movement (the “it’s-grim-up-north” brigade). Richardson endeavoured to achieve realism in his early films; he used real borstal inmates as extras in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and it gives the film an edge that Hollywood veneer usually irons out.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film depicts the simmering dissatisfaction of the inmates rising as they beat their cutlery rhythmically on the tables, until it spills over into a full-blown riot. Though the film’s depiction of working class hardship and incarceration seems tame by contemporary cinematic standards, it is easy to see how this film whipped up controversy, being condemned as communist propaganda, on its release.
The BFI is re-releasing The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner alongside Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night And Sunday Morning on DVD and Blu-ray in recognition of the importance of the post-war cinematic movement that sought to portray life in Britain in all its unglamorous glory. No escapism here then, but you could always try going for a run instead.
Extras Audio commentary is provided by film historian Robert Murphy, actor Tom Courtenay and writer Alan Sillitoe. Unlike new DVD releases, this commentary has the benefit of hindsight and an awareness of the film’s longevity. For this reason, it is far more interesting than most DVD commentaries and well worth listening to.
Cinematographer Walter Lassally contributes a Video Essay to the DVD extras, describing how certain scenes were shot. Finally, for New Wave buffs, Momma Don’t Allow is included on the disc. Momma Don’t Allow is a short documentary made by Lassally and directors Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz in 1956. It captures the essence of working class youth culture, set primarily in a jazz club.
The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is released on 23rd March.