The truly revolutionary films hit you with how ordinary they can seem on first glance. But that’s just how much they changed the cinema that followed. What they did transformed the way people watched, considered and made movies, rendering all that followed some sort of imitation of what they accomplished.
“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” is a drab looking artifact of 1962 Britain, a black and white film of shades of grey telling a penny-plain story of one working class lad’s limited life and the release that running gives him in the Borstal school where “troubled” youth heading towards lives in the criminal classes were kept in line and “reformed.”
It’s got the conventions of “prison” and reform school films — fights, a rigid heirarchy, a mess hall riot and an idealistic psychotherapist who hopes to “help” these boys and the warden (“guvner”) who sees sport as a way out for a “promising” young runner.
The cinematography is stark, with bits of pre-Steadicam hand-held footage — on the run — that call attention to themselves thanks to their gritty shakiness. It’s only shaken out of its ordinariness in its extraordinary, still jolting third act and climax.
But it was a groundbreaking film about the post-war “decline” of Britain and the prospects of working class life in a hidebound, class-organized society, and the generation coming up that wasn’t going to take that, or so they hoped.
Now it’s seen as “angry young men” British film of the French New Wave style, flirting with the fringes of “kitchen sink realism” of British theater and cinema.
But back then it was a looking glass for the United Kingdom, kids growing up in a Cold War that Britain wouldn’t be a chief protatogonist in, no matter what Mr. Bond’s exploits might suggest, a society where money and prospects were limited for everyone but those who’ve always enjoyed them.
Director Tony Richardson and young star Tom Courtenay came over from the English theater to tell this story of a teen, delivered in chains to Ruxton Towers prison-“trade school,” who shows extraordinary talent in sports, especially running.
Michael Redgrave plays “The Govenor,” the warden who sees that talent and envisions reform school “Chariots of Fire” Olympic glory for this model of the English reform school way. Colin lets us see and hear the impertinence that underclass kids like him and The Beatles would make famous.
“Running’s always been a big thing in our family, especially running away from the police.”
The film shows us the drudgery of his fenced-in existence, the freedom he experiences while running to train for their big “sports day” meet with the poshes of Ranley School, a so-called “public school” open only to the wealthy and the elite, kids quite unlike young Colin Smith.
But running also gives Colin the escape of remembering the life he was living and the events that brought him here.
However useless his session with the new school counselor (Alec McCowen) went, we and that psychotherapist picked up on the fact and Colin just lost his father. As the flashbacks make clear, it isn’t grief for lost affection that Colin took from that experience. It’s rage.
His factory laborer Dad, barely glimpsed, fought against “hospitals” and treatment, bedridden at the end. His mother (Avis Brundage) barely cared and had a man lined-up for when the breadwinner and father of three passed.
Colin sullenly accompanies her to collect the death benefit from the factory, and he and his younger siblings go with her as she sees how much of this 500£ windfall she can blow through at once. That new man shows up with the TV she’s bought.
Colin burns the banknote she gives him in silent protest.
In between fights at Ruxton Towers he remembers taking up with his mate Mike (James Bolam), stealing a car for a joyride, double-dating (Topsy Jane, Julia Foster) at a Nottingham pub, taking an excursion to the sea shore, which was at good as it got for kids in his circumstances.
A Tory politician lectures the plebes on the telly, urging them to keep the “faith” in their unjust system. Colin’s brief flash of cash hasn’t blinded him to the inequities that hem him in.
And we see, bit by bit over several flashbacks, the crime Colin and Mike committed and the way they are hassled and targeted by the cops until evidence turns up that jails them.
Many of these memories come up in the reveries of running, all in prep for that coveted race against the rich boys (future star James Fox is their tall, well-bred ideal).
Screenwriter Alan Sillitoe, adapting his own short story, has Colin give voice to generational, economic and existential angst in a few symbolic moments, and just a few flashes of dialogue.
“Do you know what I’d do if I had the whip hand? I’d get all the coppers, governers, posh whores, army officers and members of parliament and I’d stick them up against this wall and let them have it ’cause that’s what they’d like to do to blokes like us.”
Courtenay, in his break-out role, broods and gives-as-good-as-he-gets in brawls, and doesn’t let us see the wheels turning in this despairing, possibly even enraged young man trying to decide whether to fit into the role society has assigned to him (menial work, low pay, patriotic obedience to queen and country, even in sport) or rebel.
Courtenay would go on to a long career that produced a couple of Oscar nominations in films as beloved as “Doctor Zhivago” and “The Dresser,” and delightful turns in the most fun versions of “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Little Dorrit.” He was just in “The Railway Children Return.”
Cinematographer Walter Lassally had a kind of era-defining style that he took to his black and white filming of “Zorba the Greek,” and enjoyed a career that carried him into the Golden Age of posh color period pieces (“The Bostonians”).
And director Tony Richardson had already made “A Taste of Honey” in this “kitchen sink” style. He collected Oscars for producing and directing the bawdy period piece “Tom Jones” and was making layered dramas (“The Border,” “Blue Sky”) and dramedies (“The Hotel New Hampshire”) all the way to the end of his career. His daughter with his then-wife Vanessa Redgrave, the late Natasha Richardson, was a great actress tragically killed in a skiing accident, leaving her husband Liam Neeson widowed.
But the movie that truly put Richardson and Courtenay on the map lives on, especially in the British cinema. Every working class screen tale that followed, every realistic depiction of those on the losing side of the ongoing class war, owes something to “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” a classic that only truly found its audience when critics and scholars realized just how different it was from almost everything that had come before, and how much it impacted so much of the cinema that came after it.
Rating: unrated, violence, smoking
Cast: Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, James Bolam, Alec McCowan, Topsy Jane, Julia Foster, Dervis Ward, James Fox and Michael Redgrave
Credits: Directed by Tony Richardson, scripted by Alan Sillitoe, based on his short story. A on Tubi, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 1:44