Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Loneliness of the long distance runner

“Running has 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."

Colin running on a country road during the film intro.

Loneliness of the long distance runner is a famous British film from 1962 that was well known to me but I had never actually watched. It is adapted from a book by Alan Sillitoe and was Directed by Tony Richardson. It is set in a very bleak Nottingham (English Midlands) and follows the story of a boy named Colin Smith. It's in the tradition of "angry young men" works of the period that all dealt with post war disillusionment and class struggles. The film jumps from Colin's home life to his experience in borstal (juvenile detention center). This is my spoiler allert. If you are so inclined, please go watch the movie and then you can compare notes. Again, I'm not really a movie reviewer, I just capture what strikes me at first pass.

Through the film's constant flashbacks, we slowly pick-up Colin Smith's life story. Colin is played by Tom Courtenay who I remember well from the film Billy Liar. Colin's mother is very hard and very cold. She treats life, her sick husband, Colin and his three young siblings like a burden. We see Colin tuck his father into bed with a hint of love and respect. Later we get the sense that his father was a hard working and upstanding man – a different generation who valued the pride of a hard day's work, regardless of how little pay was involved. I can relate. My grandfather was the same way. He seemed genuinely hurt when society stopped valuing it the same way. Colin doesn't have a lot of respect for the law but at first, his crimes seem innocent enough, like "borrowing" a car to go on a joy ride with his best friend and two girls they pick-up. They all talk about London and getting away from their home town. There is a huge sense of discontentment among these teenagers and in the town in general. Colin puts a portrait of his parents face down on top of the TV. Later, we find out that his mother routinely cheated on his father and that she also constantly berated his him for not bringing home enough money. Colin respects his father but doesn't want his life. When his father finally dies, the family picks up insurance money and his mother immediately begins to spend irresponsibly. Colin starts to think of himself as the "man of the house" and is hostile to his mother's boyfriend. We see the first signs of Colin taking a different path to his father when he refuses to take orders from her. In an act of defiance, he burns some of the money that she gives him. When Colin realizes that he is on his own and that his mother doesn't intend giving him the role of patriarch, he breaks into a bakery with his best friend. They find over 70 pounds in a metal box (maybe as much as $2,500 in today's money). Colin likes to think of himself as cunning. He convinces his friend that they need to sit on the money for a while and stuffs it up the drainpipe of his house. It's a hiding place that immediately seems like a bad idea considering the weather in Britain. The police somehow suspect Colin and it's only a matter of time before the money is washed out at the most inopportune moment.

Ruxton Towers borstal likes to refer to itself as a reformatory. Michael Redgrave plays the Governor who genuinely seems to believe that he can rehabilitate the troubled young men. As soon as the Governor realizes that Colin can run, he becomes a "blue eyed boy." A boy named Stacy who was the former long distance champion is so frustrated by Colin that he absconds and is severely dealt with making Colin the "daddy" or alpha. Colin convinces his friends that he is playing the Governor but he becomes torn because he likes the perks and trust. You get a sense that he may even be starting to believe that he is destined for better things. A seminal moment in the movie is when the Governor starts to allow Colin to run long distance alone. He is clearly elated with the freedom. You start to suspect that he may actually enjoy running rather than believing that he runs to escape life or to get perks.
Colin running alone in the morning

There are many running sequences at this point of the film and initially, the focus is all on the sky which gives a sense of openness and freedom. You find yourself getting a little nervous during these moments because you don't want Colin to do something stupid and jeopardize his standing. The Governor starts talking to Colin about the potential for him to run in the Olympics in future but in the near term, he wants him to run in a race against a neighboring public school. It's the Governor's big chance to show people that he is making strides at Ruxton. 

Colin takes a breather in the woods and stares at the sky

You start to forget all about Colin's cunning ways. You forget that he set out to con the "screws" (guards). You start to believe that he is reforming until his best friend ends up at Ruxton and questions his character. The other boys are not interested in Colin's potential. They view racing for the Governor as betraying your class and validate a system that they believe to be failing them. The day of the five mile cross country race, Colin seems cool and calm. He even acts like a gentleman and exchanges well wishes with his opponent. During the race Colin catches the lead runner from the public school but as soon as he does, all the positive and negative influences of his life flood his head. As he builds up a strong lead, the negative thoughts prevail and you get to see scenes of Colin looking at his dead father for the first time. Unlike his father, Colin is not going to bend to the system. He stops just short of the line and allows the public school runner to win. The Governor is obviously bitterly disappointed. The film ends quickly with Colin working with the other boys in the borstal with no privileges. 

Colin allowing his opponent to win the race

It's a sad movie. On one hand there is disillusionment played out with defiance against the "proper" British upper class establishment. On the other hand, there is something very destructive and defeatist about it. There is pride in defiance but it comes at a bitter cost. Colin seems to have always hated his life. He talks to his girlfriend on the beach about trying to run away when he was a kid and always failing. You get the sense that Colin has learned that no matter how far or how hard you run, you can't stop being who you are. It's a shame. You really want the best for him. You desperately want to see him break through.

Some thoughts I had as I watched:
  • I’m curious to know what people really thought of long distance running in the early 60’s. Did they think it was bonkers?
  • The opening sequence is an instrumental of Jerusalem. The same stirring hymn plays on Chariots of Fire too. Later in the film, the boys in borstal sing it during an entertainment evening although they sing it like they are watching a soccer game. The film returns to it once more at the end.
  • I spotted a young Bernard Cribbins as one of the boys on the bus going to borstal. He is a much loved British actor.
  • Colin’s best friend is James Bolam. He was in a very famous TV series called The Likely Lads when I was young.
  • Arthur Mullard plays the second in command at the borstal. You may recognize him as the frightening man who gets a haircut by Mr. Pots at the fairground in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
  • It’s so funny to see things that may have a different connotation than they did when the film was released. There are inmates wrestling topless in their pajamas and the alpha dog is known as “daddy”.
  • It’s interesting to see how subordinates at work acted toward their boss in those days. There would have been class distinctions between the management ranks of course.
  • It was interesting to see the boys dismantling war-time gas masks as a part of their rehabilitation. It's a real statement about the change from war-time pride to post-war disillusionment.
  • It was funny to hear the boys at the borstal talk about eating horse meat. I know horse meat was eaten in the North of England before the war and maybe even after the war when there was a meat shortage. I’m thinking that prison inmates may have eaten the lion’s share of it.
  • Mr. Roach, the Physical education instructor at Ruxton seemed familiar. Wikipedia tells me that his is Joe Robinson, a well known British wrestler who has been in The Saint, The Avengers and numerous James Bond movies.
  • The concert scene is hilarouous. Fancy giving borstal boys a bird imitator and an elderly operatic couple as entertainment. You are asking for trouble!
  • The white public school track suits are ridiculous. 
“I’ve been learning a lot lately. Trouble is, I’m not quite sure what I’ve been learning.” – Colin Smith

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