Richard Harris (The Guns of Navarone (1961)) stars as ex-coal miner Frank Machin in this black and white British sports movie based on the novel by David Storey and directed by Lindsay Anderson. Machin lodges with the widow, Mrs Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), and her two young children. Her husband was killed in an industrial accident working for a company owned by Gerald Weaver (Alan Badel), the owner of the local rugby league club. The club's scout, Mr Johnson (William Hartnell), whom Machin confusingly calls "Dad", negotiates a trial for Machin, who impresses the club's management in his first match with his aggression and determination. He is signed as a professional rugby league player and soon becomes a star of the team.
Machin continues to lodge with Margaret Hammond, despite the fact that he could afford better with the money he is earning. She reacts coldly to his clumsy advances and still polishes the boots of her dead husband. Machin falls out of favour with Weaver because he has caught the attention of his wife.
Most of the plot is told in flashbacks from Machin's point of view. The rugby league action is at times overly choreographed, but at other times impressively realistic (many of the players were real-life professionals from Wakefield). One sequence is filmed in front of a large, spectacular crowd, filling a real stadium, which, had the film been made today, would have been pasted in with CGI.
Harris has an impressive bulk. He looms above the camera in Mrs Hammond's poky little house. He is a brute but despite his protective arrogance he does have a gentler, more appealing side to his character, such as when he takes Mrs Hammond and her kids out for a drive in his new Bentley and plays football with the children like a father. Roberts is brilliant in her role as the widow with the stiff upper lip.
Some of the intricate relationships between the characters take a while to figure out, but Anderson relies on the intelligence of his audience rather than patronizing them with telegraphs. It keeps one interested anyway. Although it's a sports movie, there is actually very little on-the-field action, which is probably just as well. It does look and feel a little dated in parts; one might even say primitive. It's supposed to be set in the north of England, but Harris's accent occasionally veers towards Irish (perhaps that's a deliberate affectation by the character) and some of the other characters have a tad too much RP, but perhaps that's just an indication of their social class rather than the actors' lack of range. Nowadays I fear we'd overdo it (cf. The Fully Monty, Brassed Off, und so weiter).
Nugget: a pleasing contrast to the typical Hollywood sports movie, where the plot arc is clichéd into banality and the only interesting thing is the sports action. In This Sporting Life the drama occurs off the field, not on it. Note, also, that this is rugby league not rugby union - a mistake that I fear is too often made by those who don't know the difference and just call it a rugby movie.