The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
So many times I’ll look forward to seeing a film only to lose patience when I’m actually watching it, disappointed that my expectations haven’t been met. Then something extraordinary happens: the ending. Great endings should enhance everything you’ve seen earlier in the film. More than making up for the viewer’s wandering attention span, truly exceptional endings make the viewer better understand the path the film has been on throughout its running time, while also providing a near-epiphany as to the film’s overall merits. It’s not that a strong ending negates all the flaws from earlier in the film, but I’ve found that it can often provide a method to the earlier madness. All of this applies to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay.
Since first viewing Billy Liar a couple of weeks ago, I’ve thought quite a bit about that film and the things it’s stirred around inside of me. I was very anxious to see Courtenay’s earlier performance and further explore British films of this time period. I like this angry young man thing. I’m an angry young(ish) man. I’m in color and without the accent, but it seemed promising all the same. Too often change seems hopeless, rebellion impossible. Let’s plan to revolutionize the world tonight, even if we don’t remember it in the morning. That sort of thing. Then I’m watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and it’s not there. Who’s this Colin Smith? What’s his problem? His father died, his mother is cold and uncaring, he stole money, he’s punished in a juvenile detention center, and he runs. Where’s Billy Fisher? I can’t relate to this guy. I miss Billy.
But then the ending revs up and suddenly I get it. If the two Courtenay characters are different sides of the same coin, Colin is the strong-willed mischief maker and Billy is the harmless dreamer. They converge at the refusal to conform to society’s ideals regardless of what’s in their best interest. Just because everyone else justifies playing the conformist game doesn’t mean individual rebellion is impossible. I’m reminded of Holden Caulfield, but his fate is even less comforting. As invigorating as Billy Liar and Loneliness can be, they’re ultimately somewhat defeatist. That is, if you adhere to the societal definition of success and defeat. Individually, Billy and Colin both win, very much in their own ways, but they’re also doomed to lives undoubtedly plagued by the creeping intervention of reality. Each character makes a life-altering decision and each film conveniently ends without forcing the bitter pill of the resulting consequences down the audience’s throat.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Richardson’s film, adapted by Saturday Night and Sunday Morning writer Alan Sillitoe from his own short story, seems less dazzling than the near-manic Billy Liar, but it plays heavier, more dangerous. Colin Smith’s present at the borstal institution is woven with his past at home. He faces troubles in both places – among his fellow delinquents and at the hands of his emotionless mother following the death of his father. The flashbacks (though they don’t really feel like flashbacks) frequently occur when Colin is running. He seems to derive little enjoyment from running, but he does it just the same. He runs during the opening titles and just before the film’s end.
It’s this running of long distances that puts him in good favor with the borstal governor (played by Michael Redgrave), who hopes that Colin can defeat a local public school rival. Through the governor’s endorsement, Colin is able to climb the ranks of the borstal social system, at the expense of the former top runner who becomes so distraught that he tries to escape and ends up in solitary confinement. Colin tries to mitigate the damages, but he’s instead awarded unsupervised practice time to run the grounds. The governor lets it be known that a win against the school competition would bode well for Colin’s future freedom. Does he care though? Is that what’s really important, returning to his mother, younger siblings, and whatever man is currently sleeping in his father’s bed?
After he robs the bakery, but prior to getting arrested by the “coppers,” Colin discusses the idea of work and, essentially, capitalism with his girlfriend. “It’s not that I don’t like work. It’s just that I don’t like the idea of slaving me guts out so the bosses can get all the profits. Seems all wrong to me,” he says. Seems all wrong indeed. So that’s what he has to look forward to when Colin regains his life on the outside of the detention center? Admittedly, this speaks to me and my ideals and my sense of justice. Refusing to accept one’s place in the cogs of society strikes a chord. Even now, this film seems severely foreign to my American indoctrination. The land of the free, as long as certain segments are just a bit more free than others.
Obviously, though, the idea of freedom is subjective. By denying the cheering onlookers the satisfaction of a win that means nothing to him, Colin lacerates their expectations and demonstrates a self-reliant independence all too rare in film and life. How dare someone have different ideas of what constitutes success and accomplishment. There are strict rules of normalcy we’re constantly told to abide by. Otherwise, we might seem different or unique, heaven forbid. Sputtering to a stop, Colin half-grins his way to a defiant personal victory. It’s one of the most satisfying displays of rebellion I’ve ever seen on film.
Courtenay plays it with absolute brilliance, as he does throughout the picture. He has such a unique face, his eyes sunken in over a hovering brow that make him seem much older. That works to his advantage here, giving Colin an automatic weariness beyond his years. Both this film and Billy Liar seem nearly unimaginable without the actor. Hard to believe that he’d be doing Leonard Part 6 twenty-five years later. I’m sure there’s some quality films of his that I haven’t seen, but I’m not sure there’s anything else quite of this caliber from the decade. I know he intentionally avoided Hollywood roles and such, but he’s so impressive in these two films that there seem like a few missed opportunities inevitably passed him by. He does appear to have an upcoming film lined up for Peter Yates, with whom he made The Dresser, so hopefully that works out. (And who am I to question his level of success anyway – didn’t this film teach me anything? My concerns are admittedly selfish.)
As with Billy Liar, I rented The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and now they’re both on my (imaginary) to-buy list. I do wish there were some extra features on the R1 Warner Bros. disc. The image quality might be a bit worse than what Criterion did with Billy Liar and it’s presented 1.78:1 aspect ratio instead of its original 1.66:1, but it still looks very good. The BFI R2 went out of print last year and had a commentary I’d like to hear, but no subtitles. Thankfully, the R1 does have subtitles since I kept them on most of the film due to some of the accents being a tad thick for my ears. With the R2 discontinued, perhaps rights have changed hands and an even better release might pop up. I sometimes wonder why major studios and specialty labels can’t get together across regions and share supplements, as the BFI commentary would have been ideal for the R1. But then, I’m an idealist at heart.