The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner


Director: Tony Richardson       Producer: Tony Richardson
Writer: Alan Sillitoe
Cast: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, Alec McCowen, Topsy Jane
Studio: Woodfall Film Productions (Company) British Lion-Columbia Distributors/Continental Distributing (Distribution)
Year: 1962

Why I DVRed It: This is a film I’ve long wanted to see but never gotten around to it. I first heard of it in 1999 or so, when I was perusing the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century and being intrigued by the title. Years later, I got into running (although I want to make perfectly clear I’m not one of “those runners,” the kind who wear running clothes all the time and only talk about which trails they prefer and that kind of shit) and  became familiar with the sensation of being lonely on long runs. I used to run greater distances than I currently do (a foot injury has sidelined me from runs greater than 3-4 miles for the past two years), and I remember feeling quite lonesome on some of those runs. I’m not the type to feel fueled by the energy of others, and I remember running my first marathon and getting downright depressed when crowds of strangers would cheer for the marathoners like myself. It made me feel that there was something wrong with me, and maybe there is, but at least the title of this film says otherwise!

The film's opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The film’s opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

In actuality, that loneliness is precisely what I’ve loved about running my whole life. It’s also what I love about film. Watching movies is primarily an individual experience, and almost of my TCM movies are watched in isolation. I do, of course, love going to movies and watching movies with my girlfriend, but I don’t need the company to enjoy a film. Solitude and loneliness aren’t always bad words.

Regardless, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is movie that has fluctuated on critics’ lists for decades. Sometimes it’s off the lists altogether. Right now, the greatest movies list at  They Shoot Pictures Don’t They has the film at 995, but it wasn’t on the 2013 list. However, the movie tends to be more popular with English audiences, which makes sense—the film is largely about English working class life, a state most Americans only know of through popular songs such as the Squeeze jam “Up the Junction” or the underrated Kinks classic “Dead End Street.” This movie isn’t near as catchy as those tunes, but what movie is?

Presentation on TCM: Once again, I watched a TCM movie with no introduction or anything like that. It was on at 6:15, before a night of programming centered around B-sci-fi pictures. Obviously, this movie is not that, so I really don’t know why it was on.

Synopsis: An angry young man, Colin (Courtenay), is sentenced to a boys’ reformatory (what people in England call a “borstal”) where his prowess for long-distance running earns him the favor of the school’s governor (Redgrave) who hopes Colin can win a big race against another reformatory school. Colin likes his special status at first but reconsiders it in light of his own recollections of his past that he thinks about on his unescorted long training runs.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Before I get too far into this, I will admit that there were entire stretches of dialogue that went right past me. The cockney accents of some of the characters made it hard for my American ears to decipher meaning. I wish that Tony Richardson had thought about this when making the film; I mean, couldn’t he get his statements about class differences in England across without making use of working class accents? I am the most important viewer of this film.

Kidding aside, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific film. It tells the story of an angry young man, placing it into the “teenage delinquent” genre popular in American cinema in the 195os, a genre that, at least in the US, tended to be pretty lousy. Think of Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Blackboard Jungle. The best of those is probably Rebel, but aside from the iconic aspects of James Dean’s performance in it, it’s a pretty lousy movie. English versions of the genre include Loneliness and later efforts such as A Clockwork Orange (based on a novel published in 1962, the same year as Loneliness was mad) and the delightful If…, about a boarding school that turns violent. (Note, teenage delinquency was considered a crisis in the US in the 1950s (see this (much briefer than anything I have ever written) blog for more information), but the UK did not start to worry about the phenomenon so much until the 1960s, explaining the discrepancy in time periods.) The English versions tend to be better than their American counterparts, and Loneliness is no exception.

Look at how pretty that looks! © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a man, Colin, running alone on a road in England, in a rural area. It looks like a bucolic setting, and one might think this is going to be a nice movie about a nice young man who lives in a rural area and does nice people things (falls in love with the girl next door, goes to sock hops, learns to say “thee,” takes a job as a ‘prentice for his uncle). But then, we cut from him running to him in a prison-type van, going to a juvenile detention center. Immediately, the film disorients the audience, something Richardson will do again and again. Indeed, the structure of the film is itself jarring—the film cuts from the present to the past and back again as Colin recounts his life of petty crime and anguish while solitarily running. We see the violence of the reform school as well as the emotional turmoil of his home life, and the only parts of the film that are remotely peaceful are his runs. But, of course, those runs turn into ruminations on pain shown from Colin’s perspective.

The film is highly subjective and disjointed, then. Loneliness makes frequent use of handheld compositions and occasional use of POV shots; for instance, the first night Colin is at boarding school, we see through the shaky eyes of the guard as he inspects the bunks. This shot gives us a subjectivity that then reverses into the viewpoint of our main subject, Colin; that is, we are looking from a guard’s perspective until we get to our narrator and switch back to his perspective. Occasionally, the film gives us other viewpoints as well, as some of the scenes involving the governor showing off the school to rich donors or talking to his peers do not feature Colin at all. These scenes give us a privileged viewpoint, although they do not complicate our own viewpoint. They simply reinforce that Colin is right to be defiant and angry. It’s not a terribly profound viewpoint, but it is an absolute one.

Richardson seems to have an especial fondness for clever editing. He likes to cut scenes so quickly that the audience is thrown out of the comfort of one scene and back into another, as though letting the audience get adjusted and used to something would be the gravest sin. He makes several uses of contrapuntal sound; that is, the sight of one scene often starts before the previous scene’s audio is finished, breaking rules of the “classical” style as the sound and image do not align. For instance, a destructive food fight’s audio plays as we cut to a calm and sedate board meeting of the school administrators meeting to discuss the fight (providing cause and effect). Then, we see school administrators brutally beating a student while the audio plays the end of the calm meeting (providing judgement and punishment).

Frequent flashbacks to Colin's former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Frequent flashbacks to Colin’s former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Richardson also makes use of other anti-classical techniques. The film features several rapid camera movements and zooms to show us the character’s own focus. For instance, when Colin is doing free association with the psychiatrist, we zoom in on the tape recorder, which obviously has Colin feeling ill at ease. And structurally, the telling of two linear narratives (Colin in the borstal as he prepares for a big race and Colin’s journey from freedom to the borstal) is itself disorienting, even though the flashbacks are largely shown linearly and add up to a cohesive and simple story (boy’s dad dies, boy’s mom moves a bit too quickly on a new guy, boy feels purposeless and then gets into trouble). Thus, the structure of the story and the style of the film are far more interesting than the story itself or the film itself.

These stylistic flourishes seem somewhat antithetical to the gritty realness of the movie and its statement about the stark realities of working-class life in Britain, but they are actually in line with a style of documentary films Richardson and others made in the 1950s. In fact, almost all the stylistic flourishes used in Loneliness are trademarks of the “Free Cinema” movement with which Richardson was associated. Free Cinema was a style employed in a series of highly influential independently produced documentary films showcasing the working class in England. Christophe Dupin, writing at the BFI’s Screenonline website, describes the signatures of the movement as follows: The filmmakers “used black and white film and hand-held, portable cameras, avoided or limited the use of didactic voice-over commentary, shunned narrative continuity and used sound and editing impressionistically.” Loneliness makes use of all of these to disrupt the audience’s expectations and to promote a general rebellious spirit throughout.

As a fiction film with a realist bent, Loneliness feels somewhat documentary-like, but Richardson also uses several absurdist elements that further promote an antiauthoritarian and rebellious air. Courtenay’s mouth contorts in comical ways throughout the film, providing an indication that the words he says are not the words he means. Further, the governor’s pompous proclamations (such as his insistence that sports are ultimately what make boys into good honest men) are very clearly satirized, and, indeed, there is something absurd that Colin learned to become a world-class running man (to quote a great Mr. Show sketch) by “running away from the police” as he puts it, but that he is seen by the governor as a great athlete with a chance to reform himself through running. Richardson makes an even clearer absurdist statement in the flashback scene in which Colin and his friend mute the bloated politician on the telly (I felt like employing an English-ism at least once here!) as he rails against the youth of the UK. This makes the politician powerless, as an orator without a voice is a form without a purpose, a series of inscrutable faces and hand gestures, creating a simulacrum, an empty image. The kids laugh at the way it looks, but the audience laughs at the overall rebelliousness of simply cutting down the figure of power by cutting him off.

The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Much of the movie, indeed, is rebellious without being rebellious in any sort of teleologic or hermeneutic sense. That is, the protagonist is an angry young man who does bad things (according to society), but he does not make a grand gesture or provide anything much to examine. He’s not James Dean in Rebel, who acts rebellious because he is stigmatized as a rebel (and has an emasculated dad!), nor is he Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who defiantly implies he’s rebelling just because he can (“What are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?”). Rather, the protagonist here is a kid who never had a chance. Add to that that his dad is dead and his mom doesn’t seem to care and has moved on to a new (in Colin’s words) “fancy man,” and we have Hamlet if he didn’t have the directions from a ghost. And we know Hamlet could barely handle fulfilling his assigned mission—what can the youth of this picture do without a chance or a purpose? He truly is, thus, a rebel without a cause. His only cause is to not be left “scarpering” for favor. As he puts it to another schoolmate (McCowen):

What’s the point of scarpering? The best thing to do is be cunning and stay where you are. You see, I’m gonna let them think they’ve got me house trained, but they never will, the bastards. To get me beat, they’ll have to stick a rope around my neck.

Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The movie ends with Colin living up to his goals of gaining human freedom and promoting a sense of defiance. Colin chooses to throw the race at the last minute, the film making very clear that he could win if he wanted to. But, like Clint Eastwood walking away from the town he saves in virtually every Eastwood Western, Colin is better off not tied down and beholden to anyone. The film ends with him being another loser kid at the school, stuck making gas masks in the shop. But at least he won’t have to breathe the noxious air of the governor.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, I enjoyed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. calls it an “essential,” and I agree. Speaking of which, it will be on TCM again on September 5, and I think it’s worth DVRing again (although I probably won’t, having just watched it!).

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