Magazine article The Spectator

Spectator Sport

Magazine article The Spectator

Spectator Sport

Article excerpt

What have Alan Sillitoe, novelist and gritty chronicler of working-class life, who died at the weekend, and Michael Mann, big-screen film-maker and gritty chronicler of Americana on the edge, got in common? Each have been responsible for a great movie about running. Sillitoe's short story 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner' (1959) was made into a pioneering piece of British new-wave cinema three years later by Tony Richardson, and Michael Mann's made-for-TV Jericho Mile is still a fantastic piece of sporting drama. What is it about running that captures artists, especially filmmakers, and why - since Loneliness and This Sporting Life in 1963 - have we made only one other decent movie about sport in this country (the mighty Chariots of Fire)?

Loneliness packed a mighty punch at the time, though it might feel like being hit over the head with a copy of Socialist Worker now.

But you can't forget that superb ending as Tom Courtenay's borstal boy Colin stops just yards from the finishing tape in the race against the local public school, Ranley. As he stares down Michael Redgrave's patrician governor, the foppish public school toff (James Fox, impeccably cast as ever) sweeps by to win, and all ends in a blaze of proletarian righteousness. It was absolutely thrilling, and being set in postwar 1950s Britain nobody minded that the actors didn't look like athletes - not even athletes looked much like athletes then.

In Mann's film, actor Peter Strauss trained himself to run a four-and-a-half-minute mile for the part of Larry Murphy, a lifer at Folsom prison who is given a chance to redeem himself through athletics. In the final scene, he tears round the mile track built inside the prison yard to show he could have beaten the Olympic mile record before smashing the watch which proved his time: an extraordinary moment. …

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