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July 23, 2014

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

by Franz Patrick


Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Running was always 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, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post’s no end, even though the barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of a long distance runner feels like.

There are six new detainees in Ruxton Towers, a reform school, and when they arrive, the young men are given numbers, 988 to 993, ordered to strip, and change clothes. In a few minutes they will meet the man in charge of the school, one that is referred to as The Governor (Michael Redgrave). By the end of their time there, The Governor expects them to be industrious and honest citizens, people who will contribute to society.

Based on the short story and screenplay by Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” tells a laser-focused story about an angry young person named Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), caught by the police for stealing money from a bakery. Though a great number of films have adopted the technique of telling a story by jumping between the past and the present, very few have achieved mastery of the approach. Aspiring filmmakers should require themselves to see this picture. Notice how the shuffling between two times, despite having a completely different in tone and mood, achieves a natural ebb and flow. It entices the viewer rather than repels or bores.

It is necessary to show the film in black and white because it is a reflection of our attitudes toward juvenile delinquents. Under Tony Richardson’s expert direction, he makes a case that behind every rebellious teenager, there is a reason for his or her actions. It may be shallow or deep, relatable or opaque—doesn’t matter. What matters is the reason, often subconscious and guarded by defense mechanisms, is important enough to that person that he or she is unable to deal with the frustrations, anger, and other negative emotions in a healthy manner. And yet the movie is not a psychology course. Instead, it urges us to open up and be more sympathetic.

I found the flashbacks impressive, from carefully observing Col dealing with his father’s mortality to when he has met a special someone who he feels safe enough to share a little bit about what might be going on in his head. It is wise to make the flashbacks most engaging because that is when our protagonist is most free—at least in a physical sense. The poetry comes in when we are taken out of the flashback as if waking up from a dream. We are back to watching Col running. His body is in that school but his mind is not. Such a coping mechanism sets him free.

But will he allow himself to be free in a physical sense? That is the big question. The Governor is highly determined, some might consider him obsessed, to win the long-distance cross-country championship trophy against the Ranley School. Recognizing Col’s speed and stamina, he chooses 993 to win the competition. It is suggested multiple times that if Ruxton Towers were victorious, it would be Col’s fast-pass to guaranteed freedom.

Because I was so involved in understanding Col’s past, his present mindset becomes extremely difficult to fathom. I kept guessing till the very end. When I thought I knew the answer, I second guessed. This is a good thing. It means that the character is not predictable, not created for the sake of showing something on the screen or having someone to root for so we can feel good about ourselves by the time the picture ends. The final answer is complicated and requires contemplation.

I love movies that are deceptively simple yet jolts viewers who are willing to be challenged to pay attention. It moves with grace and commands effortless poetry. When beings from another planet visit Earth, there are only a few films I can recommend—powerful works that will enable them to understand, or at least appreciate, what it means to be human. This is one of them.

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