The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Tom Courtenay runs for himself in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith), Michael Redgrave (Governor), Avis Bunnage (Mrs Smith), Alec McCowen (Brown), James Bolam (Mike), Joe Robinson (Roach), Dervis Ward (Detective), Topsy Jane (Audrey), Julia Foster (Gladys), James Fox (Gunthorpe), John Thaw (Bosworth)

In the 1960s British film made waves when it started to turn away from upper-class, costume-laden dramas, and accents started to be heard that weren’t cut-glass and RP. Few of these films ran (literally) further from this than The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

After the death of his father, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), a working-class young man, is drawn into a life of petty crime. Sent to borstal for his re-education, his skill at long-distance running catches the eye of the Governor (Michael Redgrave). The Governor hopes to use Colin to win the five-mile cross-country run in the joint sports challenge day he has arranged with the local private school. But will Colin play ball, or will he stick to his own principles of never playing “their” game?

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is in many ways a sort of British Rebel Without a Cause, but without the glamour. Instead, Colin is a council house lad, angry at the world (but not quite clear why) and brought low by the theft of £70. The film showcases Colin as a sort of anti-authority hero, a man who just simply doesn’t want those bastards telling him what to do. He’s not violent or dangerous, he’s more sullen, fed-up and laced with anger and contempt at a world that short-changed his father. 

He finds himself in the confines of borstal, an institution all about rules, regulations and changing people to match what society expects of them: everything Colin hates, and spends the film pushing against. Unlike the anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s other seminal kitchen sink drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Colin isn’t out for what he can get – while that film’s lead was more frustrated the system didn’t work enough for him, Colin wants no system at all. He wants freedom to make his own choices and define his own life – and his rebelling is all about that.

What’s intriguing about Silitoe’s story is Colin has a genuine gift for running. Richardson shoots the sequences of Colin running through the country (granted special permission to go unattended by the Governor) with a lyrical freedom. It’s as if, while running, Colin can put the world aside for a moment, to focus on his own independence. Silitoe gives Colin the means to move up in the world – but to do so he has to fall in with the desires of his “betters”. Therein lies the film’s conundrum.

It helps a great deal that Michael Redgrave is terrific as the Governor – the very picture of hypocritical and self-serving authoritarianism, interested in the boys only so far as they can serve his ends. The slightest misdemeanour and punishment is absolute – with the boy banished back to the bottom rung of the borstal, and ignored by the Governor. 

Richardson shoots the borstal as a confining series of small spaces, a real contrast to the broad, open spaces Colin runs through. The flashback scenes that showcase Colin’s life of petty crime are shot with an intense realism, on-location in Nottingham streets. These scenes are perhaps slightly less engaging and interesting than those at the borstal: their content is pretty similar to other kitchen-sink dramas, and they seem more predictable (for all their engaging direction and acting) than other parts of the film.

The real success of the film is largely due to Tom Courtenay, making his film debut. It would be easy to be annoyed by Colin, an inarticulate and chippy lad who hates the system without actually being engaged enough to understand why. But Courtenay brings the part a tenderness and surly vulnerability, and for all his childish rebellion, his barely expressed feelings of grief and anger at his father’s death strike a real chord. Given a sum of money in compensation, largely frittered away by his mother (Avis Bunnage also excellent) on her fancy man, Colin symbolically burns part of it, then spends the rest taking himself, a friend and two girls to Skegness. Colin’s relationship with Audrey is sweetly, and gently organically grown – and Courtenay brings a real vulnerability to a confession of his own virginity.

Courtenay makes Colin’s principles and issues understandable to us – and relatable – even though it’s tempting to encourage him to play along with the Governor, win the race and seize and opportunity to better himself from that. But what Courtenay makes clear, is that doing that would be a sacrifice Colin’s own sense of self – and that would be a defeat.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific kitchen-sink drama, built around an empathetic lead performance, that gives you plenty to think about. It’s shot with a poetic beauty by Richardson and photographer Walter Lassally. Finally, some credit must go to the casting director – not only Courtenay, but James Bolam and (uncredited) John Thaw and James Fox fill out the cast in prominent roles. Keep an eye on those guys: they might have futures ahead of them y’know.

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