Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith.
"Running was always a big thing in our family, specially 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."

Those words are spoken over the opening scene of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by its protagonist Colin Smith. A young man from a working class background, Colin (Tom Courtenay) has recently arrived at Ruxton Towers Reformatory after his conviction for robbing a bakery. Colin struggles to suppress his defiant attitude until his athletic ability unexpectedly changes his fortunes at Ruxton.

Michael Redgrave as the governor.
It turns out that Colin can run faster than any of the other lads. That draws the attention of the reformatory's governor (Michael Redgrave), who is obsessed with winning a cross country running competition with a private school. Colin's new privileges include being able to run alone outside the reformatory's walls. As he does so, he reflects on his life, his hazy future, and the events that led to his present situation.

Made in 1962, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner initially resembles the "angry young men" films popularized in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the working class young protagonists in Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Colin has a chip on his shoulder. He wants a job with good pay, but he doesn't want to work for anyone and lacks the initiative to start his own business. It's easier to commit small-time larceny. 

Yet, by conventional accounts, Colin is the type of juvenile delinquent that can be reformed. One could reason that he just needs some direction, some discipline, and a goal. The reformatory's governor believes that the rigors of long distance running can instill the discipline and that winning a championship cup for the school can provide a goal. Yet, what the governor doesn't grasp is that his goal may not be Colin's goal. 

In the end, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is not about Colin's transformation. That might have made an interesting, inspirational movie. Instead, screenwriter Alan Sillitoe and director Tony Richardson choose to paint a portrait of Colin's life inside and outside the reformatory. It's a similar approach to the duo's earlier Saturday Night and Sunday Morning--except that Colin is much more appealing than Albert Finney's self-absorbed protagonist. Additionally, Colin's defiant attitude and independent spirit just might provide him with the strength to better his life.

While the cast includes veterans such as Michael Redgrave and Alec McCowen, this is Tom Courtenay's film. He's in almost every frame, fully inhabiting the complex character at the heart of the story. His performance earned him a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles.

In the same year he made The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, director Tony Richardson married Michael Redgrave's daughter, actress Vanessa Redgrave. The couple, who were married for five years, had two children who also became actresses: Natasha and Joely.


  1. There are so many interesting movies to explore. I confess to not yet exploring "Runner" as every time it came my way I was not in the mood for what I thought was just another kitchen sink drama. Perhaps when that next time rolls around I will take advantage of the opportunity.

  2. "Runner" would make for an interesting double-bill with "This Sporting Life."

    1. Absolutely! That's a great idea for a retro theatre twin bill.

    2. An outstanding combo--both terrific movies. That whole period of British movies is so very interesting. I sometimes struggle to identify comperable American movies.