Frank Machin is an evolutionary aberration, reverting towards primal instincts, a great ape who stalks the rugby fields but who dreams of becoming (and remaining) a man. His violence is poetry on the muddy turf but it stains his personal life, inseparable from his obsessive relationship with his widowed landlady, a woman whose grief condemns Frank to paying tenant. She polishes her late husband’s shoes…shoes that Frank will never fill. The qualities that make Frank a great footballer are the very qualities that make him an egocentric and harsh person, never able to rise above emotional poverty.
Director Lindsay Anderson utilizes stark black and white cinematography, his camera holding upon Frank’s fractured visage in close-up or filming on location, a muddy football field dominated by the cooling towers of a nuclear reactor which brings an added depth of grittiness and realism to the drama. Anderson is able to seamlessly edit archival rugby footage into his frantic close-ups so we feel connected to these athletes as they pummel and scrum upon the gladiatorial field of combat. But Anderson is not concerned with making a sports film: he focuses instead upon Frank Machin and his need to escape his social standing, to use his talent to become something he could not otherwise achieve. Here Anderson utilizes the tropes of a Romantic Drama but quickly subverts them as anger replaces passion, gentle words are screamed in disgust and sex becomes violence (or violence begets sex). It’s as if every fragile thing that Frank touches is broken in his meaty grasp or embrace. Soon, Frank learns he is just another product of the team’s owner Weaver; a rich man who peddles flesh and blood for other old men’s enjoyment.
The story’s apex concerns the relationship between the widow Mrs. Hammond and our protagonist, a physically and emotionally tumultuous climax whose existentialism is reminiscent of Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: only this time the spider-god is crushed under a clenched fist. Frank Machin then sinks to the bottom of his own spiritual abyss as we (and Frank?) ponder Mrs. Hammond’s death: was her brain aneurysm brought about by Frank’s punishing blow? Her death counterpoints Frank’s own head injury early in the film which then brackets the narrative. Much of the story is drug-induced remembrances while he undergoes anesthesia to pull broken teeth from this injury. The elliptical editing patterns disrupt the narrative and we are often confused as to events occurring in flashback or real time which immerses us into the fractured timeline: it makes us pay attention to every detail.
Richard Harris’ performance is wonderfully virile and tainted with an egotistical sexual aggression while Rachel Roberts as the beleaguered widow suffuses her character with mystical profundity, a quicksilver quality that is both spiteful and touching. Though Frank has temporarily escaped the grinding machines of the coalmines, he is destined to wander the hard barren fields of his own personal purgatory…forever.
Final Grade: (B+)