My current favorite movie is Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” (1962) Superficially enough, I was drawn to it by its title, which appealed to me in spite of the fact that I am not a distance runner and had only a remote idea of what could have been meant by such a person’s “loneliness.” However, unlike so many prosaic movie titles these days (“Becoming Jane” is the recent worst) this was a title you could really feel even if you had no knowledge of the experience it hinted at.
I really like the complex and controversial ending of “Loneliness.” ***SPOILER WARNING!! TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DESIRE TO REMAIN UNSULLIED!*** As brief background, it is important to know that Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is a working class guy sent to reform school after being caught with money he stole. He is determined to “play ball” with the school’s governor (Michael Redgrave), all the better to get out of the disagreeable place as soon as possible. To accomplish this, he need only continue doing what he has done his entire life; that is, running. He’s good at it and the governor soon realizes that he stands a decent chance of nabbing a victory at the biggest race of the year, against another boys’ school that holds the title. However, in the last leg of the long-anticipated race—comfortably ahead of the only other runner who poses a threat—Smith stops dead in his tracks. Images flit through his head, largely of a series of authoritarian figures he has encountered in his young life—cops, politicians, schoolmasters, even his mother—who have subtly and overtly bent him to their will. Smith’s protest against the abuse he has suffered is to stop. Stop running, that is.
Smith loses the race, to the dismay of his peers and the disgust of the governor. The last shot of the movie is a gloomy one that we have already seen earlier: Smith and the other boys quietly working on an assembly task while school officials hover over them, watching their every move. The mindless, machine-like quality of the activity and the closeness of the surveillance suggest the drudgery that Smith will continue to endure, in his life after the race and possibly forever.
It might correctly be asserted that what Smith does in quitting the race right before the finish line—in plain view of the governor and his other classmates—is tantamount to (the saying seems appropriate here) shooting himself in the foot. Running might have been Smith’s escape from a life of poverty and desperation. As the governor hints, he might even have competed in the Olympics—in true Chariots of Fire style. I can only imagine that criticisms against the film’s ending have been leveled at this aspect: that, implicit in Smith’s defiance, is the certainty of his continued maltreatment. In a sense, he cooperates with the system that wants to keep him down. Rather than strategically playing the game (in this case, running the race) and sneering privately, Smith’s rebellion gives “the man” a perfect reason to continue his close scrutiny and suppression. He cements his reputation as a troublemaker, one of the “angry young men” who must be watched closely and dealt with severely.
This is all true. But to me, it is the very ambiguity of the ending that makes it great. Smith’s act is neither triumph nor surrender. It is protest certainly and rebellion in the broadest sense. It is a refusal to do what it is expected merely because it is expected—and I mean that last sentence in both ways that it can be interpreted. Stopping is symbolic but it is also foolish since the implicit criticism largely escapes the personages that prompted the act; Michael Redgrave’s governor is no more likely to see things from Smith’s point of view than he was before. However, acts are not meaningless simply because they are lost on those for whom they were intended. When Smith stops running, he is in a sense recognizing that quite the opposite is true: all my life, people have wanted me to do one thing. Now I’m going to do what I want, and what I want to do is precisely what they won’t understand me doing. They will say I’ve thrown it all away but, after all, did I want what they offered? It’s true that in “Loneliness” Smith never says he enjoys running. He says he feels compelled to do it; he equates it with escaping from the police (in other words, a necessary survival skill) and eventually with obedience, which, after all, is merely another method for survival.
In the end, Smith’s act demonstrates what can happen when you drive a spirited person into the ground. It shows how someone can be so crushed by his circumstances that he actually acts against his own self-interest. To me, the brilliance of the ending is there in the very foolish and courageous nature of Smith’s act.