The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a 1962 film based on the short story of the same name. The screenplay, like the story, was written by Alan Sillitoe. The film was directed by Tony Richardson, one of the new young directors emerging from documentary films, a series of 1950s filmmakers known as the Free Cinema movement.
It tells the story of a rebellious youth (played by Tom Courtenay), sentenced to a borstal ('Approved School') for burgling a bakery, who gains privileges in the institution through his prowess as a long-distance runner. During his solitary runs reveries of important events before his incarceration lead him to re-evaluate his status as the Governor's (played by Michael Redgrave) prize athlete, eventually undertaking a rebellious act of personal autonomy notwithstanding an immediate loss in privileges. The film poster's byline is "you can play by the rules...or you can play it by ear - WHAT COUNTS is you play it right by YOU...".. The notion is echoed by other contemporary films such as a rapid series of three contemporary Lone Ranger films.
Depicting a bleak, elitist Britain in the late 1950s to early 1960s for the working to middle class, the writer was one of the angry young men producing media vaunting or depicting the plight of rebellious youths. The film has characters entrenched in their social context. Class consciousness abounds throughout: the "them" and "us" notions which Richardson stresses reflect the very basis of British society at the time, so that Redgrave's "proper gentleman" of a Governor is in contrast to many of the young working class inmates.
Much of the screenplay takes place in and around Ruxley Towers, Claygate, Surrey – a Victorian mock castle built by Lord Foley ('Ruxton Towers'). The building had been used as a NAAFI base in the war, giving it a military atmosphere. The original trumpet theme to the film was performed by Fred Muscroft (the Scots Guards Principal Cornet at the time).
The film's words were heavily sampled in the 1980s Chumbawamba track "Alright Now" and text monologues from the book upon which the film is based was printed on the record/cassette covers of their single "Just Look at Me Now".
The film opens with Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) running, alone, along a bleak country road somewhere in rural England. In a brief voiceover, Colin tells us that running is the way his family has always coped with the world's troubles, but that in the end, the runner is always alone and cut off from spectators, left to deal with life on his own.
Colin is then shown with a group of other young men, all handcuffed. They are being taken to Ruxton Towers, a detention centre for juvenile offenders, an approved school. It is overseen by "the Governor", who believes that the hard work and discipline imposed on his charges will ultimately make them useful members of society. Colin, sullen and rebellious, immediately catches his eye as a test of his beliefs.
An important part of the Governor's rehabilitation programme is athletics, and he soon notices that Colin is a talented runner, easily able to outrun Ruxton's reigning long-distance runner. As the Governor was once a runner himself, he is especially keen on Colin's abilities because, for the first time, his charges have been invited to compete in a five-mile cross country run against Ranley, a nearby public school with privileged pupils from upper class families. The Governor sees the invitation as an important way to demonstrate the success of his rehabilitation programme.
The Governor takes Colin under his wing, offering him outdoor gardening work and eventually the freedom of practice runs outside Ruxton's barbed wire fences. A series of flashbacks shows how Colin came to be incarcerated: his difficult, poverty-stricken family life in a lower class workers' complex in industrial Nottingham. Without a job, Colin indulges in petty crime in the company of his best friend, Mike (James Bolam). Meanwhile, at home, his father's long years of toil in a local factory have resulted in a terminal illness for which he refuses treatment.
Colin rebels by refusing a job offered to him at his father's factory. His father's company has paid a paltry £500 in insurance money, and he watches with disdain as his mother spends what Colin considers an offensive sum. Colin symbolically burns some of his portion of the insurance money and uses the rest to treat Mike and two girls they meet to an outing in Skegness, where Colin confesses to his date, Audrey (Topsy Jane) that she is the first woman he's ever had sex with.
When his mother moves her lover into the house and after an argument when she tells him to leave, Colin and Mike take to the streets. The two spot an open window at the back of a bakery. There is nothing worth stealing except the cashbox, which contains about £70 (equivalent to £1,300 in 2015). Mike is all for another outing to Skegness with the girls, but Colin is more cautious and hides the money in a drainpipe outside his "prefab". Soon the police call, accusing Colin of the robbery. He tells the surly detective (Dervis Ward) he knows nothing about it. The detective produces a search warrant on a subsequent visit, but finds nothing. Finally, frustrated and angry, he returns to say he'll be watching Colin. As the two stand at Colin's front door in the rain, the torrent of water pouring down the drainpipe dislodges the money, which washes out around Colin's feet.
This backstory is interspersed in flashbacks with Colin's present-time experiences at Ruxton Towers, where he must contend with the jealousy of his fellow inmates over the favouritism shown to him by the Governor, especially when the Governor decides not to discipline Colin, as he does the others, over a dining hall riot over Ruxton's poor food. Colin also witnesses the kind of treatment given to his fellows who are not so fortunate – beatings, bread-and-water diets, demeaning work in the machine shop or the kitchen.
Finally, the day of the five mile race against Ranley arrives, and Colin quickly identifies Ranley's star runner (played by James Fox). The proud Governor looks on as the starting gun is fired. Colin soon overtakes Ranley's star runner and has a comfortable lead with a sure win; but a series of jarring images run through his mind, jumpcut flashes of his life at home and his mother's neglect, his father's dead body, stern lectures from detectives, police, the Governor, the hopelessness of any future life with Audrey. Just yards from the finish line, he stops running and remains in place, despite the calls, howls and protests from the Ruxton Towers crowd, especially the Governor. In close-up, Colin looks directly at him with a rebellious sneer, an expression that remains as the Ranley runner passes to cross the finish line to victory. The Governor is intensely angry.
At the end, Colin is back in the machine shop, punished and ignored by the Governor. But he seems calm – even content – with his loneliness, because he has refused to submit to authority.
The plot can be interpreted as either tragic or bathetic by ultimately projecting the protagonist as a working class rebel rather than an otherwise rehabilitated but conformist talent. During the period when Sillitoe wrote the book and screenplay the sport of running was changing. The purity of running was taken away when Smith entered the race for his own and his institution's benefit — a commodity useful for his patrons' own promotion. Sillitoe rejects the commoditisation of running in his book and screenplay, believing instead a professional becomes commercialised and loses the clarity of thought that comes with running otherwise. This is why Smith chooses to forfeit the race. Literary critic Helen Small states, “…the weight of literary attention seems to be focused on a ‘pre-professional era’ — either written at that time or looking back at it for inspiration”. Her research stresses that Sillitoe was an author who believed in the unadulterated sport.
Running is also used as a metaphor to give Smith the ability to escape from the reality of his class level in society. The use of this sport gives Smith the ability to escape from his life as a member of the working class poor. Sillitoe has used running to give his character a chance to reflect upon his social status and also to escape from the reality that the poor in Britain are faced with. Long-distance running gives the character an ability to freely escape from society without the pressures of a team, which may be found in other athletic stories.Most Promising New Actor - BAFTA (Tom Courtenay)
Best Foreign Director (nominee) - Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (Tony Richardson)
Best Actor - Mar del Plata Film Festival (Tom Courtenay)