The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Five things I love about The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

with 14 comments

The good thing about participating in a blogathon is that it often leads you to new places.

A bunch of Swedish movie bloggers decided to write posts about “men who run” and that’s how I ended up watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a classical British movie from 1962.

I chose it after having dismissed a bunch of other alternatives, such as: “Tom Cruise’s ten best running scenes” (too obvious), Chariots of Fire (probably too sleep inducing for me these days, even though I remember that I liked it a lot when I watched it a long time ago) Run Lola Run (she runs so well, but alas, she’s a woman) and The Running Man. I actually gave The Running man a shot, but after five minutes I had had enough of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s underwhelming acting performance. This was probably not good when it came out in the 80s, but at this point it’s really ugly.)

I knew nothing about The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; it was just a title that came up in a web search that seemed familiar to me.

Looking at the title I imagined that it was mainly about running. Perhaps you’d follow the career of a long distance runner who runs and runs and runs, sacrificing everything, including family and friends, in order to reach his goal, whatever that is – a golden medal, a world record or a championship And then when he’s achieved all that he suddenly stops and asks himself: was it worth it? But actually it’s not that film. Not at all. This is more of a war-between-the-classes movie, but with running.

The plot goes like this: Colin Smith is a young man who comes from poor conditions. When his father dies he starts to do petty crimes in company with a friend. Not to support his family, which perhaps would have been understandable, but more for the fun of it, as an act of defiance against authorities. He’s sent to a reformatory institution for young men where it’s suddenly found that he’s got a talent for running, which could give him a new career. The question is: does he want this?

A bit dated but still good
There are parts of the movie that feel a bit dated. Regardless your political opinion and what background you’re coming from, I think it’s a little hard to relate to this simple, black-and-white view on society, classes, capitalism and work. This kind of rhetoric was probably relevant at the time the movie was made, but for modern eyes, many of the characters feel more like caricatures than like real human beings.

Nevertheless there are a number of things about this film that I love:

1. The very opening, before the text credits appear.
We see Colin from behind, running alone on a road. The voiceover line captures everything that this movie is about, but also what running is about. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.

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.”

2. Tom Courtenay in the leading role.
I can’t quite identify or sympathize with this constantly sullen characters, who keeps taking decisions that won’t make his already miserable life any better. He’s somewhat incomprehensible to me, but it’s clear that Tom Courtenay understands him. He’s one with his role.

3. Every scene that includes running.
While he’s style is somewhat inefficient and I’m not entirely convinced that Colin would win any races in real life, there’s such a joy and freedom in them that you’re inspired to go out and run for yourself. Not to win, but to live.

4. The reoccurring theme of And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time (known as Jerusalem).
I’m not entirely sure of what this poem and hymn is supposed to mean in this context, perhaps it’s just the idea of a hope about a change. Whatever it is, I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful song and here you get plenty of opportunities to hear it in various versions.

5. The title,
which comes from the original source of this film, a short story by Alan Sillitoe.
There’s poetry in those words, enhanced by the rhythm and the alliteration of “loneliness” and “long”. According to Wikipedia there are about ten songs in pop culture by various bands who have picked up the title for their songs, among them Iron Maiden, which made a whole song text based on the short story. I’m not surprised. It’s a damned good line.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, UK 1962) My rating: 3,5/5




This post is a part of a blogathon arranged by Filmspanarna, a Swedish community of movie blogs. Here are links to posts on this theme by my fellow bloggers:

In English:

Fredrik on Film

In Swedish:

Except Fear
Fiffis filmtajm
Fripps filmrevyer
Har du inte sett den?
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord The Nerd Bird
The Nerdird

Written by Jessica

July 9, 2014 at 6:00 am

14 Responses

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  1. Nice resolution to the blogathon challenge, Jessica! On my part, I was too obvious, and indulged myself in the glorious running or Mr Tom Cruise.

    This movie that you, and apparently a couple of the other bloggers, chose seems to me to be extremely boring. Yes, I said it. Boring. 🙂


    July 9, 2014 at 10:18 am

    • Your run through Tom Cruise’s running performances may have been ovious, but it was also glorious, very thorough and a joy to cosume.

      I wouldn’t call this movie boring. But it’s a movie very far from Tom Cruise so to say.


      July 9, 2014 at 10:55 pm

  2. Mayby not boring but I think it will take a while before I see this movie. Belle & Sebastin has also made a song that at least share the the same name as this movie didn´t know the title had made such a big impact.


    July 9, 2014 at 10:52 am

    • I wouldn’t advice anyone against watching it, rather the opposite. It’s kind of refreshing, as a change to all the Hollywood mainstream stuff we watch.


      July 9, 2014 at 10:57 pm

  3. Ahaaa. This 1962-movie turns up in three blogs out of ten today, who could have guessed that “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” would be the most obvious choice for this blogathon? Not me. My bet was on The Running Man. 🙂


    July 9, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    • Yeah, who would have guessed? I had my suspiciouns when I saw the title of Sofia’s post. And they were confirmed. But then it IS a title that sticks with you so I wouldn’t be surprised.


      July 9, 2014 at 10:58 pm

  4. A fine account of a very good movie (despite the commenters who say it’s boring without having seen it!). The Alan Sillitoe novella that it’s based on is worth trying to track down, too. I haven’t read it for quite a while, but I can remember being absolutely gripped by it.


    July 9, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    • Thanks! I’m afraid that I haven’t read a word by Alan Sillitoe, maybe it’s about time. I wonder if the source material can capture the joy of running as well as the film does.


      July 9, 2014 at 11:01 pm

      • I wonder if the source material can capture the joy of running as well as the film does.

        It’s my recollection that it did. I did a lot of cross-country (and middle-distance) running at boarding school; when I was running was the only time I could achieve a delicious, wonderful, blessed solitude — a cocoon of loneliness that I treasured. So I was a sucker as soon as I saw the book’s title. I can’t remember much about the other stories in the collection except that I enjoyed them well enough; but the title novella really spoke to me!


        July 9, 2014 at 11:21 pm

        • You describe that cocoon beautifully, exactly the emotion that the movie title and the intro conveys. I can see why it spoke so well to you!


          July 20, 2014 at 11:47 pm

  5. Ha, and here I discarded Chariots of Fire because I thought for certain I would be alone in writing about The Loneliness… 🙂
    To your points:
    1: Meh, I thought it was a rather standard VO-intro
    2: Wholeheartedly agree with you there, both in the experience of the character and Tom C’s performance
    3: Could have something to do with the fact that you are a runner yourself? 😉
    4: As I wrote in my text, “Jerusalem” is practically synonymous with England
    5: Yes, I rather liked the title also.

    Unfortunately, I did not like the movie as much as you did. Given the choice, I would much rather re-watch The Running Man…


    July 9, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    • 3. It might… Though I’m currently not running because of an injury, which really is meh. That might play into it. I long desperately for my morning running tours.


      July 9, 2014 at 11:02 pm

  6. Never heard of the movie until you and Sofia wrote about it, and as I wrote on her blog, it’s interesting to see how they use running as a physical act as much as a symbolic one. It seem to me, anyway. And nice quote in the intro, it could apply to more than running. Life itself in many ways… 🙂 Maybe that was the point.


    July 10, 2014 at 12:32 am

    • Now thinking of it, it’s not uncommon that they put running into movies to enhance a certain mood. Right now I come to think of the prolongued running scene in Shame. But there are many other examples.


      July 20, 2014 at 11:45 pm

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