Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is an eighteen-year-old youth who has been sent to borstal for being stupid enough to get caught stealing. But he is not a stupid boy, he simply makes bad choices, and now as he arrives by van with the other new inmates he clams up and sullenly obeys orders, ferried through with the rest of them to hear what the Governor (Michael Redgrave) has to say. The other staff make no secret of their antagonism towards them, but the head man prefers a paternalistic approach and to channel the boys' energies into sporting activities. He is especially interested in Colin when he reveals himself to be an adept runner - long distances will be his speciality.
The Angry Young Man movement showed no sign of slowing down when Tony Richardson directed Alan Sillitoe's adaptation of his own short novel as another example of someone who was mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore, though in this case it was more to do with the battle between working and upper classes that raised our antihero's ire. We were by no means intended to feel complete sympathy towards Colin, we are well aware, as is he, why he has been dispatched to a borstal as he is a criminal and he has no remorse as to that status in society, but he has to rebel against a hopeless situation somehow, and nobody else was going to help him escape.
The thing was, of course, that the Governor could do precisely that, and that places Colin in a difficult position between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as if he goes along with the top authority he could be regarded as having sold out, yet if he buckles under that pressure and continues to rebel, he is allying himself with the fellow inmates, and indeed a whole class, who don't care about him anyway since they are keen to scrabble over any and everyone in the mad dash to get ahead in an unforgiving world. In fact, his ultimate decision could be perceived as rank stupidity, a statement that rings utterly hollow when it will trap him in a no hope life for the rest of his days.
Richardson offered us flashbacks to Colin's past so we were able to secure some kind of understanding for his motives and compulsions, which sees him struggle with his days in Nottingham as his father was ailing badly and his mother was more keen to collect on the insurance money than she was to see her husband survive. As the oldest of four kids, Colin should be all rights be the breadwinner now, but he has no interest in that as he receives no thanks, and certainly no love, at home, so the only escape he enjoys is when we see him tear off to the seaside with his new girlfriend Topsy Jane and his best pal James Bolam and his new lady, Julia Foster. Looking like a cliché now, these holiday scenes nevertheless conveyed the desire for some idyll away from his cares that Colin has no hope of sustaining.
But if anyone made us invested in how the protagonist would make it through a very bleak existence, it was Tom Courtenay, as in his screen debut he was patently talented enough to go far further than the character he played could ever dream of. As the predecessor of many a troubled and troublesome teen, you could see echoes of his performance from anywhere to If.... to Scum to any others of that hard-hitting ilk, so he was definitely starting something with his raw, driven style that more than anything in the screenplay was what kept you watching. He was surrounded by a cast of old pros and up-and-comers, with some well-kent faces to be seen, some of them uncredited like John Thaw as a Liverpudlian inmate and James Fox as the star runner from the public school who Colin must prove himself against. Blatantly and purposefully leaving the viewer with mixed feelings about what was surely a Pyrrhic victory, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner matched its grim emotions to wintertime rural locations, and proved hard to forget. Music by John Addison.
[Available as part of the BFI's Woodfall box set on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes these fully restored films: