Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962): Tony Richardson Directs Tom Courtenay

UK (Woodfall/Bryanston/Seven Arts)

One of the best films of the New British Cinema of the early 1960s (also known as “British Angry Young Man” cycle) is directed by Tony Richardson from Allan Sillitoe’s screenplay based on his story.

Our Grade: B (31/2*** out of *****)

he Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner FilmPoster.jpeg

Theatrical release poster

The film offers the then young stage actor Tom Courtenay his first significant screen role, one that earned him the British Academy’s “Most Promising Newcomer” Award and put him at the forefront of British (and then international) actors.

The story centers on Colin Smith (Courtenay), an uneducated hoodlum who is sentenced to a reformatory after robbing a bakery. The borstal’s governor (a terrific Michael Redgrave) is a man who believes in the rehabilitative and healing powers of sports. He is therefore glad to realize that Colin is a good, instinctive distance runner. Encouraging him to train methodically for the game with a local public school, the governor promises Colin special privilegesif they win.

At least half of the narrative describes in an utmost realistic way Colin’s training. These sessions are punctuated with flashbacks to his past, depicting events and relationships that illuminate his present situation.

Tension builds up to the big race, and when it finally takes place, Colin easily wins over his competitors. But in a surprise ending, that can’t be revealed here, Colin responds with an act of defiance.

Colin’s parents, Mr. and Mrs, Smith, are played by the reliable actors Peter Nadden and Avis Bunage, and you can spot in a small role Alec McCowen, who in a couple of years would become a major stage and screen actor.

Richardson’s poignant mise-en-scene greatly aided by the talented behind-the-scenes crew, particularly Walter Lassally’s black-and-white cinematography, Anthony Gibbs’ sharp editing, which makes the training scenes exciting to watch, and John Addison’s music.

Over the years, various scholars, such as John Hill, have noted the “male” biases of “Loneliness” and most of the other British films of that cycle, namely the fact that they center on male protagonists (with the women often relegated to secondary roles) and the point of view and narration are distinctly male. In others words, to use film studies jargon, the organization of the narrative, the use of subjective techniques, and the patterns of emotional identification all reflect a male (and masculine) perspective
imposed on the text.

Spoiler Alert: The Last Scene/Grim Ending

The last reel depicts the day of the five-mile race against Ranley, after Colin identifies Ranley’s star runner, Gunthorpe (James Fox). The proud Governor looks on as the starting gun is fired. In the final mile, Colin overtakes Gunthorpe through the woods and then gains a lead with a sure win. But a series of jarring images interrupt him, jump-cut flashes of his domestic life and mother’s neglect; his father’s dead body; lectures about his behavior from detectives, police, the Governor and 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.

In close-up, Colin looks directly at the governor with a defiant smile, an expression that remains as the Ranley runner passes the finish line to victory. The Governor is clearly disappointed. In the very last scene, Colin is back in the Borstal’s machine shop, totally ignored by the Governor.

Despite decent reviews, the film was a commercial failure, perhaps due to its grim and dour tone.  Nonetheless, it put Tom Courtenay on the international cinema map as a major talent to watch.


Running Time: 114 minutes

Producer: Tony Richardson
Director: Richardson
Screenplay: Alan Sillitoe, based on his story
Camera: Walter Lassally
Editing: Anthony Gibbs
Music: John Addison
Production Design: Ralph Brinton
Art Direction: Ted Marshall
Costumes: Sophie Harris


Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay)
The Governor (Michael Redgrave)
Mrs. Smith (Avis Bunnage)
Mr. Smith (Peter Madden)
Mike (James Bolam)
Gladys (Julia Foster)
Audrey (Topsy Jane)
Brown (Alec McCowen)

Of Similar Interest

As noted, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” belongs to a cycle of British films–kitchen sink realism–that began with “Room at the Top” (1959) and continued with “A Taste of Honey,” “Look Back in Anger,” “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “This Sporting Life,” and others.

A year later, in 1963, Tom Courtenay would star in John Schlesinger’s first major film, “Billy Liar,” another highlight of the British working-class films of the 1960s, in which the discovery was Julie Christie (still best-known for “Darling!” in 1965.