What is the greatest running movie you’ve never seen?
Is it Without Limits? Naw, that one is overrated and Hollywood. True story, the real-life Roscoe Divine (played in the movie by renowned 00s surfer bro Matthew Lillard) once told me that his son told executive producer Tom Cruise, on set, that his dad would have never taken shit from some bratty high school kid, no matter how fast. Roscoe Divine is the greatest runner in the history of Vancouver, WA, and no one disrespects Vanc.
Is it Prefontaine? Look, I get it. I was a high school runner once. I too recall fondly the times my teammates and I would gather about the flickering glow of Ye Olde CRT, full of spaghetti dinner painstakingly cooked by a teammate’s saintly mother. I also once heard that Pre approached Gerry Lindgren about staging the WA v. OR photo finish that was later made regionally famous by Nike’s inaugural BorderClash race. That just ain’t gully, it’s marketing, and we’re not here for that. “Where are all the rock star runners?” Collecting their fat endorsement checks from Nike, duh.
Is it McFarland? Respect to the struggle and real-life story, but sorry no, too Disney.
Is it Five Thousand Meters? What’s that now? Oh, you mean this? No, it’s not that, although I will say that both Tim Broe’s “Broe Job” shirt and Bolota Asmeron running a 5k in speed suits age incredibly well.
Is it Running Brave? Close, but no – too Oscar-baity.
Is it The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner? Why yes, I’m glad you asked! Yes it is.
Here’s why you probably haven’t seen this classic of English cinema.
- It’s British. This is un-American in several key ways. A) It’s about running; B) It involves a system of incarceration comparatively enlightened to our own; C) No (visible) apple pies are consumed; D) England is not America.
- It was made a long-ass time ago (1962).
- It is shot in black and white.
- Accents, wtf?
- I don’t know, dude, I’m out of reasons. You should probably just go watch it and then come back for some (attempted) enlightened analysis.
But here’s why it’s the greatest running movie you probably haven’t seen (and also very likely the greatest running movie ever made), as well as why you should watch it.
- Tom Courtenay, who plays the main character, is the realest one, and if he’s not a Knight of the English Realm then at least he’s a Knight of My Heart’s Realm.
- It’s rugged and raw.
- A Killer Title. If I were to rank titles of things off the top of my head, I would rank all of Chuck Tingle’s ebook titles at the top of the list. Then this. Then Kendrick’s Untitled/Unmastered. Then Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring. Then maybe Tender Is the Night? I don’t know, I’m running out of things I haven’t read.
- Working class accents.
- Relevance to today’s day ‘n age.
- Impress your friends next time someone mentions Iron Maiden, who recoded a song with the same title: “Hmm, yes, quite. You know, Iron Maiden recorded a song called ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,’ named for the classic English film, or short story, I don’t know which. You really must catch up with it.”
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a classic movie which stars Tom Courtenay as realest one Colin Smith. We meet young Colin as he sows discord across his working class London neighborhood – stealing cars, melting hearts, rebelling against his mother’s materialism and new boyfriend, etc. It’s like if Kingsmen were a good movie, but about running instead of anal sex. He’s a rough kid, but his heart is in the right place. And you can’t tell him shit. Eventually, Colin gets nicked for robbing a local small-businessman, and the powers that be send him away to a reformatory school or prison or something –like I said, the British prison system even in the 60s seems better than our own and it’s already confusing enough that this isn’t The Night of.
The warden is kind of a dick, but he’s impressed by Colin’s running ability, and he starts to give Colin special treatment such as easier shitty jobs and whatnot. They make the kids build gas masks and stuff, but don’t worry because this is not #symbolic in any way. Because this is England and people care about running, Dickish Warden’s reputation is at stake over an upcoming cross country race pitting the reform school/kid prison kids against a nearby school of talented squares and goody goods.
Now I’m generally on team anyone-who’s-running-for-fun, but in this case team Goody Goods are a bunch of ponces who look and act like Winklevoss twins. I can’t in good conscience root for that, especially with Tom Courtenay mistrusting so winsomely and glowering so roguishly. Team Goody Goods are a bunch of villains-in-training, and honestly if the movie were shot today they’d probably go on to get into colleges after a parent makes a sizable donation or regulate women’s bodies or pass voter suppression laws or award government contracts to former teammates.
We’re supposed to root for Colin, but not for victory. It’s kind of a weird setup because winning the race is a form of losing, a pyrrhic victory of sorts, since if Colin wins then Dickish Warden also wins. In victory, the talented Colin would be controlled, a tool of the system.
This poses the question of what it means to be a true long distance runner. Is it to beat poncey prep school losers and Oregon Ducks? (Well, yes, to an extent.) Is it to win accolades and sponsorships? Is it to win renown for your masters who don’t do shit but take credit anyway? If it’s not any of those things, then what is running? What am I? What are we even doing here?
I won’t spoil the ending, because you’re totally going to go and watch this movie right after you close this tab, shut that Macbook Air, contentedly sigh to yourself, do a little search on the Netflix, sign up for a DVD plan, change your mind because this is 2017 (I totally have a DVD plan), log onto Amazon Video, and rent that shit digitally. Right? Guys? Anywho, the ending is sick, and it uses running as a metaphor to unpack issues of conformity, individual agency, societal control, and what it means to be a human who gives no quarter or fucks. It’s all very metal.
Rather than just being some dude who runs, or who uses running to escape his circumstances and Teach Us Things, as we’ve seen in movies like Running Brave, Race, McFarland, and so on, Colin’s race is against the implacable monolith of The Man. Just as every human body eventually succumbs to its physical limitations, so too does every individual succumb to societal regulation. Running’s function in this movie is similar to the role it plays in a movie like Hunger (which is unfortunately only running-adjacent, thereby disqualifying it for consideration for this post), in that it’s a path to individual expression, self-reliance, and freedom, but it can also be just another system of control, and a race can be bled of any larger significance if run he wrong way or for the wrong reasons. The operative question in The Loneliness of the Long Distance runner is, can we fight this battle on our own terms?
We’ve learned over the past few weeks that freedom is fragile, resistance vital. Here, the overwhelming forces of subjugation are not only Dickish Warden but also the privileged rich boys, the cops, the judges, the class structure, and so on, I’m already exhausted typing it out. Can we overcome it, or will we just exhaust ourselves and collapse on the refuse heap of history? I don’t know, watch the movie and keep on running til your legs fall off. Tom Courtenay will show us the way.