Meet Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), the protagonist of Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962); he’s the runner in the title, and as he puts it, he comes from a long line of runners, people who continually run away from their problems. And well, Colin’s no exception; he’s been sent to a progressive prison colony after getting arrested for theft.
But before you get the wrong idea, Colin’s not such a bad guy. Via flashback, we learn of his life pre-prison; he daily watches his father die from cancer as the old man refuses any treatment for pain or a hospital. After his father’s funeral, his mother begins keeping house with an odious leech of a man. And then there’s his neighborhood, a working class place filled with working class men and woman who give their lives away to faceless corporations in return for a hand-to-mouth existence.
Colin sees everything and knows that he’s expected to buy into these values and sell his soul to be the working poor, and he wants none of it; he opts out and steals (or borrows) what he wants and runs when things get troublesome. As he puts it, when he finally got caught, he just didn’t run fast enough.
In lockup, running’s not his problem; the guy has quite the knack for speed, and after de-throning the warden’s golden boy, he’s chosen to run in a race against a public school, earning glory and a trophy and showing everyone that a prison built on rehabilitation can weed out aggression and criminality (and life) out of society’s bottom feeders.
Colin runs for freedom, but as the title suggests, the loneliness is the price of that freedom. He can run and run and run, but he’ll never get anywhere, he’ll never be anyone and he’ll never find anything worth keeping. In a different movie, I can see Colin as a hippie, idealistic communist, etc., but left on his own, he’s just an angry young man with nothing to lose.
While the “better angels of my nature” (from Abraham Lincoln, if you’re wondering) want to buy into this truly ’60s idea, the more practical (and fearful) side of my mind sees the futility of that kind of life. I’m certain we’ve all had days where, instead of going to work, we want to drive until we hit the ocean and never look back, but we don’t. Colin would, and does, because he knows that even though he’ll be at the bottom forever, he’ll be free.
The real appeal of the film is that Colin makes his choice where others don’t, and yet the film asks both sides if freedom or peace of mind is worth the sacrifice. Either way, “Loneliness” is a compelling and thought-provoking look back.
“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962)
Directed by Tony Richardson
Written by Alan Sillitoe
Starring: Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith)