The paperback publisher Vintage has reissued two volumes by Alan Sillitoe — “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” — that have strong connections to movie history.
Sillitoe’s view of angry young working-class men in England at the end of the 1950s inspired excellent movie adaptations that became key films of the 1960s. Directors Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson brought a new documentary-style realism to British film in Reisz’s 1960 version of “Saturday Night” (above) and Richardson’s searing 1962 film of “Long Distance Runner.” In both cases, the directors were wise enough to hire Sillitoe to write the screenplays.
The anti-heroes of both stories rebelled against the way British class restrictions were holding them back, but both buckled under the pressure. It wasn’t until a few years later that the sexual and cultural revolutions in England and around the world made Sillitoe’s misunderstood rebels into heroes (the boarding school anarchist in Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 film “If…” took the simmering anger of Sillitoe and expressed it in the overt violence that was not thinkable a decade earlier).
It’s interesting to see Sillitoe’s development from “Saturday Night” to “Long Distance Runner.”
Arthur Seaton in the first book is a 22-year-old factory worker who lives for his weekend debauches (much in the manner of another working class hero, Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”). Arthur eventually bows to social pressures and we’re left to assume that he will simply become another cog in English industry.
The younger protagonist of “Long Distance Runner” is a juvenile delinquent sent to a reform school who rises above his peers because of his abilities as a runner. The boy expresses his own revolutionary impulses, however, by throwing away a sure win in a key race against a pretigious private school. In this book — and film — Sillitoe was lighting a match to a fuse on a bomb that wouldn’t explode until a few years later.
The Reisz and Richardson films had a big impact in the United States where art house moviegoers appreciated their sexual frankness and moral ambiguity. The films also inspired American directors to push for the changes in content that would completely alter the U.S. film industry in just a few years.
The casting of rough-hewn Tom Courtenay (below) in the leading role of “Long Distance Runner” was also a crucial step away from the glossy movie star look of the 1950s. On this side of the Atlantic, Courtenay and the new breed of British film star would embolden directors such as Mike Nichols and Bob Rafelson to build movies around new (and far from glamorous) actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson.