Frank Machin (magnificently played by Richard Harris) must weigh 14 stone. On the football field, he has the power of a tank. His instinct in any situation is to get his head down and push.
You see him first in a Rugby League scrum and then working down the mine in the same fierce stance, chewing gum as though his mouth were a treadmill. He looks as proud as a legendary animal. When his teeth are smashed in a scrum, the stumps are like the broken horns of a bull.
The first time you see him with his landlady, Mrs Hammond (Rachel Roberts), you wonder what on earth the pressure is between them.
There is something about her put-upon Englishwoman’s silences that makes him behave like a pig, and he could boot her for the way she droops over the memory of her dead husband – but at the same time, there is a kind of purity about her withdrawal that somehow consoles him, although he does everything to wreck it. When he has sold himself for £1,000 to the North Country businessmen who run the team, he puts the cheque in front of her like a dog laying a putrid bone on the pillow.
Their relationship thickens with hostility. Sometimes love-making works, but she generally manages to make him feel that he has assaulted her.
They begin to have a gruelling power over each other, but it is a power only to give pain. They make demands of each other that are cruel because they can’t be met, can’t be communicated and can’t even be defined to themselves. The tension between the two of them is suffocating.
Mrs Hammond eventually grows tired of Frank’s callousness and they fight terribly after the wedding of his best friend. In their last fight, which brings on a brain haemorrhage, all she can do is to yell that she wants peace.
The football game after her death is like the awful scene in a bullring when a Spanish audience whistles scorn at a matador because they suspect him of cowardice. His supporters are suddenly booing his pain. Something primitive and powerful is happening and it is overpowering.
Richard Harris won Best Actor at Cannes for his brooding portrayal (Anderson had originally wanted Sean Connery for the role but was dissuaded by the studio) but there are great performances all round in this first-rate debut from Lindsay Anderson.