top of page

       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

Running in Film

Chases and escapes are a staple ingredient of action films, and there are many dramatised biographies of athletes, but the aim here is to select examples of film which allow discussion about some aspect of running beyond what is seen onscreen.


We could have included, for instance, the thrilling parkour run in the most recent Casino Royale, but what more could be said about it, other than it's exciting to watch? And The Running Muse always likes to talk a good run.

Run Lola Run


Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) may not be about running, but it does have exhilarating, extended and frequent running sequences throughout the film, and a lot more happens on these runs than on your average Sunday jog, with each innocuous bumping, braking, sighting and chance collision being much more than it seems.


The plot of this heart-pumping German thriller revolves around Lola (Franka Potente, who went on to star in a couple of the Bourne films) having to somehow find 100,000 DM (about £35,000) and deliver it to her boyfriend half way across Berlin in order to save his life - all in twenty minutes! We see three versions of her run: in each one, the series of chance incidents along the route varies only very slightly, but these tiny differences turn out to have important consequences for both the unfolding run and the wider narrative.


The film structures the contingencies of time and chance and viewpoint around an urban run........all very earnest and Germanic, you might think, but this is essentially an action film (it won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival), and the underlying themes are worn lightly.


Having said that, the film begins with a couple of heavy onscreen quotes from an unlikely pairing:


             'We shall not cease from exploration,

                 and the end of all our exploring

                    will be to arrive where we started

                       and know the place for the first time.'

                              (T.S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding', from Four Quartets)


The second quote may be the most gnomic ever uttered by a football coach:


             'After the game is before the game.'

                                                        (Sepp Herberger)


OK, so we know we're not dealing with the Kinks' or Barry Manilow's Lola here, but we are given no time to meditate on cryptic profundities anyway - one phone call into the film, the potential energy of Lola's dire predicament is immediately transduced into her furious, pavement-pounding kinetic energy through central Berlin:

This is 'Sliding Doors' with guns, pace and a stirring soundtrack, with long, lingering tracking shots ramping up the tension in our hip heroine's desperate race against time (...whatever time is, Grasshopper). Dramatic licence is well to the fore regarding Lola's lactate threshold as she rips out successive k's at full pelt: 'How did you get here? Did you run here?', says Lola's lover in disbelief.


Film students and forums have been in a frenzy about the possible themes lurking within what is essentially a story about a run from A to B. Whole theses have been written about its exploration of the free will v. determinism debate, while fans and critics alike have made observations on the way the whole run is presented as a chaotic system sensitive to small changes, i.e., the 'butterfly effect'. Maybe I'll write a thesis about the epistemological hazards of reading too much into everything, but the enigmatic editing does seem to make a point of leaving space for such interpretations. The motifs of rhythm, repetition and interval are explored through running, as well as in the techno soundtrack ........anyway, take it from me, this is a rattling good thriller with fab running scenes.    


The Running Muse will continue to look at running in both documentaries and feature films in future posts. Meanwhile, do be careful who you bump into on your next may be altering their life forever, and your own.


Run Lola Run (1998, 81 mins), directed by Tom Tykwer.

Lola Rennt video clip music is 'Running One' from the soundtrack, with vocals by Franka Potente.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

All I know is you've got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post's no end....'


So says the narrator at the beginning of the 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', the 1962 film based on Alan Sillitoe's short story about Smith, a resentful young inmate of a bleak borstal prison in the class-ridden England of the late 1950's. Through running, he finds a way to flip two fingers at the establishment values being foisted upon him.


This is a tale of running as autonomy, as wresting back control (successfully, it would seem, as our narrator is Smith himself), but this is no running 'Rocky'. When he is given the opportunity to train for a prestigious cross-country race against the local public school, Smith's solo runs through the surrounding countryside give him the space and clarity to reflect on the wretched circumstances of his life and the social mores of the time - but his defiantly 'barmy runner-brain' still chooses rebellion over rehabilitation.


At one point he acknowledges the way running gives him time to collect his disparate thoughts: 'to say that last sentence has needed a few hundred miles of long-distance running' - which may be why one reviewer suggested that Smith's account was 'not so much written about running, but by running'.  


The film stars Tom Courtenay in his first film role as Smith, and Michael Redgrave as the reformatory governor who, as a former runner himself, sees athletics as part of the rehabilitation regime for his teenage delinquents. Smith is his team's best chance to win the race, thereby enhancing the governor's own reputation.


For Smith, however, running means self-esteem, not esteem for the institution, and he relishes the freedom to be himself, not just a 'racehorse getting credit for his owner', a commodity. He actually wants this kind of loneliness, 'because in the end, you're on your own, like a long-distance spectators, you have to deal with life on your own'.

Still from the 1962 film 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner'

Our working class anti-hero trusts no-one and has always resisted attempts by any of his supposed 'betters' to tell him his 'proper' place (as John Lennon put it, 'as soon as you're born, they make you feel small'). He delights especially in subverting the governor's self-serving expectations of him, for which his only weapons are his natural talent as a runner and his cocky repartee:


Governor:                     'What's your name?'

Smith (sullenly):          'Smith.'

Governor's assistant:    'Say "Sir" when you address the governor!'

Smith:                           'Sir Smith.'


I can just hear Lennon saying that.....just as I can imagine Smith onstage telling the royal family to 'rattle your jewellery' in time to the next song, as Lennon did a few months after this film was released, months which saw the ushering in of a much less deferent era.


Here's the scene when Smith is first given the freedom to run outside the prison wire - he exults in his aloneness as he runs free through the landscape to the exuberant sound of a jazz trumpet (jazz was first heard as incidental music in a film score just a few years before in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'):

Not the most efficient running form, was it ? Decent cricket bowling action, though.....


We are in 'angry young men' country here, a catch-all label used to describe writers such as Sillitoe and John Osborne who were disillusioned with the orthodox values of the 1950's and the hidebound institutions hopelessly out of sync with the modern world. These 'rebels with a cause' brought a fresh, iconoclastic immediacy to their depiction of the current social alienation and damage within real lives, mostly working class ones.

'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' by Alan Sillitoe, Pan edition

British cinema would follow suit (inspired also by the French 'New Wave' with its 'vérité'), and the two strands would come together in the producers of this film, Woodfall Films, formed by director Tony Richardson and playwright John Osborne (of 'Look Back in Anger' fame).


(Spoiler alert!) At the end of the film, Smith is winning easily, savouring the countryside around him in the knowledge that the defiant gesture he is about to make will mean the end of his freedom for a while. He stops with a smile and a sneer just before the finish line, thus allowing himself to be overtaken and to feel glad that 'I'd got them beat at last'. It's back to the reformatory for him, a them-and-us world that needs revolution, not reform, according to Smith: 'I'd put 'em all up against a wall and let 'em have it', he says of all figures of authority.


You'd think he would have enjoyed beating the public school toffs in a race rather more than thumbing his nose at the governor (just as my childhood comic hero, Alf Tupper, 'The Tough of the Track', used to hunt down those posh AAA's types, just to 'show 'em').....but the 17-year-old Smith is no collective class warrior, more of a reactionary, isolated bundle of resentments.


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner has been performed on stage, and text from the book was used decades later as the cover of anarcho-punk band Chumbawumba's 'Just Look at Me Now (Borstal Boy Mix)' single. Their lead guitarist and vocalist, Boff Whalley, is a serious fell runner and has recounted his experiences in his excellent book, Run Wild, while his band's rare vinyl album, '101 Songs About Sport', is a collection of short, raw and witty musical thrashes ('tuneful' would be overstating it), each expressing solidarity with sporting rebels, underdogs and those who stand up, with one of those fingers on each hand up, to corporate influences. The stories in these songs, which we will be returning to in a later blog, are priceless. Smith would certainly approve.  


Quite what he'd say to one of the biggest of those corporate influences, Steve Wozniak, I don't know - the founder of Apple credits his independent thinking to his schoolboy reading of this story - but I'm going to leave you on a deafening high with a great montage from the film, accompanied by perhaps the book's most unlikely fans, the heavy metal rock group, Iron Maiden, with their lung-bursting song of the same name:

The Running Muse

flame toes 2.3
bottom of page