I’ve been a fan of the Irish actor Richard Harris (1930-2002) ever since I so him perform as King Arthur in Camelot (1982), a film of a stage performance show on TV when I was a kid (not to be confused with the 1967 film in which Harris also stars that is not as good). When he died in 2002, I was annoyed that the remembrances of his life focused on his role as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, pretty much ignoring the rest of his career. Yet, I’m also guilty as I’ve not seen to many Richard Harris films. With the help of the Minuteman Library Network, I addressed this wrong by watching the following three Richard Harris movies on DVD.
This Sporting Life (1963)
A stark film from the British social realism features Harris as tough and ambitious professional rugby player Frank Machin. While successful on the rugby pitch, he meets greater resistance trying to woo his widowed landlady Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts). Skipping back and forth through time we learn that Frank is generous and playful with Margaret’s children but also prone to violent outbursts which make Margaret rightfully wary, although we also learn that they are involved sexually. None of this ends very well for anyone, and the filmmakers capture every grim detail from punches in the face, trash blowing down the street of a North England town, and nuclear power plants looming over the rugby stadium. This is not a movie to watch when you’re down, and not easy to watch under any conditions, but there is some damn fine acting by Harris and Roberts. The on-the-field rugby scenes are also brilliantly filmed.
A Man Called Horse (1970)
Harris portrays a British aristocat John Morgan on a hunting safari in the American West who is captured by a Sioux and is taunted with the derogatory nickname of Horse. Biding his time until he can make his escape, Morgan ingratiates himself with the Sioux by killing warriors from a competing tribe and taking their horses. He undergoes graphically depicted initiation rights and takes a wife and soon becomes a respected leader of the tribe, no longer desiring to escape but fully integrating into their lifestyle.
In the movies about Indians continuum, this movie stands as a hinge between the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” movies that preceded it (and to which it superficially resembles) and the later overly-sentimentalized portrayals of Indians like in Dances With Wolves (which is also a similar story). The filmmakers obviously made a great effort to accurately portray the language, clothing, and culture of the Sioux, although they sometimes were wide off the mark. The film is also very much a product of it’s times. Harris’ sideburns make him look like he’s in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, the Indian maidens all have hair like Jeanne Shrimpton back in 1965, and the warrior initiation rites are psychedelic trip, man!
The Field (1990)
I’ve learned that Richard Harris films are not easy to watch, and this one is particularly harrowing. Set in Leenane, Ireland between the wars and based on a play by John B. Keane, I first learned of this film on a coach tour through Connemara. Our cheerful guide never mentioned the gruesome murder that takes place by the falls he pointed out as one of the film locations. The story is about an imposing, bully of a man “Bull” McCabe, but still much respected in the village, who lovingly tends to farming a field he rents from a neighboring widow. Unbeknown to Bull, his ne’er-do-will son joins with the village idiot in tormenting the widow in hopes of getting her land and thus impressing his father. The widow instead decides to sell the land at auction and while no one in the village will bid against Bull, she makes special conditions that help favor a wealthy American stranger. This leads to a clash which brings the whole village to turmoil, uncovers buried secrets, and leads to murder and madness. Very King Lear-ish actually. A powerful film that is beautiful to watch for its scenery if you can stand grim reality long enough.
Future installments of the Richard Harris Film Festival will include The Molly Maguires (1970) (which I saw about 10 years ago but don’t remember well) and Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993).