‘I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword rest in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land!’
With the stirring music to W. Blake’s Jerusalem, the film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner finishes. The light comes on; the people around me get up and leave the cinema. But I am so moved that I cannot move!
It’s 1962 in Budapest, Hungary, I am 16, and I just saw this movie that shook me to my core. The melody of Jerusalem keeps running through the credits after the film suddenly ends.
What a stunning climax!
The hero, the long-distance running prisoner, is about to win the marathon race of his life with ease. But he stops just a few metres before the finishing line. He looks at the roaring crowd urging him on to consummate his victory.
The impossible happens – he refuses to cross the finishing line. Instead, he stares his penitentiary boss in the eye as he is still barracking for him from the audience. The boss promised the prisoner early release if he did him and important favour and won the race for his prison against the runners of a posh private school that they were competing against.
The prisoner stands there, panting. He has run his heart out to win this race, which he could still do easily, but he stays stopped, dead in his tracks. He allows himself just a small smirk as he watches his boss’s reaction to his letting an opposition athlete pass him at long last and claim the race that was there for his taking …
Stunned, I remain in my seat after the end of the show, as the new audience meanders in. The hall darkens once again and I sit through the film a second time.
The melody of Jerusalem, which I never heard before seeing this film, lodges in my brain forever. From this time on, whenever I was stirred up by witnessing anyone struggling against impossible odds, the music began to play in my mind.
But why did this film move me so much?
Why did Tom Courtenay, who played the imprisoned runner and whose debut in this film made him into an instant star, also became one of my favourite actors?
As a child I did not seek, nor did I get answers to these questions. Yet with the passing of the years I have never forgotten the deep impression this film made on me.
After I got married many years later I wanted to find a copy of the film again to show to my wife but I could not get hold of it in Australia. But lo and behold, my wife was kind enough to trace the film and surprised me with its DVD version for my 64th birthday!
As we sat down to watch the film I wondered if, nearly half a century later, the film would still move me.
I need not have wondered!
At the climax point, at the end of the presentation, as the hymn of Jerusalem was belting out, I was in tears. And this time, I think, I understood why. The prisoner proved that he was able to win the race if he chose to do, but he chose defiance instead. He stopped playing the game. He deliberately lost the rat race that was his to win, and in doing so he won himself.
He conquered his jailer by refusing to sacrifice his integrity for opportunism.
So, who was the prisoner?
Obviously, it was me and my fellow prisoners in the gaol of communist Hungary. Every one of us had the choice to refuse to win in the race and suffer, or sell out to opportunism and lose our integrity. How I admired this prisoner who dared to lose, to win his integrity!
Now, fast forward to Friday, October 8, 2010, just ten days after I saw this film again, four times older than I was when I saw it as a child in the first instance. That night I heard on my car radio the news breaking that the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize had just been awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese prisoner of conscience.
I squeezed the steering wheel hard and yelled out at the top of my voice: ‘Yes!’
Liu was a leading Chinese dissident who was serving an 11-year prison term for calling for human rights and the democratisation in Communist China. Like the long-distance runner, he had forsaken his freedom for his integrity.
His imprisonment was a shocking repetition of the fate of Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel Prize Winner for Literature who was thrown into the gulag for his political dissent during Stalinist Communism in the Soviet Union. In the film version of this, called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it was Tom Courtenay who again played the role of the dissident.
Liu died on July 13, in his ninth year of imprisonment, because the authorities did not allow him to go abroad for specialist treatment for his cancer.
In his last interview before his detention, he told Four Corners, “People like me, live in two prisons in China. You come out of the small fenced-in prison, only to enter the bigger, fenceless prison of society”.
His wife remains under house arrest. China refused to grant a visa to the head of the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee to enter China to go to Liu’s funeral.
So, I would like to finish with a brief obituary to the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who had such courage of his convictions that he sacrificed his life for it. I start with a rather depressing but also probably truthful obituary quote, coming from the great Gyula Ilyes, whose powerful poem One Sentence About Tyranny I discussed and translated for publication by Starts at 60.
‘For where there is tyranny,
all is in vain,
this ode too,
no matter how true,
because from the first,
tyranny stands there at your grave,
it decides who you were
and even your ashes serve it.’
However, our late hero was an optimist. So, let’s finish with a quote from Shakespeare. After Anthony Caesar killed Brutus in a battle – reminiscent of a later tyrant, Stalin, who having killed his enemies, embraced them to show his own magnanimity – Caesar eulogises Brutus thus:
‘His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man’.’
I wonder, will Malcolm Turnbull raise his voice to China about its latest victim?