‘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!
I am sixteen, it is 1962 in Budapest 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 runner 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.
He stares his penitentiary boss in the eye as he is still barracking for him from the audience.
He promised the prisoner an early release if he did him the 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 a 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 for ever.
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 prisoner runner and whose debut in this film made him into an instant star, also became one of my favourite actors?
As a child I didn’t 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 presently, 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 I 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, the 8th of October 2010, just ten days after I saw this film again; four times older now 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 was just 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 is a leading Chinese dissident who is serving an 11-year prison term for calling for human rights and 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 Solzhenitsin, 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: ‘One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ it was Tom Courtney who played the role of the dissident once again.
‘Till we have built Jerusalem…..’
Yes; the loneliness of such long distance runners!