Previously lost in the woods, this Countercultural Eruption is a Tension-filled Time Capsule
DIRECTED BY LARRY PEERCE/1971
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 25, 2022/SCORPION RELEASING via KINO LORBER
With its lodges and vertical wood paneling, The Sporting Club begins as one of the brownest, most autumnal movies you ever will see. Filmed in Arkansas for Michigan in the pre-winter months and with shadow of Vietnam looming, this movie is a sharp elbow to the gut of whatever sensible thought still lingered in America circa 1971. Ostensibly cut to ribbons against its director’s wishes (one suspects that it’s no less weird, just shorter), the resulting film remains a sparking powder keg of violent tensions that runs our caste system through the wringer with little to no outward explanations. And there’s an orgy.
For the blue and/or grey-haired members of the self-revered Centennial Club, fall marks lodge time. Theirs is a classic lodge, made of logs and decorated with taxidermy, various mounted fish, and maybe a few paintings of long-dead lodge founders that they’ve convinced themselves that they respect. A mayor, a bunch of businessmen, their wives, and weirdly, a preacher who preaches sermons as though it were church. Only in any outward imperfections can any possibility prove discernible from the rest. For example, one woman is bound to a wheelchair. The rest are your routine upper crust three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwiches.
But they’re not main characters. They may have the arc, but the focal stars of The Sporting Club are as follows: Vernur Stanton (Robert Field) as another wealthy but apart from the herd eccentric, prone to demagoguery. Obviously, he’s a wild-eyed nut job, per his love of ten-pace pistols-at-noon duels (wax bullets, but they still really hurt, dagnabbit!) in his subterranean rec room. It is in this ominous place, devoted entirely to human target practice (in the vague interest of “eventualities”, Stanton says with a grin) that his best friend Quinn (Nicholas Coster, our de facto everyman… for what that’s worth) is immediately shot in the chest. But not even that can sever this “friendship”, one no doubt helped along by the personable and becoming Janey (Maggie Blye), who professes her love for both men, separately. Maybe she’ll marry the rich crazy one that she can’t quit, but also make a go of it with the jaw-clinched, masculine other? Maybe, maybe… but how much can such affairs of the heart (if that’s the correct anatomy to denote) matter when there’s a localized apocalypse a-brewing?
Just when we’re convinced that Stanton’s warped mania will bring this movie to a fiery conclusion, Jack Warden, playing some sort of laidback specter of justice named Earl Olive, turns up. Earl is a man of the land with a rotting bone to pick. In his knit cap and wool coat, Warden is perfect in this role, whatever it is. It is his impish presence that gives The Sporting Club a much-needed shot in the arm. He even comes with his own gang of raucous revelers, a bunch of motorcycle-riding good-timin’ hooligans to carry out whatever Earl is there to carry out.
Soon enough, it’s apparent that at least one of the film’s three major factions is a red herring, thus overcrowding both the imminent war and the screenplay. At the midpoint, things take a turn with a blast that creates a haven of reclaimed wood for whomever may come around once the final credits have rolled. The Centennial lodgers gun up and buckle down in defense of their prideful legacy, for all the good it’ll do ‘em. Poor Russell, a periphery player who’s no spring chicken even comparatively, falls asleep on late-night machine gun detail, winding up tarred and feathered as a consequence.
Written by 1966’s Batman TV series staple Lorenzo Semple Jr. and directed by established film Larry Peerce who was in the midst of looking for a career pivot (he got it), The Sporting Club stands out as a work that’s incendiary in its time as it is forgotten today. To say it didn’t go over well would be an understatement- that is, if anyone is actually compelled to say anything about The Sporting Club these days, period. And not even the old timey cover of the new Blu-ray edition- a strange and even cryptic choice, for sure- is likely to cultivate any deserved discourse. (According to film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer, this Blu-ray marks the The Sporting Club’s first appearance on any home video format since its VHS release in 1987). Perhaps we chalk up the film’s 1971 reception to the momentary glut of other obliquely incendiary films. Perhaps we chalk up any current apathy to the fact that it’s an oblique, incendiary film from 1971.
In new short video interviews with director Larry Peerce and star Nicolas Coster, both men condemn The Sporting Club as a compromised work, mangled into its release cut by producer Joseph Levine and company. The majority of the single digit smattering of Letterboxd user reviews certainly fall in line with that verdict, condemning it with one and a half stars out of five, and the like. Kremer, on his commentary, tells of its abyssal contemporary critical reviews, which gave way to the film’s outright disastrous box office performance. Yet, Kremer prevails as the first voice of tolerance for The Sporting Club, correctly postulating that it has quietly aged into a certain relevance for those who might be looking for “different films” from our past.
Kremer’s commentary, while packed with interesting information, is also something of a ramble, as the historian chats his way through director Peerce’s filmography in an order all his own. Focus is required to track with Kremer as he lackadaisically hopscotches from one topic to another, though the effort is never not worth it. He truly knows his stuff in regard to this film and its disparate elements. It’s quite likely that literally no one else wields the qualifications necessary to effectively talk through The Sporting Club.
Though this Blu-ray brandishes a brand new 4K master courtesy of StudioCanal, some portions have survived better than others in term of fading or wear and tear. With that noted, however, it can’t be denied that this is a fine release of a most unlikely title. The Sporting Club, though far from perfect or even fully understandable, this disc proves to be an ideal time capsule, possibly ushering in the movie’s time in the sun.