The film tells the story of a rebellious youth (played by Tom Courtenay), sentenced to a borstal for burgling a bakery, who gains privileges in the institution through his prowess as a long-distance runner. During his solitary runs, reveries of important events before his incarceration lead him to re-evaluate his status as the prize athlete of the Governor (Michael Redgrave), eventually undertaking a rebellious act of personal autonomy and suffering an immediate loss of privileges.
The film poster's byline is “you can play it by rules… or you can play it by ear – WHAT COUNTS is that you play it right for you…”.
The film depicts Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an elitist place, where upper-class people enjoy many privileges while lower-class people suffer a bleak life, and its Borstal system of delinquent youth detention centres as a way of putting working-class people in their place. Alan Sillitoe was one of the angry young men producing media vaunting or depicting the plight of rebellious youths. The film has characters entrenched in their social context. Class consciousness abounds throughout: the “them” and “us” notions that Richardson stresses reflect the basis of British society at the time, so that Redgrave's “proper gentleman” of a Governor is in contrast to many of the young working-class inmates.
A classic coming of age movie about a boy who rebels against the corrupt class system.