September 6, 2011 -- I watched this classic 1981 film again last night on my home theater setup. It was the first time I had seen it in years. I had forgotten a few things about it, but mainly I was impressed at how good this film really is and how well it passes the test of time. When “Chariots of Fire” won the Best Picture Award at the Academy Awards® a lot of people felt the award was undeserved, because it was up against some very good films that year, such as “On Golden Pond,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Reds.” If you don't believe me, pick a search engine and search for “Chariots of Fire” and add the word “undeserving” and you will see all kinds of moanings and groanings about how overrated this film is.
Now I'm not getting into that argument about which of those four films is better (“Atlantic City” was the other Best Picture nominee that year), but I will say it is in the conversation. It is understandable how “Chariots of Fire” won, given the strength of the Academy's lock step anglophile vote (how else do you explain “Shakespeare in Love” beating “Saving Private Ryan” and “The English Patient” beating “Fargo” for God's sake?). I will also say this upset is a lot less troubling to me than the other two upsets listed above.
First of all, the music is great in this film. The iconic theme music, by Vangelis, plus all those jaunty Gilbert and Sullivan numbers (come to think of it, there is a Gilbert and Sullivan number in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” too) some by none other than the incomparable D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, are exceptional. This part of the movie, like much of the rest of the film is based on fact. One of the film's main characters, Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross, who would go on much later in his long career to play both a vampire and a Vulcan, Sarek) was indeed a huge fan of Gilbert and Sullivan music. The cinematography by David Watkin was also very good, as is the acting by a mixture of young actors and veterans, like Sir John Gielgud and Ian Holm.
There have been a lot of sports dramas made into films over the years, including “Rocky,” “Any Given Sunday” and last year's over-praised “The Fighter,” but “Chariots of Fire” remains one of the best because it transcends sports, even though its climax is in the 1924 Paris Olympic games. It gets into anti-Semitism, the psychology of competition and it gets into religious conviction too. I suspect this is where it gets into trouble with many critics. There is a very uneasy relationship between religion and film. Modern movies have taken an increasingly hostile view of religion over the years. Scorn is heaped on any film with a positive depiction of religion (for instance, look at the reviews of “Soul Surfer”). Few are the films which dare to get into religious territory these days. One of the rare exceptions is “Amazing Grace,” which was vastly underrated, perhaps because of its unpopular positive depiction of religion.
“Chariots of Fire” centers on two athletes, Harold Abrahams, a Jew who ran in defiance of anti-Semitism and Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson of “Gandhi”) a Christian missionary from Scotland who would later die in an internment camp in China. His release had been obtained by the British government, but he gave up his place to a pregnant woman and stayed, even though he was gravely ill. Liddell famously refused to run a 100 meter qualifying heat in the 1924 Paris Olympics because it was held on a Sunday, which Liddell considered to be the Sabbath. Although the 100 meter event was Liddel's best distance, he entered the 400 meter event. Americans, holders of world records in both events were favored.
Another main character in the film is Sam Mussabini (played by Ian Holm), a professional track coach, hired by Abrahams to improve his running technique. Mussabini is persona non grata at the games, which were strictly amateur events at the time. Much is made in the film about the patrician attitude of royalty and other elites towards professional sports. Mussabini and Abrahams are both admonished for sullying the purity of sports with the attitude of “tradesmen.” It would be many years before truly professional athletes like the first Olympic basketball “Dream Team” would be allowed to participate in the Olympics. I am old enough to remember when the anti-professionals still held sway in the Olympics. Mussabini, prohibited from the Olympic stadium, is forced to sit in an apartment near the stadium as Abrahams runs. His fierce, defiant reaction to the race and the anti-professional attitude of its sponsors is a thing to behold. Holm, an under appreciated actor, is superb in the role.
The film's strong cast is rounded out by Alice Krige (who would later play a ghost and later yet a Borg queen, who asks Data “was it good for you?”) as stage performer Sybil Gordon and Brad Davis (“Midnight Express”) and Dennis Christopher (“Breaking Away”) who play American sprinters Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock, respectively. Others include Nigel Davenport, who plays Lord Birkenhead, and Nigel Havers (“A Passage to India”) who plays the wealthy hurdler and sprinter Lord Andrew Lindsay (whose character was based on real life Olympic gold medalist David Burghley, said to be the only man in history to have successfully made the “Great Court Run” at Cambridge at the time the film was made). Lindsay's lighthearted, carefree character is a nice counterpoint to the intense, driven characters of Abrahams and Liddell. Ben Cross carries the day, however, as the driven sprinter Abrahams. Like the great golfer Arnold Palmer, its not so much that he enjoys winning, as much as he absolutely can't stand to lose.
One of the few things I don't like about this film are the bizarre expressions of anguish on the face of the runners as they strain to go as fast as they can. Some of these expressions are truly hideous. I've watched a lot of real track races, and never seen any real runners with expressions that look like the fake runners in this film, let alone all those queer flailing and arm waving motions. There is also an ill-advised attempt to jam the character of a New Zealand athlete, Tom Watson, into the film, including a strange scene where you can hear dialogue but can't see who is talking. The real New Zealand athlete's name was Arthur Porritt, who did not want his name in this film. The whole Tom Watson subplot seems unnecessary and pointless. Despite that, this film rates a B+.
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