Chariots of Fire (1981, Hugh Hudson)

In many ways, this is a delightful film, though one permanently subverted by a pedestal provided in 1982 by the Academy — which is appropriate since one of the deeper themes it examines has something or other to do with what the dogged pursuit of “winning” does to a person. Chariots of Fire works as a bit of atmosphere and period immersion because it’s so low-key in storytelling terms. The photography and editing are outstanding, the acting is neatly absent of histrionics, and not to sound irrational, but there’s something strangely comforting about the entire package. If you are an admirer of sports pictures, I’d imagine this would rate as one of the best of the genre.

The central problem of the sports picture if you don’t generally enjoy it, of course, is the central fallacy of its premise, whereby the story predicated on the winning or losing of a competition — in this case medals for running in the 1924 Paris Olympics — is by necessity a point A to point B narrative, whether the protagonist(s) are victorious or not. Chariots of Fire is thwarted on two counts: its two heroes, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, both win their respective glories, and the film’s justification of conflict, fierce passion for God and fierce lashing out at antisemitism, makes for a feeble backbone to the narrative. Very little complication is injected, necessitating a lot of drama played out in the faces of the two men, ably portrayed by Ian Charleson (Liddell) and Ben Cross (Abrahams). The result is charming and inventively mounted but finally just dull, unless you have a preexisting interest in the subject matter or in the period, which truly comes to life in director Hugh Hudson’s appropriation.

And these remarks aren’t meant to minimize the achievements of the two athletes, it’s simply that Colin Welland’s screenplay is neither eventful nor brooding and sophisticated enough to survive as a piece of universal storytelling; the passions of these men are heavily intellectualized and we’re not really given cause or time to understand them on a deep level. Even their true-life victories ring along; the most visceral moment we’re offered is the opening credits sequence, a magnificent tracking shot of the entire British Olympic team running by the seaside. The sublimity of this is offset slightly by Vangelis’ horribly dated theme music, ironically the most famous (and sole non-forgotten) aspect of the film in the States today. It’s mostly passable here, as this scene has remained in the cultural lexicon over most of the last thirty years, but it’s a nearly intolerable anachronistic distraction — in a film already rife with skullduggery in the historical-accuracy department — from the later training montage, the only portion of the movie that now seems quite laughable.

It would be interesting to sit down with Hugh Hudson and try and discern his reasons for tackling this project in the unusual way he did. Most directors would play this thing for catharsis by climaxing the story with a major bravura moment for each of the two characters. Instead, the victory comes and passes quickly; there’s indeed more drama in the early failures. One especially potent sequence is that which finds Abrahams’ semi-disgraced trainer (Ian Holm) barred from the Olympic park and aware of his tearful victory only by observing from a distance which flag is raised after the race is finished. Any artist worth his or her salt, of course, would try and subvert a tale that can be pared down as simply as: “two men have something to prove, win races.” Yet Hudson doesn’t take this route either, filming the two boys as though they’re gods of some sort, and emphasizing the moral conflict buried in and motivating each of them. Emotions of a patriotic and proud sort are meant to be aroused in the viewer, but the actual “wins” feel unsatisfying, anticlimactic. One wonders if this somehow was the point.

Overall, the actors, director, and writer are to be commended for giving the film a seriousness well-suited to its grandiose title. Even if it’s essentially little more than a feel-good telefilm, there’s also something slightly haunting about it — and it’s striking how distant it’s already become in the mere three decades since its release and Oscar win. (It was the first British film to take the award since Oliver! fourteen years earlier and remains an important film in the UK, evidenced by the recent revival of the play at the London Olympics.) It’s featherweight, sure, but it generates a completeness of spirit that’s surprisingly effective.

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