When Young Son noticed me watching this film his first reaction was to ask who gets murdered? Retrospectively it was a legitimate question. To his eyes I was obviously watching a period piece, and it’s been his experience that people have a tendency to meet violent ends in such movies. Or at least the ones I watch.
Besides, it’s already been documented that I don’t give a flip for sports. On the rare occasions I find myself watching a film about them there’s usually an Ulterior Motive at work. For example: I watched Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own” not because I cared about baseball (which I really don’t), but because the back and forth between Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty und so weiter was irresistible. Ditto with films such as George Cukor’s “Pat and Mike”, Steven Lisberger’s “Animalympics” and Michael Curtiz’s “Trouble Along the Way”. Talent attracts, pumpkins. Remember that fact.
And, truth be told, Hugh Hudson’s “Chariots of Fire” isn’t so much a sports film as it is a film about two disparate characters equally driven by principle and conscience. People such as myself, who dislike sports, appreciate “Chariots of Fire” for the same reason pacifists can enjoy “Patton”. In both cases we’re seeing excellent character studies.
The film’s also a historical drama, set amid the trappings of the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. A time when amateur athletics were considered far superior to the professional variety, when we had sports journalists as opposed to “sportscasters”, and when athletes weren’t a pestilent collection of thugs, dopers and wife-beaters. Obviously a far distant time.
Allowing for some deviations in accuracy, “Chariots of Fire” concentrates on two very driven young men. Harold Abrahams is a Cambridge student for whom running is yet another tool to combat the anti-Semitism he feels surrounds every aspect of his life. Ben Cross plays Abrahams as if he’s enacting a line from a Simon & Garfunkel song: “Twitchin’ like a finger on the trigger of a gun”. Whether trying to face his doubts, or concentrating on a finish line, he spends the entire production smoldering, and the audience watches him waiting for the flame to erupt. Cross has certainly been a busy actor, but to my way of thinking he has yet to surpass the intensity of what he managed here.
Working a somewhat quieter vein, but no less intense, is Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell. He’s a member of a devoutly Christian Scottish family who’re devoted to missionary work in China. He’s also a demonically fast runner who believes that his athletic skill can be used to the glory of God. No fire-and-brimstone crusader, Charleson plays Liddell with the peaceful grace of the genuinely spiritual and, as such, the sermons he delivers throughout the course of the film carry much more sincere conviction.
Both Abrahams and Liddell see the Olympic Games as a way of achieving their particular goals. Initially starting out as opponents, they’re soon on the same team, but there are still hurdles to overcome. For Abrahams it’s knowing that he’s poured so much of his life to proving himself, and the failure to win Olympic gold will make everything meaningless. For Liddell it’s a test of faith as he has to choose between athletic glory and his devotion to God. Hudson’s direction of Colin Welland’s screenplay neatly twines the two stories together, and even when the characters of Abrahams and Liddell are competing against one another the audience has no trouble cheering for the both of them. The overall efforts would result in “Chariots of Fire” winning (among other things) the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture, and Welland would pick up an Oscar for his screenplay, proving that AMPAS does experience the occasional twinge of Justice.
Part of the reason Cross and Charleson manage so well in their roles is in the excellent choices made in supporting characters. This is especially true of Ian Holm, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sam Mussabini: a professional trainer who Abrahams uses to improve his running skills (at the risk of losing the all-precious “amateur” status). Holm is, of course, no stranger to putting out excellent work, and a lot of it can be found in this film. Especially good is his final scene in the film: essentially a monologue to Cross (whose character is still physically whacked out from the exertions of the day) which takes the form of a “come to Jesus” speech involving the winning of goals and the necessity of getting on with the business of Living.
In fact, Cross seems to have walked away with the lion’s share of the good supporting characters in the film. Alice Krige beguilingly shines as Sybil Gordon: a Savoy actress who falls for Abrahams (and who, as with so many women before or since, faces frustration with the obsessions of her man). And, since this is a historical drama set in England, “Chariots of Fire” is obliged to obey the little known law that says Sir John Gielgud must be somewhere in the cast. Here he plays the Master of Trinity College at Cambridge (holding an Honors Degree in Snobbery). He is joined by Lindsay Anderson as the Master of Caius (pronounced “keys” by the way. See? You learn something every time with me). Together these two worthies press the weight of the British Class System firmly upon Abrahams, bringing about a touch of the fire that the audience has been expecting for quite some time. So good are they at delivering their attitudes that later on, when it’s announced that Abrahams has won an important athletic event, they smugly congratulate themselves, stating they knew he had it in him all along. That the audience doesn’t leap from its chairs and immediately form a lynch mob against these flaming hypocrites has to be attributed to overall appreciation of a scene well acted.
But Charleson isn’t left out in the cold when it comes to support from other actors. In a climactic scene he refuses to run a race which is scheduled to take place on the Sabbath. For this he’s subjected to an extemely upper-crust “conversation” which includes not only the people in charge of the British Olympic delegation, but the Prince of Wales as well. Here Charleson is accompanied by Nigel Davenport, Patrick Magee, David Yelland and Peter Egan. Once again, being a British drama, the histrionics and arm-waving are non-existent and, considering the subject matter, the dialogue is rather subdued (although at one point Magee snarls: “In my day it was King first, God second!”).
(Considering that the Prince of Wales in this film would later become Edward VII, all the dialogue invoving principles in this particular scene tends to assume a particular brand of irony for the student of English history.)
The scenes at the Olympics, and in fact most of the athletic scenes and running about and such, are almost negligible to the film except to illustrate the ends to the means. But in watching “Chariots of Fire” it soon becomes evident that the real goals of the central characters is not gold medals. Rather, the further they go along, the clearer it becomes that the true goals lie not only in conquering their own particular doubts and problems, but in finding ways to hold on to their convictions. In this the athletics serve only as a backdrop (albeit an occasionally interesting one, such as a scene where Charleson’s character damn near runs himself to death in order to win a race). Equally interesting are the scenes of student life at Cambridge, as well as the various shots of Scotland . . . all of this exquisitely captured by David Watkin’s cinematography. Watkin’s work in “Chariots of Fire” is, in fact, as beautiful as what he did for “Out of Africa” (but I know some people don’t like “Out of Africa”, so let’s just forget I even brought the film up. I can be nice).
I mentioned the remoteness of the time that the story takes place. The difference in the mores and habits of athletes from then as opposed to what we have now. In “Chariots of Fire” the sensation is magnified by the soundtrack supplied by Vangelis Papathanassiou (who would be another Oscar recipient from this movie). All sense of “show me the money” and free agent contracts have no place being described by music such as the gloriously uplifting theme which brackets the movie. And throughout the film the athletic practice sessions and events are carried along by Vangelis’ signature electronic style, helping to depict the Olympic competitors as knights devoted to a higher order. Sports raised to the level of the classic concepts of Olympic participation as envisioned by Pierre de Coubertin. A time when “Nike” was the name of the Goddess of Victory.
The overall message of “Chariots of Fire” is probably summed up best in a line delivered by Cross about how he is afraid of losing, but much more afraid of winning. Hugh Hudson brought us a story surrounded by sports, but not dependent on them. A story where the tragedy of failure is not nearly as overwhelming as being consumed by victory. Yes, the moment is sweet when you break through the tape at the finish line. But, as Hudson demonstrated here, it’s only sweet if you’ve struggled to prepare yourself for the possibility of becoming a champion . . . and have considered the possible cost.
I Rather Enjoyed the Movie!