May 23, 2013
Chariots of Fire – UK, 1981
My favorite part of Hugh Hudson’s 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire in a scene that juxtaposes the stirring words of a religious sermon with the passion, struggle, and ultimately triumphs or agonies of Olympic athletes. The sermon is delivered by Eric Liddell, an Olympic athlete himself, and yet the images we see are not of him or the film’s other main character, Harold Abrahams. Instead, we see nameless athletes experiencing the euphoria of victory, the disappointment of second-place finishes, and the rush of emotions that often accompany losses. This is something that television audiences rarely see on Olympic broadcasts, which frequently focus on the three competitors fortunate enough to be on their way to a trophy presentation. The scene in Chariots of Fire reminds us that for every trio that gets an award, many more go home empty-handed despite being perhaps the best in their country and among the best in the world. In our results-oriented society, they are often neglected and forgotten, and this is a shame.
Chariots of Fire is the true story of two runners whose paths lead them to the 1924 Olympic Games. Liddell (Ian Charleson) is Scottish, Christian, and deeply religious; Abrahams (Ben Cross) is a veteran of World War I and Jewish. Both of them are constantly reminded that they are outsiders, yet when the time comes for them to race, they are expected to put country first. They met on the track in 1923, and on that day Liddell is victorious. Shocked and confused, Abrahams becomes determined to beat him the next time they face off. This is all handled rather unconventionally. There is no animosity between the two men, and if it weren’t for a lack of opportunity, it is easy to see the two of them becoming quite good friends. In fact, this is one of those rare films in which two fierce competitors square off and you don’t want either one of them to lose.
The film has a somewhat predictable arc for a film of this sort, and perhaps that is the reason the film could be made in the first place. There’s even a “Mickie”-type character named Sam Mussabini who shows up at just the right time claiming to be able to train someone to victory. This is followed by the requisite series of training montages, and in these scenes, Ian Holms’ delivery will likely remind some viewers of Burgess Meredith’s performance in Rocky. However, the film veers nicely away from the standard sports-film plot in its third act and reveals itself to be about something quite beautiful.
The film spreads itself a bit too wide at times. It wants to say something about athletes, politicians, religious bigotry, prejudice, romance, friendship, and rivalries, yet to do so adequately would require a much longer running time than just over two hours. Perhaps this is why the film’s peripheral characters, characters like Jennie Liddell, Lord Andrew Lindsay, and Henry Stallard, seem rather undeveloped. Even the relationship between Abrahams and his eventual wife Sybil Gordon feels rushed and incomplete. These characters, as well as members of the Royal family and officials from the British government, are often reduced to mere decorations. They either stand by as Abrahams recites one of his many monologues about his internal struggles, or they implore a reluctant Liddell to go against his convictions. Some of these moments were intended to enable Abrahams to give voice to his inner demons, yet they sound like the words of a very skilled writer rather than the words of a young man trying to understand his still maturing emotions. The film also relies too heavily on unnecessary flashbacks, which only serve to remind viewers of quotes that already seemed like foreshadowing when they were first uttered. For example, in an early scene, Liddell gently reminds a young child playing soccer on a Sunday that the Sabbath is a day of rest. If doesn’t take a genius to see the potential problems that this belief could pose to an athlete.
That said, Chariots of Fire remains a rather enjoyable film. What I’ll remember most about it are some of its smaller moments of genius. The “war list” on the wall of Cambridge University and the stirring words delivered in remembrance of the men whose names are on it. The camaraderie of Lindsay and Abrahams during their early two-man race. The look of determination on Liddell’s face as he stretches towards the finish line after being knocked down. The way Liddell walks over to shake Abrahams hand before they meet in competition. We learn so much about these two men during that brief exchange. The film reminds us that at its core sports is not about animosity. It is about the efforts of two people, two teams, two countries’ athletes that meet with a common goal. And in its celebration of two of the Olympic greats, the film shows us why we should honor the efforts of all of them. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars