Chariots of Fire: Runs Into Our Hearts

Up until recently, I never had a running habit. Sure, I’d run as a little kid, but I was never one to strap on my running shoes and hit the streets and run for miles and miles. My aggressive indifference to running even forced me to not enjoy some sports that I attempted to play when I was in high school.

 

But I’ve changed and actually enjoy waking up in the morning and heading out the door into the Texas air with Laci and our dog, Bear. But, that doesn’t mean that running isn’t hard work. It is. At times, I’ve never felt worse pain in my life than when I run. In April, Laci and I completed a 5K. I’d never run a race like that before and just finishing the darn thing with my head held high was enough to keep me hooked and running for life.

 

I can’t kid myself, though: I won’t ever win a marathon (let alone run one), nor will I ever be the next Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis. Instead, I’ll be a life-long runner, just putting mile after mile on my shoes. I’m not alone in this either. During our morning runs, Laci and I run into many, many people who are also jogging their lives away.

 

Since running is so common today, I thought watching a movie about it would be interesting, at best, and drab and boring at worst. I was wrong on both accounts. With the number of times that I’ve been wrong on my assumptions about a film while writing this blog, you’d think I’d just give up making them.

 

Regardless, this week’s film is 1981’s Chariots of Fire, director Hugh Hudson’s take on the sport of running and competition. Sports movies are not often Best Picture winners (or even nominated for that matter), but when they are, they tend to be something special. The last sports movie that I reviewed was almost a year ago: Rocky. While I may have been too hard on that film, the one element in which that film really lacked was the absence of a number of really deep, dynamic, and poignant themes. Rocky was an underdog story, and that’s always nice. But it lacked a lot of depth because that was really the film’s only theme.

Chariots of Fire is different. Much different. Even though Rocky won the Academy Award just five years earlier, this film was full of deep, rich and compelling movie work that it’s really one of the great sports movies. The movie primarily follows two men, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell,  from very different backgrounds but each one with a special gift for athletic prowess, as they train and compete at the 1924 Olympics on behalf of Great Britain. Along the way, the two men will have to stand up for their beliefs, race with zeal and conviction, even in the face of pressures from prejudice, love, class, and politics.

 

Now for the rest of the movie.

 

Plot

In 1919, young Harold Abrahams, an English Jew, played by Ben Cross, enters the University of Cambridge as one of the most talented and unknown runners in the country. He becomes the first person in 700 years to complete the Trinity Great Court Run at Cambridge, he begins training, and running, trying to be the best in the world, and to make the Olympic team.

 

At the same time, Scotland’s brightest rugby star Eric Liddell, played by Ian Charleson, quickly realizes his own potential on the track, putting everything aside to help train and to win. A devout Christian, Liddell often runs afoul of his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) who wants him to do missionary work in China instead.

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Each man hears about the other and decide to race. Liddell wins, beating a cocky Abrahams in a 100 meter dash. Following the agony of the defeat, Abrahams earns the help of Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), one of the best running coaches in Great Britain and together, the pair train and Abrahams only gets faster and faster, winning race after race. The two men make the Olympic team and run in Paris in 1924.

 

Chariots of Fire is based on a true story, although there have been many creative liberties taken by Hudson and the creative staff. As always, I’m okay with this. As a narrative, it’s masterfully told, jumping back and forth from Abrahams to Liddell. Chariots of Fire is enthralling, moving, and inspiring. 1.

 

Writing

Winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, writer Colin Welland had to take out advertisements in newspapers, asking for help with this script. He was looking for memories of this event from anyone that was willing to give them. He got some, and, in addition to an enormous amount of research, he penned a brilliant script.

 

From a dialogue side, all interactions between characters are compellingly written. Each character’s motivations and personalities come out so clearly, even when significant friction is present between characters.

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An example of this is when Eric’s sister Jennie confronts him regarding his choice of running versus doing missionary work in China. Eric reveals that he will go to China after his time to run. He states that running helps to glorify his creator in ways that going on a mission can’t. This exchange is very well placed when, later in the movie, we expect Eric to stick to his guns about not running on the Sabbath. 1.

 

Sound

Evangelos Odysséas Papathanassiou, or more commonly known as Vangelis, composed the score for Chariots of Fire, winning his only Academy Award for Best Score. He’s also composed scores for other film classics like Blade Runner and Carl Sagan’s documentary Cosmos: A Personal Journey.

 

Obviously, the most notable composition in the film is “the song,” or the theme to Chariots of Fire. It’s heard at the beginning of the film during the famous “running on the beach” scene. I’ll talk more about that scene soon. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know the song. It’s a truly iconic composition.

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But the score itself is so 1980s that it hurts, and that’s not really a bad thing, either. Using electronic synthesizers as well as piano, the two differing styles mash perfectly with each other throughout the score. Additionally, Hudson and Vangelis choose to throw old conventions out the window when it comes to period pieces. Taking place from 1919 to 1924, Chariots of Fire is a long way from the electronic synthesizers of 1981. Yet it works and I love it. This is not unlike the musical choices for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 reprisal of The Great Gatsby, using modern hip-hop as a backdrop for the loose morals and excesses of 1920s Manhattan.

 

Additionally, Chariots of Fire has some terrific sound editing, which is a category that it was not nominated for. Much like Amadeus, the film often “overlaps” the sound from the next scene onto the current scene. I love it when movies do this. It helps to mark a gradual end of one idea and sets the tone for the next. 1.

 

Set Design

Chariots of Fire’s Milena Canonero took home the Oscar for Best Costume design. Her costumes are both accurate to the period, but also help to portray the kind of upper-class snobbery that the film seeks to discredit. The costume changes are meticulous and often, and portray a great eye for detail.

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The physical world of the film, too, is very well crafted, sparing no small detail. For example, it would have been easy to leave out how runners started a race on a dirt track. Being a young man, I’ve known nothing but rubber tracks and starting blocks. No, the set designers went the extra mile to demonstrate the the runners had to dig their own starting blocks out of the dirt with a small spade. 1.

 

Cinematography

David Watkin was the director of photography for Chariots of Fire, and this film probably has the best cinematography for a film that wasn’t nominated in this category that I’ve seen so far.

 

First of all, the running on the beach scene is just a gosh-wow piece of filmmaking. I’ve watched it a number of times this week, trying to recapture (somewhat successfully) the emotions that it stirred within me. But the thing about that scene, it’s not at all where I expected it to be in the film, which is within the first two minutes. When the scene starts, the men are Liddell, Abrahams and others are running barefoot on the beach, right where the waves kiss the shore. Every time a foot hits the water, the resulting splashes are like wings, helping the next stride take flight into something great.

Following this is what I also love about the film’s cinematography, the focus on the faces. Each person deals with the pain of running in their own way, and these men are no different. During this scene, and through the movie, the camera takes its time to focus on not only each man’s pain and anguish, but also their elation at victory. Truly great cinematography that endeared me to this film in way that is not common, even in this blog. 1.

 

Acting

Despite only focusing on Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams throughout this review, Chariots of Fire features a number of important minor characters: Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), and Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm). Holm was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film. I feel like it’s my duty to give these performers their due credit, but the film is really about two men: Liddell and Abrahams.

 

Ian Charleson plays Eric Liddell, a charismatic and well-known Scottish rugby star. He’s also a fiercely devout Christian, who dreams of doing missionary work in China and serving God in his own way.

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Gradually discovering his talent for running faster than everyone else, Liddell is often thrust on a pedestal, toured around the world, running on behalf of the country. By the time he and Abrahams meet, he’s already a national hero.

 

Late in the film, Liddell must contend with pressures that he has never had to face. Learning that his preliminary heat in the 100 meters is on Sunday, the Sabbath, Liddell refuses to run. Facing pressure from the entire Olympic committee and the Prince of Wales, Liddell looks each of his adversaries in the eye and tell them that he will not run on the Sabbath. He then runs, and wins, a different race, thanks to a swap from a teammate. But his resolve and stubbornness to stick to his guns endears Liddell to all of us, even those who may disagree with his stance. He runs to glorify God. Nothing else.

 

Harold Abrahams, again played by Ben Cross, is the opposite of Liddell: quiet yet very confident in his abilities. His struggles stem from the constant anti-Semitism that he deals with on a daily basis. His future wife Sybil, is even taken aback by his admission that he’s a Jew. From the start, Abrahams faces this prejudice head on, proving to the Cambridge elite, and the athletic landlords that he truly is better than everyone else. He does this by simply busting his tail and running faster than everyone else.

 

When Abrahams loses to Liddell in their first race, we get a look into the emotional toll that the race takes on Abrahams as he replays the loss in his mind over and over again. This only hardens his thirst for success. But he must also overcome himself, and his lack of confidence in his running. While he is not the fastest man at Olympics, his victory over his inner demons is truly inspiring. 1.

 

Directing

Hugh Hudson directed Chariots of Fire, his directorial debut for a feature-length film. He was also nominated for Best Director, but he lost that category to Warren Beatty.

 

First and foremost, this film is a sports movie, and it has some of the traditional sports movie scenes, most notably the training montage. I don’t have an issue with them, and I think they’re necessary and this one was tastefully done.

 

In all sports movies, there’s a certain build up to the “big event,” the fight, race, or game in which the protagonist succeeds or fails. The 1924 Olympics serves this purpose. But the event is some grandiose, epic triumph for either of them. By this point, both Liddell and Abrahams have faced so much adversity that it’s only one more step for them. I loved this.

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But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this sports movie was its use of so many other themes: religion, sex, class, love, politics, patriotism, and failure. Each of these men face extraordinary pressure, but from within and without. How they deal with it defines them. And it makes for a ridiculously compelling storytelling experience. The film is an epic on the same level as Dances with Wolves, Braveheart, and Gone with the Wind. It’s at once a scorching criticism of a classist society, a deft political game, and an inspiring sports story.

 

Hudson presents each scene so meticulously, and fully defines each character that, by the time you get to the end, you don’t even mind that each of the film’s characters come from a background of means and haven’t had the same hardships as the 99% face on a daily basis. These men are the elite, and they entertain the elite crowd. But there’s no reason to look down on them. Each of them rebuke the system that they’ve been thrown into, not caring about how the British upper class should act or behave. And this makes them very relatable to the rest of us peasants. 1.

 

Bonus Points

I’m going to give a bonus to the set, acting, and cinematography.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Facts

Chariots of Fire was the surprise Best Picture winner at the 54th Academy Awards on March 29, 1982 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the heavily-favored Reds for Best Picture. The award was presented by Loretta Young and accepted by David Puttnam, producer. In total, Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Oscars, winning four.

Warren Beatty won Best Director for Reds. Henry Fonda set the record for the longest time between nominations at 41 years, winning his only Best Actor for On Golden Pond. At 76, Fonda became the oldest acting winner in history and he passed away in August 1982, not even five months after accepting this Oscar. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, won her fourth Best Actress Oscar for On Golden Pond, the most by any actress. John Gielund (who was also in Chariots of Fire) won Best Supporting Actor for Arthur,  and Maureen Stapleton won Best Supporting Actress for Reds. Reds was the last movie until Silver Linings Playbook in 2013 to capture a nomination in all four acting categories. The ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson.

 

Final Thoughts

The fall is a busy time for me. This time I’m taking two more posts off to go on vacation. My girlfriend Laci and I are headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico and the International Balloon Fiesta.  My next post will be October 22. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ingorance), a truly innovative film is next time. After that, it’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Moonlight, In the Heat of the Night, Gentlemen’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

5 Comments

  1. Great review! I haven’t seen this film in years. It had scenes filmed near where I grew up so my sister and sister-in-law had very small extra parts. I never usually watch the film and just look out for their second-long appearances!

    Liked by 1 person

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