[Film Review] Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots of Fire poster

Title: Chariots of Fire
Year: 1981
Country: UK
Language: English, French
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Director: Hugh Hudson
Writer: Colin Welland
Music: Vangelis
Cinematography: David Watkin
Ben Cross
Ian Charleson
Nicholas Farrell
Nigel Havers
Ian Holm
Alice Krige
Nigel Davenport
John Gielgud
Lindsay Anderson
Cheryl Campbell
Daniel Gerroll
Brad Davis
Dennis Christopher
Patrick Magee
David Yelland
Peter Egan
Struan Rodger
Richard Griffiths
Stephen Fry
Rating: 7.4/10

Chariots of Fire 1981

This Oscar-winning UK picture has been long bad-mouthed as an overachiever and unworthy champion ever since it usurped the top honor from its more artistically ambitious opponents, especially, Warren Beatty’s long-in-gestation, epic passion project REDS (1981). It is an underdog’s triumph, not unlike the real-life story it depicts, two Golden medals from UK running team in the Paris Olympics, 1924.

One of the two winners is Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), an English Jew who enters the Cambridge in 1919, and the other is Eric Liddell (Charleson), a Scottish missionary born in China (and would later die in China in a Japanese civilian internment camp in 1945), thereof, the main obstacle against Abrahams’ rising is the anti-Semitism pervading the British academia, whereas in Liddell’s case, the through-line is his devout persuasion and unswerving conviction that “he will not run on Sundays” not even for the sake of the monarchy. Both accounts are interwoven steadily with jaunty verve and charming lucidity, and put the reasons behind their running to the forefront.

In spite of a face-off in the same competition, brotherly rivalry is never the thorny issue (although it would be undeniable more interesting than the patriotic hagiography in the offer) once they both are recruited to partake in the Olympics, together, they must take up the gauntlet from the elite across the Atlantic Ocean (two US cinematic rising stars, Brad Davis and Dennis Christopher, are cast in small parts). Liddell would stir quite a controversy with his intractability but as long as he would win, it only incarnates his integrity.

Inherently, running doesn’t entail too much visual grandeur and their duration is fleeting, Abrahams wins in the 100 meter (barely over 10 seconds) and Liddell prevails in the 400 meter race (less than 50 seconds) respectively, so in order to accentuate the tension and glory of the process, director Hugh Hudson pragmatically implements the slo-motion shots to capture the racing moments of the two, especially Liddell, whose spiritual immersion has reached an almost grotesque state of hallowed elation, shows up the sublime pull of competitive sports from a rarefied stance. And of course, it couldn’t be honed up to that effect without the anachronistic electronic score by Greek musician Vangelis.

The core young cast boosts great empathy of comradeship and determination (although one can quibble not all of them is endowed with a professional runner’s physique), Ben Cross and the late Ian Charleson are fine picks but a beaming Nigel Havers is the one who infuses something altruistically wonderful in his wide-eyed conviviality meanwhile Alice Krige is radiant in her silver-screen debut as Sybil, Abrahams’ love-interest. Among the veteran bracket, John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson delightfully pair up as a Cambridge duo of uppishness and Nigel Davenport leaves a pungent mark of cunningness as Lord Birkenhead, but it is Ian Holm’s half-Arabic, half-Italian running coach Sam Mussabini takes the token Oscar nomination for the ensemble.

In hindsight, CHARIOTS OF FIRE is an ostensibly feel-good fare with all its edges being circumspectly smoothed, a dedicated piece of art work to propagate sportsmanship and a not-too-subtle agitprop boasting UK’s glory and heritage, as well as the consummate devotion of one’s religion, a safe bet pandering to a more general, Western-leaning taste but of high-calibre production value, that is, to this day, still the winning formula to allure Oscar votes.

Oscar 1981  Chariots of Fire



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