Sunday, February 7, 2010

1981 - Chariots of Fire

The poll for Matt vs. the Academy's next year of review is ready, itching for your input. There it is just to the right.

An amusing anecdote: Tonight, in my capacity as an usher for an off-Broadway theatre, I was compelled to inform a chocolate-eating patron that we do not allow food or drink inside the theatre. Evidently, she was aware of this policy since she didn't dispute it. Her response, rather, was that she didn't think that chocolate was considered food. If only...

Yesterday, I had the chance to view a classic sports-themed Best Picture nominee from 1981...

Chariots of Fire
Hugh Hudson
Colin Welland
Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, John Gielgud
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture

The film that launched a thousand running-in-slow-motion parodies, Chariots of Fire follows the career progression of a bunch of young British runners, culminating in their performance at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. The story mainly focuses on two rival British athletes - Eric Liddell (Charleson), a devout Christian, and Harold Abrahams (Cross), the son of a Jewish immigrant. Liddell, an ex-Rugby star and naturally talented runner, struggles to balance his love of athletics with his commitment to his family's mission, while Abrahams, the star of Cambridge university's track team, deals with his intense fear of losing.

If Chariots of Fire were an ice cream flavour, I imagine it would most likely be vanilla. Not French Vanilla, either. Just vanilla. Not the most exciting or innovative flavour, but a safe, solid choice to satisfy the large majority of taste buds. There is no particular aspect of this film that is specifically poorly realised and yet I am nonetheless disinclined to pronounce any great love of it. Nor do I wish to criticise it, either, unless, of course, labeling it plain is a criticism. Which I suppose it is. Which is unfortunate because I don't mean it to be.

The script, based loosely on real events, is well-crafted. It's almost inspiring. Everything is in place for an incredibly inspiring story - passion, ambition, tests of character. Perhaps its greatest flaw, however, is that there lacks a true antagonist. Liddell and Abrahams are initially pitted as rivals, yet when they finally reach the Olympics, not only do they compete for the same team, but they don't even run the same race.

At just over two hours long, Chariots of Fire is by no means a lengthy film but neither does it seem short, possibly due to its healthy use of slow motion. The oft-used effect is spellbinding, made all the more so by Vangelis' evocative and memorable score. Plus, there is the added bonus of witnessing in fine detail the humorous action of Liddell's running style - head back, mouth open, arms flailing about (pictured).

The cast are strong, led by Cross and Charleson. I particularly enjoyed Nigel Havers' portrayal of the cheeky Lord Andrew Lindsay. Also delivering an impressive performance as Abrahams' idiosyncratic trainer is Ian Holm, better known to modern audiences as Bilbo Baggins. And from that other epic fantasy franchise from the '00s, Richard Griffiths, before he was Harry Potter's uncle, appears here as Harry Abrahams' head porter.


  1. I'm such a sucker for British period pieces. In 1981, 5 years after the inspirational Rocky took Best Picture honors, and before the endless parodies, I saw this in a Miami Art theater, with an audience that tipped me to picking it as the underdog Best Picture choice. Your vanilla description is apropos, but I never found it dull as so many others have. Again, its the literate screenplay and a way of speaking that I could never hope to emulate, but listen to endlessly.

    It's true that the traditional climax was tempered by the lack of a rematch between Abrahams and Liddell, but I believe the real conflicts were within themselves. While the movie at times threatened to become a bit too noble, the protagonists weren't portrayed as saints. To say that Abrahams was self-absorbed is an understatement; and Liddell's remark to a fellow competitor "Good luck, I guess I won't be seeing you 'til after the race" gives us a man with no shortage of ego.

    Vanilla can also describe a time when the white man ruled the roost in sports. Can you imagine Usain Bolt in that Olympic final? It would be enough to send Abrahams and Liddel back to the law books and pulpit for good.

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