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Let Us Praise Famous Men: Chariots of Fire

The Stop Smiling DVD Review

Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Chariots of Fire (1981)
Directed by Hugh Hudson
2-Disc DVD
(Warner Brothers)

Reviewed by James Hughes

“God made me fast,” says Scotland’s finest wing, Eric Liddell, “and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” So epitomizes the drive and conviction of the 1924 Olympic UK track team, immortalized in Hugh Hudson’s haunting Best Picture winner, now restored and repackaged in a deluxe 2-disc DVD. Whether basking in the pomp of everyday Cambridge life — behold the College Dash! — or chopping the Atlantic surf to the synth notes of Greek composer Vangelis (cherry-picked the following year by Ridley Scott to sharpen Blade Runner), in the words of screenwriter Colin Welland, this subtle masterpiece — the Anglophile’s playbook if ever there was one — portrays “the sense of right and wrong in the form of athletic prowess.”

The film, steeped in the gusto of the Twenties like a strong dose of English Breakfast, opens unexpectedly in a London cathedral in the near-present day of 1978 (the film was released in 1981). This is an homage to the flash-forward opening of Lawrence of Arabia, in which the larger-than-life T.E. Lawrence is laid to rest in royal fashion at St. Paul’s Cathedral before the audience learns of his past triumphs. As revealed in the informative documentary “Wings On Their Heels” that buttresses the bonus disc, Hudson, hoping to summon traces of the epic scope of director David Lean, took his cast to see a screening of Lawrence in a Soho cinema the night before principal photography began. Says the first-time director: “I wanted to show them that we’re going to make an epic film out of this rather small story of two runners in the 1924 Olympics. I wanted it to have a bigger feeling to it.”

At the core of the film is a religious struggle running miles in the minds of the two leads: the fearless but pious Scot, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and the brusque Jewish Englishman, Harold M. Abrahams (Ben Cross). Liddell, the resident choir boy of the steam-ship heading for the Paris Olympics, pushes himself to run in order to connect with God (“To win is to honor Him,” he says), while Abrahams uses his physical skills as a “weapon” to defeat an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe. Cowed by the enormity of the international games, the two fastest wings of the United Kingdom, “rivals under the same flag” as one colleague puts it, must first bury their personal differences and inner demons before uniting under a victorious Union Jack.

What’s striking about this most unorthodox of sports film is its comfortably formulaic pace: budding young athletes discovering athletic aptitude in civilian life, swift grooming in University and the Church, qualifying rounds that mesh the band of brothers together, troubles with the ladies before setting sail and the ultimate prize of Olympic glory in the lush backdrop of swinging Paris. Between the rigid confines of that structure are moments of grace. The dashing, Plimpton-esque Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), later a gracious bronze winner, doesn’t just run hurdles at his stately practice course — he uses glasses of freshly-popped champaign placed atop the hurdles to indicate any soft-shoe infringements. When Italian trainer and guru of the racetrack — “the clearest-thinking athletics coach in the country” — Sam Mussabini (portrayed by the consummate “actor’s actor,” Ian Holm) studies Abraham’s skill on the track (and finally succumbs to his urgings to help him improve his paces) he agrees by saying nothing more than, “I can find you another two yards.” The succinct but commanding statement is then followed by an eloquent training montage set to the thumping keystrokes of Vangelis, and, inch-by-inch (literally), Abrahams pulls even with the natural-born talents of Liddell through basic, old-fashioned sweat and tears (skipping the blood, of course).

Chariots of Fire remains the most leftfield and merited Oscar mutiny in modern memory. As the saying goes: Slow and steady wins the race. So seemed the strategy of the producer David Puttnam and his team of gracious collaborators when they embarked upon the journey of winning an audience for their small but transcendent film. Having garnered a miraculous seven Academy Award nominations, those on hand that fateful evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion never would have expected the ultimate British coup. Besides, with Raiders of the Lost Ark and On Golden Pond in the mix, their odds were dwindling. But the boom of applause that erupted after the announcement that Chariots had received the top prize was a moment so unscripted (note the shrill hollers in the “Wings On Their Heels” documentary) that Spielberg must have wanted to cue a bouler to splatter the podium. “You’ve taken what is absolutely a Cinderella story and awarded it this,” Puttnam said into the microphone, nervously wringing the torso of his Oscar. “And that you’ve come to see it in droves is absolutely extraordinary.” Compare a sentiment like that to the publicist-driven hubris of actor (and relatively deserved critical darling) Paul Giamatti appearing on Saturday Night Live and in Newsweek in support of his buzz for a nod for Sideways, which was later denied, and you begin to understand what New York Times film critic Stephen Holden has recently diagnosed as “Oscar ennui.” “I wonder,” Holden wrote in yesterday’s Times, “if I’m the only moviegoer who was suffering from Oscar fatigue before the Academy Award nominations were announced [Tuesday] morning.”

But there was a time, and Chariots proves it, that a film could make a photo-finish that could stun even the paparazzi. Perhaps screenwriter Colin Welland put it best: “The greatest thing about Chariots was, we didn’t ever dream it was going to be a success. That wasn’t the purpose, to make an Oscar-winning film. The purpose of everyone in the film was to make it right. To make it true.”

 

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