Chariots of Fire
A Look Back . . .
Forty years ago on September 25, 1981, Chariots of Fire was officially released in the US.
The movie caught people’s attention right out of the gates. The plot is about two separate, but related stories: Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. The movie follows their running careers in the years leading up to the 1924 Olympics. Although the two characters have some interaction during the film, really their two stories are separate. Liddell is the deeply committed Christian who refuses to race on Sunday, and Abrahams is the Jewish outsider who muscles his way to the top at the University of Cambridge and endures nagging anti-Semitism along the way. Both men come together to represent Great Britain at
at the Olympics. Each gives everything for glory, god, and country.
The opening scene of men running on the beach to the Chariots of Fire theme is one of the most iconic openings in all of film. Who wouldn’t be able to guess the movie after seeing a single second of that scene? Another iconic scene, for me anyway, was Ian
Holm punching his fist through his hat and uttering “my son.” Chariots is one of those movies that has ascended to the pantheon of the greatest movies of all time.
After recently watching it again for the first time in at least twenty-five years, I had several reactions.
Pluses: The Vangelis score obviously. The soaring opening and closing numbers are unforgettable. Also on the plus list is the cinematography. Beautiful locations, sets, costumes all lushly captured on film. Finally, the actors were incredible. Let’s single out in particular Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm (Bilbo to those under fifty), and John Gielgud (man, did he ever have a hell of a 1981). They took what would otherwise have been an average movie and made it extraordinary. Sadly, they’re all dead now.
Minuses: Although kudos to the shots of the athletes straining and grunting in their quest to win the race, for a movie centered on athletic achievement the movie lacks the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat we come to expect in sports related movies. It’s pretty bland. I know, many would cheer its general lack of sentimentality -- it's very British that way -- but
come on, it’s the fricking Olympics. Other than Ian Holm’s hat punching, it’s all very “just another day at the office,” yawn, and “where should we go for dinner tonight, guys?”
Finally, I always thought bouncing back and forth between two mostly separate stories worked okay, but it meant that there wasn’t enough time to delve as deeply into each story as much as they deserved.
Reappraisal: The story of Liddell’s simple Christian faith had an elegiac, admirable quality back in 1981. I’m not sure it still would today. Similarly, attitudes may have also shifted about a story like Abrahams’. His gritty journey to acceptance and victory may not have the same luster as it did then. He came from a wealthy, upper crust background and was part of the elite one percent who could attend Cambridge University with all the future lords and sons of the ruling class. Yeah, not sure my heart bleeds for the little bumps and bruises suffered by a poor rich guy of wealth and privilege. In short, I'm not sure that the stories of these men, as extraordinary as they were, would hold quite the same appeal today as they did then.
Some have called the movie overrated (e.g., the former Premiere magazine). I agree. I thought so back in 1981 too. Chariots won best picture at the 1982 Academy Awards, but at the time I strongly believed that award should have gone to Reds. Still do.
All that being said, Chariots is unquestionably a great film. It has stood the test of time (the movie Reds, on the other hand, is the answer to a trivia question). True, its greatness has perhaps dimmed a touch from what it was in 1981 (at least IMHO), but that’s not to deny its well-deserved place on the list of the 100 greatest films of all time.
Trivia (courtesy of IMDb):
Besides the lead actors, most of the white-clad runners training on the beach during the opening sequence are St. Andrews golf caddies
The male military band included several women with false mustaches
Uncredited theatrical movie debut of Sir Kenneth Branagh
Eric Liddell's sister Jenny and her two daughters Rosemary and Joan were extras in the stands. They can be seen briefly in one shot of the movie
The producers intentionally added profanity to the movie to avoid a "G" rating, thinking people would associate a "G" rating with a movie for children