Chariots of Fire (review)

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Keeping the Faith

The opening credits of Chariots of Fire — during which a flock of young men, barefoot and dressed in white, run at oceanside to Vangelis’s unforgettable theme music — immediately clue the viewer in that this is not your typical sports movie. The electronica music may be more contemporary to the filmmakers than to the story, but it captures beautifully both the fleetness and the inner fire of the runners. And the inner fire of two of these athletes is what this lush, based-on-fact film wants to share with us.

Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is an English Jew, a student at Cambridge University just after World War I. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a Christian Scot who is expected to take over his father’s religious mission in China. Both are obsessed with running, addicted to it, and both are driven to win medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Both men are to compete under the flag of Great Britain, but neither is motivated by patriotism, or indeed by any desire for personal glory. What galvanizes Abrahams and Liddell — in almost opposite ways — is religion.

Such a story is easier to buy when set in an era before crass commercialism had overshadowed the efforts of athletes, back when corporate sponsorships was limited to a Lipton’s Tea banner hanging by itself from a stadium wall. And tight, smart performances from Cross and Charleson — as well as the rest of the cast — carry you right into their characters’ stories. Liddell draws his “power to see the race to the end” by seeing running and winning as a way to honor God; he likens racing to preaching. He’s tested by his God, though, when confronted with the prospect of having to race at the Olympics on a Sunday — he’s a firm believer in abstaining from sports on the Sabbath. For Abrahams it’s not religious convictions so much as the constant discrimination he faces because of his faith and ethnicity — he views an Olympic medal as a way to vindicate himself before the world. Even his road to the Games is paved with bigotry: His snobby Cambridge dons whisper among themselves that his behavior — hiring a professional coach, for example — is “a little too plebeian,” not quite gentlemanly. And before a race at the Olympics, the Prince of Wales says to Abrahams, “Do your best — that’s all we can expect.”

Chariots of Fire may be veddy British, veddy 1920s — Gilbert and Sullivan, straw bowlers, cricket, school ties — but its story is as timeless as the Olympics themselves. This is quite possibly the most lyrical, most spiritual sports movie ever made.

Oscars Best Picture 1981
unforgettable movie moment:
A runner — a rich one — trains for hurdles by placing glasses of champagne filled to the brim on the crossbars, with the aim of not spilling a drop.

previous Best Picture:
1980: Ordinary People
next Best Picture:
1982: Gandhi

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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