Watching a Best Picture winner typically leaves me with one of two reactions. Either, “I completely understand why this won Best Picture,” or “This is a decent / interesting movie, but the field must have been weak that year.”
Chariots of Fire falls into the latter category.
Again, this is not to say it’s a bad film. Not at all. It’s good. But the most memorable thing about it to this day is its synth-driven, wildly anachronistic, Vangelis-crafted score.
Starring a bunch of vaguely familiar faces whose names you probably don’t know, aside from a supporting turn from Ian Holm as trainer Sam Mussabini, and a bit part played by Sir John Gielgud, the film follows a group of British track athletes on their journey to the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.
The two primary athletes are Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson). The plot focuses on various aspects of their on-track careers, but also on the role religion played in their lives. Although culturally very English, Abrahams was a Jew who faced anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Liddell was a devout Christian whose faith was inextricably linked with his motivation for competing.
In the case of Abrahams, the anti-Semitism he experiences was actually very mild by the standards of a century ago. It’s largely limited to some moderately offensive comments, the most damning of which aren’t said in his presence. While that’s certainly not good, as anti-Semitism goes, it provided only a minor obstacle—which makes it something of an odd focal point.
In other words, if someone had tried to keep him from competing in the games due to his faith, that would have seemed like a more relevant element of the story. As it is, we mostly hear comments along the lines of someone joking (not even to his face) that he probably won’t be in the university choir.
Perhaps I’m just jaded by the ham-handed presentation of bigotry we get in movies today, but the level of anti-Semitism depicted in Chariots of Fire is mostly almost quaint.
Liddell’s faith is much more pertinent to the story, as one plot point is based on the real-life refusal of Liddell to run on Sunday. In the movie, that prevents him from running in the 100-meter qualifying heat, but the test of his faith under pressure from government officials is the primary dilemma of the second half of the film.
One thing that bumped me during this movie is how unathletic some of these guys look when they compete. In particular, Ian Charleson’s racing style is bizarre—coming down the stretch, he starts flailing his arms like a drowning man struggling to get to shore. Granted, running techniques weren’t as advanced in the 1920s (witness the runners having to dig their own footholds prior to racing), but it’s hard to take Charleson seriously as a world-class sprinter when he looks like he’s going to topple over during the final 10-20 yards of every race.
Overall, Chariots of Fire is a perfectly fine, semi-historically-accurate presentation of a moderately interesting story about the 1924 British Olympic Team. Yet, like, say, The King’s Speech, I find myself somewhat surprised that it won Best Picture.
Its competition that year in the Best Picture category included Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I can say definitively that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a better all-around movie than Chariots of Fire. It just isn’t as safe of one.
Speaking of the Academy Awards, John Gielgud coincidentally won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that same night, but not for this film. Instead, it was his hilarious, deadpan performance as Hudson in Arthur that earned him the honor.
Anyway, as for Chariots of Fire, it’s perfectly acceptable entertainment, with some nice touches in terms of sets and costumes that make the historical races seem more real. However, it’s not even one of the 20 best films I’ve seen so far in the Warner Bros. 50 Movie Collection.