Chariots of Fire (1981)

Directed by Hugh Hudson
Written by Colin Welland

As Roger Ebert said, “what do I care about running?” He also went on to say “what do I care about the English class system”, but that does interest me because I’m weird like that. I love history and am majoring in history, but my preference for history is very social and not as much political or military as most history buffs may be. And I am also a bit of an Anglophile. I have seen this film many times and each time I feel as though it has gotten better. It is firmly inside my Top 100, but this viewing I had a mission before me. I was viewing it as part of my 20th Century British history class and this new perspective gave me even greater appreciation of the film. Some of the things that I noticed were a great deal of nationalism, great commentary on religion, and of course, the British class system. And of course with the nationalism comes national pride and much of this can be seen in the few opening scenes that pay tribute to those that served in the First World War.

The film itself is well known for having beat out Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark, presumably, for Best Picture in 1981, and for its unique music score by Greek composer Vangelis. The film, in addition to simply being one of great emotional impact on myself, is a technical masterpiece as well. Everything about the proceeding rolls off the screen so naturally and so purely that I cannot imagine it any other way. To start we have the beach running scene which hooks me right in with the cinematography. They filmed this scene on some special cameras or film or something and it looks beautiful. Every running sequence in the film, which are almost all slow motion, evokes a brilliant amount of passion and drive by the characters. Yes, it is just a race, but that does not mean it is meaningless to the racers or anyone else involved. They want to win: for themselves, for their college, for their country, for God. Another part of the look of the film is the costume design, which earned the film an Oscar. Set in 1924, the costumes are beautiful and feel right at home.

Now I want to delve into that emotional part of the film that just works for me. I’ll try to explain it, but honestly, I do not know if I will be able to. There is some unknown punch and execution to the film that make it so stunningly beautiful to all of the senses. For that I suppose I will credit director Hugh Hudson and screenwriter Colin Welland. The script is beautiful, some of the dialogue is like poetry and the way the actors deliver it is wonderful. There are some great performances all around here. As for the direction, Hudson makes a pretty personal film here with some great close shots, but there are some distant shots that still make it seem personal on some level. And on that same note, the editing is just masterful. All the right cuts are made and when we linger on a character here or there it just really works. I mentioned the notoriety gained by Vangelis after the release of this film and it was well deserving as the score is a work of art as well. Vangelis, with his strange sounds and composition, manages to hit all of the emotional keys and notes throughout the film. The score never seems foreign or unknown, but rather like something I have heard over and over again, like the stories of those old men who remember a time when Britain was a world power and when they won medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

The nobility of all of the characters is what pulls me in most I find. Of course Eric Liddel and his devotion to God and to country is spectacular, but his character is also great because he clearly loves what he is doing: running and God. Ian Charleston actually studied Liddel’s running style as it was quite unique and managed to translate this passion and love of running into his performance. Abrahams (Ben Cross) on the other hand seems more egotistical though he really is not. He, and Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), are fighting to prove something. For both of them it is a sense of class and heritage. They are both not from English families, but see themselves just as English as anyone else. And Abrahams has his Jewish culture to stand for as well, just as Liddel has his Christian faith. And speaking of class we have Andrew Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers). He is a man of aristocracy but calls these men his friends. He is a noble man on top of being a nobleman. He gives Liddel his spot in the 400 just to see him race, saying, “I’ve already won my medal.” He is a man of character, a man who understands how to treat people right and he does not take his privilege for granted.

Last, but certainly not least, we have Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), the strangely quiet narrator of the story. I relate most with this man because of, as Abrahams puts it, his contentment. He is quiet, he is happy, he is competitive, yes, but he is content, but most of all he is a good friend. His is the journey through which the story is being told, just a minor side character there for the ride of his life. I break with his failures every time I watch this movie. But what is more, like my favorite film Forrest Gump, I find myself crying at some point when I watch the film, and it is always at a different moment. This time it was when Liddel wins his race and we see his sister Jenny and his friend Sandy in the crowd. It just got me, and like most of the rest of the film, I could not explain why this was happening, it just was. I find some of the best films are this way. They have some quality, some device within them that just makes them great. There is no explanation, no need to justify, it is just that way. Film is meant to be so pure and noble sometimes.

**** – Masterpiece

1 Comment

  1. Wow, I've never seen this movie but judging from your review it sounds amazing. I'll most certainly be checking it out in the near future. Very well written review.

    Oh, and you have a third follower now! Congrats!


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