Chariots of Fire (1981)
Release Date: September 25th, 1981 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Hugh Hudson Actors: Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ian Charleson, Ben Cross, Daniel Gerroll, Ian Holm, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, Nigel Davenport, Cheryl Campbell, Alice Krige
he film begins in London in 1978, long after the main event, to honor the two remaining featured legends, now elderly, graying men. It’s a strange choice, to start at the end so briefly and pointlessly, yet so many pictures seem to gravitate toward this specific framing device. It doesn’t, however, overshadow the following scene – a slow-motion run on the beach to the utterly triumphant theme music by Vangelis, which, with its unforgettable tune, could almost exist as an entirely independent entity (or, rather, the lone component for which “Chariots of Fire” would be best remembered).
The story proper initiates in 1919 at Caius College, Cambridge, where H.M. Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) sign in with the strictly unenthusiastic Rogers (Richard Griffiths), the head porter. After the freshman’s dinner, the choosing of various clubs to join, and the college dash – during which Abrahams and newcomer Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers) prove that they can run the traditional 188 paces in a matter of seconds – it’s evident that two of the swiftest young runners the school has ever seen have arrived. The following year, in the Highlands of Scotland, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) demonstrates his own exceptional speed, which soon attracts Abrahams’ attention. In an effort to secure a 1924 Olympic win in Paris, the Cambridge man recruits the Italian-Arabic Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) as a coach – a controversial stratagem that brings uncertainty from his university.
Never has slow-motion running been so mesmerizing. Although many of the race sequences are merely opportunities for composer Vangelis Papathanassiou to showcase his powerful music (intermittently flourished by operatic choirs and patriotic songs), which rarely match the onscreen happenings (serving more as poetically anachronistic contention), the actual historical events are never the most prominent components of the story. Instead, “Chariots of Fire” works to compare different religions and the way they motivate the competitors; the nature of rivalry in both games and romantic conquests, and the corresponding predicament of defeat; and the potential for post-WWI prejudices to interfere with a universal interest. Abrahams’ Jewish faith, in particular, suggests an obstacle that his addiction to running just might counter, while Liddell’s attentions to his ministry conflict with his personal romance and the time for perfecting his running techniques.
While it’s a detailed, careful character study, intermixed with rousing “Rocky”-esque training montages, “Chariots of Fire” is paced far too slow to do justice to its sport. Though the focus may be on balanced storytelling instead of suspenseful, cinematic wins, the sequences that could have been unmistakably victorious are flatly documentary-like at best. The forgotten, outmoded rulebook for professionalism (specifically when it comes to amateurs seeking advice from outside sources) is another hindrance, standing in the way of sensible competitiveness. In the end, serving more as a straightforward biography than an inspirational sports drama, the entertainment value stalls, crafting a rigid, (mostly) factual account of a memorable event (and significant religious juncture) that fails to embolden or engage.
– Mike Massie