During the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics, one of the iconic movie moments used was the Chariots of Fire scene of the runners jogging on the beach. Supported by the famous score from Vangelis, this sequence is recognized even by viewers who’ve never seen the entire film. The music immediately brings to mind the image of noble athletes competing for Olympic glory. It takes considerable skill to create such a classic scene that resonates with audiences throughout the world. This is a great achievement, but it raises the question of whether the rest of the film can live up to that standard.
Released in 1981, Chariots of Fire won four Oscars, including the top prize for Best Picture. It also took home awards for Costume Design, Original Screenplay, and Original Score. Viewed more than 30 years later, it feels like the type of movie that wins recognition from the Academy. That shouldn’t immediately raise concerns about its quality, however. This was Hugh Hudson’s directorial debut and wasn’t a guaranteed hit based on its subject matter. Given its lack of stars and modest budget, the huge box-office success is remarkable. If you push aside the big moments, this story feels more like a character study than an Oscar candidate.
Ben Cross and Ian Charleson star as Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, British runners preparing for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Each has a different outlook on life and their athletic craft. Abrahams takes a modern approach and works on his technique to compete at the highest level. He hires Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) as his personal trainer and focuses clearly on winning the gold. These tactics bring him into conflict with administrators who feel it violates the purity of the amateur status. Abrahams is Jewish and faces additional discrimination that only furthers his drive. Liddell is a naturally gifted runner who runs with a fierce abandon. He’s also a devout Christian who plans to become a missionary in China. His family doesn’t share his interest in running and pushes for him to re-focus on his calling.
This movie is based on actual events and feels authentic because the actors deliver realistic performances. These aren’t the show-stopping roles that win awards and critical acclaim. Cross in particular does an excellent job depicting Abrahams’ determination to overcome anti-Semitism and succeed. Looking beyond the two leads, veterans like John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson bring weight to supporting roles. The unknown actors playing the other runners are also solid in the smaller parts. Several characters are pivotal to Abrahams’ and Liddell’s success, particularly Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers). When Liddell drops out of his race because a heat occurs on Sunday, his friend gives up his spot to offer another opportunity. It’s one of the signature moments and works because Havers doesn’t oversell it.
The final act in Paris provides an impressive look at the different elements of the competition. The races are gripping because the stakes feel so high for each participant. The first hour isn’t so compelling, however. Hudson and Writer Colin Welland take their time and build the characters well. However, this approach grows a bit weary at times and makes for a slower experience. This style doesn’t hurt the overall success of the film but is notable when compared to the excellent finalé. There are some fun early moments like Abrahams’ completion of the Trinity Great Court Run at school. It’s an interesting start yet takes a while to roll into the main plot.
Along with Hudson’s feature commentary, this Blu-ray release includes a strong collection of supporting extras. These include deleted scenes and a large group of documentaries that provide more details about the production and real-life events. The extra footage is about 13 minutes and builds the characters, particularly Abraham and his unique training with his coach. The behind-the-scenes documentary and reunion piece aren’t new but provide nearly an hour of background material. New pieces describe the career of Producer David Puttnam and the 1924 Olympics. Both last about 25 minutes and offer excellent details that go beyond this movie. This release also includes a 36-page color booklet that should be a nice collectible. If that wasn’t enough, a soundtrack sampler provides some highlights from the Vangelis score.
Chariots of Fire made the now defunct Premiere magazine’s list of the 20 most overrated films of all time. While there are a few pacing issues, this isn’t really a fair designation. Many of the included movies won the Best Picture Oscar, which places them on an exalted status that few films can match. Viewers expecting to see one of the all-time greats may be disappointed, but that shouldn’t take away from its success. It’s easy to connect with the intriguing characters, and we’re right with Abrahams and Liddell when they succeed. That result is a testament to excellent work from the cast and crew to deliver a story that remains poignant today.