The 2016 Summer Olympic Games have begun in Rio de Janeiro, so I’m taking a look at “Chariots of Fire” – a wonderful British flick from 1981 that spotlights two runners from the United Kingdom. Just like many things British, “Chariots of Fire” has a deliberate pace (in this case … glacial) but you’ll enjoy it again or find it understatedly outstanding if you’re watching it for the first time. It’s a movie about the Olympics, but little of the Olympics is shown. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of competition but more storytelling. So, dig out that old copy of “Chariots of Fire” and enjoy it. I’m sure it’ll be on the cable movie grid over the next couple of weeks of Olympic Games.
‘Chariots of Fire’
(1981; 125 minutes; rated PG; directed by Hugh Hudson and starring Ben Cross, Ian Charleson and Nicholas Farrell)
A SPORTS MOVIE WITH DEPTH, INTELLIGENCE AND PRIME STORYTELLING
Although I’m a big fan of big-screen action-adventure films (try “True Lies” – click here for my review), there are times that a slower pace that allows the story, writing and actors’ work elevate what could have been a glass of treacle and mold it into a vibrant, intelligent work of art. Today, I’ll share my thoughts about “Chariots of Fire,” which is just about the best example of that kind of film.
“Chariots of Fire” is simply a flawless motion picture. From a somewhat haunting and distinctive signature music score (Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” … don’t worry, if you hear it, you’ll know it), to layered characters to wonderful dialogue and plot development, “Chariots of Fire” does screen storytelling at its finest. But don’t expect anything rushed here. It is, after all, a British production. Just as Jaguar automobiles have an accurate reputation for being fickle and unreliable, “Chariots of Fire” is an example of the stereotype of British films’ slow pacing. In this case, it is the best representation possible of a good stereotype.
“Chariots of Fire” is like a wonderful walk through a story that gives thoughtful pause, instead of being hurried from one explosive scene to another so the director has another chance to use a legion of stuntmen.
In brief, “Chariots of Fire” is the story of two runners from the UK: “Harold Abrahams” and “Eric Liddell” (I’m using the quote marks around their names here because even though they were real men, they are characters here and I don’t want to mix them up with the actors). Both run for their own reasons – Abrahams for the pure satisfaction of winning in competition and Liddell because his physical gift is also a gift from God. Both also have back stories – Abrahams is a English Jew in a post-World War I time of anti-Semitism as he attends the most prestigious university in the land; and Liddell, a Scot, is caught between his absolute faith and destiny as a Christian missionary and the potentially egotistical and secular spotlight that his athletic prowess could allow.
The two square off in one race with “Liddell” the Scot the winner, but both wind up on the same Olympic team for the United Kingdom through a very interesting twist involving another character.
Of course, both are successful in their respective events at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, but most of the film is their travel to that point.
Here’s a look at some of the primary cast:
- Ben Cross plays “Harold Abrahams” and does an outstanding job of quietly conveying his character’s desire, fierce competitiveness and basic humanity. He never plays outside himself or the role and manages to become one with the character – not an easy job for any actor in any role. Cross was in 2009’s version of “Star Trek” and was in “First Knight” and you’ll also find him in a bit part (not much more than a glimpse) in the 1970s war classic “A Bridge Too Far” (click here for my review) as well as a bushel of TV roles.
- Ian Charleson is even more perfect as “Eric Liddell” as Cross is “Abrahams.” Charleson is so smooth in his delivery you all too easily forget he’s not “Liddell.” He is especially good as communicating a man’s faith without being strident and actually wrote the speech himself. He is convincing, erudite (of course, that’s the writer) and completely likable. Charleson was equally good the next year in “Gandhi,” but that role wasn’t enough for him to flex his considerable acting muscles. Charleson was also in the very long-titled “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” and he died at 40 in 1990 of AIDS, according to IMDb.com.
- After the ostensible headliners, the most impressive work in “Chariots of Fire” is by Oscar nominee Ian Holm as “Sam Mussabini,” who is the professional trainer of Cross. Of course, being a professional, “Sam” is looked down upon by everyone – and he wasn’t even allowed in the Olympic stadium because he was a professional – also because of his heritage (he’s pretty non-WASP). Holm is simply terrific, which is common theme in this review, and is brisk and efficient in his delivery. He also makes the most out of every one of his scenes. Holm was in “Alien” and is “Bilbo” in “The Lord of the Rings” franchise. He also voiced in “Ratatouille” and was in “The Fifth Element.”
- I’m getting tired of writing this kind of comment, but there’s no other way to say it than “marvelous:” Nigel Havers is simply marvelous as “Lord Andrew Lindsay.” His character is one of the upper-ist upper-crust English Lords and the opposite in background to Cross. The two become fast friends despite the disparity and Havers breezes through his work with aplomb. Havers, along with Holm, is key to the foundation of the supporting cast. He was in “Empire of the Sun” and the UK’s longest-running TV soap opera “Coronation Street.”
- Nigel Davenport is another who gives a flawless performance as he plays “Lord Birkenhead,” who is an official of the British Olympic team. Like the others, he plays this low-key but effective and is truly as smooth as the real Olympic team official must have been. I liked Davenport in a film in direct contrast to “Chariots of Fire” as he played an anti-terrorism official in the Sylvester Stallone-Billy Dee Williams action film “Nighthawks” (click here for my review) from the same year as “Chariots of Fire.”
Two pairs of supporting actors are worthy of note:
- Oscar winner and nominee (not for this one) John Gielgud – and he had the “Sir” before his name in the credits here – and Lindsay Anderson play “Master of Trinity” and “Master of Caius” respectively. They are the two Cambridge University administrators who challenge Cross about his perceived professional dedication to running and how plebian such a tack takes. Both just ooze the old-English, upper-class, look-down-their-nose academics of the day. Despite a hint of anti-Semitism, in the end they certainly expected Abrahams to win all along. Of course Gielgud is best remembered in his Oscar-winning role as Dudley Moore’s butler “Hobson” in “Arthur” and was also in “Gandhi” and was nominated for “Becket.” Anderson has more credits as a director (35) than actor (13) and you’re probably not familiar with much of his resume.
- Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Dennis Christopher and Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Brad Davis play U.S. athletes “Charles Paddock” and “Jackson Scholtz” respectively. Both do a solid job with very small parts, but I can’t see how the filmmakers could have used them any more without detracting from the overall story. Davis won his Globe (and nominated for another for the same role) in “Midnight Express.” Christopher received his nomination for the coming-of-age tale “Breaking Away” (click here for my review) and he was reunited with his “Breaking Away” father – Paul Dooley – as a bad guy the victim of his father in the bleak episode titled “Cherry Red” of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” episode (click here for my look at that TV series).
As for the female leads, you’ll find that both Cheryl Campbell as “Jennie Liddell” and Alice Krige as “Sybil Gordon” do splendid, understated work. Campbell plays Charleson’s sister who wants him in China for missionary work and Krige is Abraham’s love who just wants her man back after his complete focus turns to his running. Both have good roles and beautifully articulate their characters, but it would have been nice to see a bit more of them (of course the film would have been three hours long, then). Campbell was in “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” and Krige has been in “Thor: The Dark World” and “Star Trek: First Contact.”
So, here you have a wonderful film that you can sit back, relax and thoroughly enjoy. Another British film from the same year and with a glacial pace and total quality is “Local Hero” with Burt Lancaster (click here for my review). They are both proof that you don’t need CGI, a superhero or Tom Hanks to have a great motion picture.
“Chariots of Fire” was the seventh ranked film in the U.S. in 1981 with $58.9 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on the relatively tight budget of $5.5 million, according to Wiki, but remember that was 1981 dollars. There was no challenge for the No. 1 spot as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” blew away the competition and hauled in $212.2 million, which was $100 million more than the No. 2 film “On Golden Pond.” Here are the films from that year that I’ve reviewed for this blog:
- “An American Werewolf in London” (outstanding) – click here for my review
- “The Cannonball Run” (ensemble fun) – click here for my review
- The original “Clash of the Titans” (neat effects) – click here for my review
- “Escape from New York” (OK sci-fi) – click here for my review
- “Eye of the Needle” (a blah WWII film) – click here for my review
- “The Final Conflict” (not bad horror) – click here for my review
- “Looker” (uneven but OK) – click here for my review
- “Nighthawks” (solid action) – click here for my review
- “Scanners” (disappointing sci-fi) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Sean Connery turned down a small part in the film (reputed to be a cameo) because of a commitment to another film.
- Liddell was born in China and died there as World War II came to a close 21 years after the Paris Olympics.
- It wasn’t shown in the film, but in real life Abrahams was introduced to Mussabini by Liddell.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “In real life, Lord David Bughley (Lord Lindsay in the Film) was the first man to do the Great Court Run, not Harold Abrahams. This was changed, because David Puttnam was a socialist and did not want to show a Lord winning, and this is one of the reasons that Lord Burghley did not consent to let his name be used in the film.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Ian Charleson himself wrote Eric Liddell’s inspiring speech to the post-race workingmen’s crowd. Charleson, who had been studying the Bible in preparation for the role, told director Hugh Hudson that he didn’t feel the scripted sanctimonious and portentous speech was either authentic or inspiring. Charleson was uncomfortable with performing the words as scripted. It was decided that Charleson himself should write words that he was comfortable speaking. And thus came the most inspiring speech of the movie.”
- Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the film.
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2016.
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