by Alexandre Paquin
"Chariots of Fire" is perhaps a film with an achievement unequalled in film annals, in that its score has become more famous than any other aspect of the Oscar-winning movie. Yet, the film is excellent in most other respects. Only a deeper treatment of the religious theme could have made it better.Taking its title from a line in a well-known poem by William Blake, which was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry as "Jerusalem", "Chariots of Fire" (1981) is set in the England of the 1920's, and examines the life of young athletic runners, principally two of categorically different backgrounds, the Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), and the events which led to the highlight of their careers, the Paris Olympic Games of 1924.
"A sports movie with a message (sort of): Chariots of Fire."
"Chariots of Fire" is, first and foremost, a sports film, and to a lesser extent, a biopic, but at both levels is generally deeper than the films belonging to those genres. It understands, for instance, that a sports film which is strictly a sports film is charastically unsatisfactory, but it also usually avoids the pitfall of sentimentality which had affected several sports biopics that depicted their topic (real or invented) as a tragic hero ("Pride of the Yankees", "Knute Rockne, All-American", "Rocky", etc.). Sports, in "Chariots of Fire" (just as in "Eight Men Out"), is only a beginning that leads into a discussion of the importance of sports in society, not an end in itself. The recent World Cup offers an interesting example on how sport affects nationalism; "Chariots of Fire" touches nationalism only slightly with a friendly Anglo-American rivalry at the Games, but its main objective is to try to determine the relationship between sport and religion. It sometimes works, but at other times the religious angle appears forced and simplistic, but at least an effort was made. While Abrahams's religion leads to his rejection by his comrades, his faith only slightly affects his sport, and the film's message is instead carried through Liddell's religious convictions and how the athlete must react when forced to choose between glory on the field and the glory of God. Liddell, who would later become a missionary, objected to running on Sunday as planned by the Olympic Games schedule, even after a meeting with the Prince of Wales where he was encouraged to run on Sunday for his King and country. Eventually running in another event, Liddell confessed that he was running for God's pleasure.
Another film of 1981 which also dealt, but to a lesser extent, with the subject of running, but with a completely different angle, was Peter Weir's "Gallipoli". Obviously, the Weir film was set in the First World War and concluded most tragically. The devastation caused by the First World War is only implied in "Chariots of Fire", but it was enough to lend some uneasy sentiment to the film. Except that in Chariots of Fire, what is more obvious is that death is caused not by bullets, but by the slow march of time. While "Gallipoli" is more effective in terms of comradeship, "Chariots of Fire" has much more nostalgia for a time long gone by. This is suggested by the numerous (including several in slow-motion) sequences demonstrating of the human body at the peak of its efficiency, most notably the young athletes running barefooted on the beach at the beginning and end of the film. Furthermore, the nostalgia is increased by having the film told through an extended flashback, the present being Abrahams's own funeral in 1978. In this respect, the film's structure is similar to "Lawrence of Arabia", but the latter film had none of the celebration of the human body which can be found in "Chariots of Fire".
Apart from the competent performances by the main actors, there are three elements which can explain the success of "Chariots of Fire". The first is Colin Welland's screenplay, which is well-structured except towards the end, where it seems rushed. The second is the careful period recreation, with all elements looking authentic, from the venerable Cambridge University (which appears to be venerable in any era) to the sports stadium in Paris. Additional touches involve period cars, and, since this is set in England, excerpts from three different Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The third element which made the film a success was the one least likely to succeed: Vangelis's score. Considering that "Chariots of Fire" is a period piece, it was uncertain what a synthetizer score could have as impact. While one might argue that several other musical scores are anachronistic, and that audiences have gotten used to listening to full orchestral scores in a Roman Empire film, the audience has another idea in mind in the case of a film set in the 1920's than a score from a keyboard. Yet the score works perfectly, drawing particular attention to the nostalgic angle of the film and enhancing the heroic moments. While "Chariots of Fire" was a critically-acclaimed film which won, as its crowning achievement, the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1981, its most memorable aspect is not the story itself, but the Vangelis music score, which became a classic and which also earned its composer an Oscar."Chariots of Fire" may not be a perfect film, but the audacity of its topic, the careful treatment of the period, the deeper-than-usual characterizations, and, mostly, its music, make it a film deserving more than one viewing.
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originally posted: 06/19/02 00:09:21