I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1981 winner, Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson and starring Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell. I first saw this film about twenty years ago.
Chariots of Fire is a sports epic about the British track athletes in the 1924 Olympics. The movie uses cinematography, music and editing techniques to try to show their internal struggles and triumphs. While sometimes heavyhanded, it is visually interesting.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds. Chariots of Fire also won Oscars for Best Costume Design; Best Music, Original Score; and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
When this movie was made, two of the four real-life figures had died, one of them only a couple years before the movie was made. The film begins with a funeral scene, where the two survivors, in age makeup, attend their friend's funeral, and one of them gives a eulogy. The rest of the movie is told as a sort of romantic flashback, almost as if it represents the heightened way these two men would recall their accomplishments.
Some of the characters meet at Oxford, and early in the first movie is the famous scene where Harold Abrahams (Cross) and Lord Andrew Lindsay (Havers) accomplish a feat that has not been successfully accomplished for 700 years at that school: to race around the quad during the time the noon chimes ring. The movie sets up the importance of this feat, with two professors watching from a window, observing calmly that these men, indeed, have a great future ahead of them. Lord Lindsay, incidentally, was based on an athlete named Lord David George Cecil Burghley, who competed in both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.
We also meet Aubrey Montague (Farrell), a quiet guy who is often seen writing letters home. His actual letters, incidentally, helped to shape some of the details in the script. While there were some factual changes made for dramatic reasons, his letters and the reminiscenes of other athletes from those games, helped scriptwriter Colin Welland and formed the basis of his script.
And then there is the fourth key figure, Eric Liddell (Charleson), who is in Scotland, living a very different life, helping to run a mission church with his beloved. He first meets the others at the Olympic trials, where Abrahams discovers for the first time that he's not necessarily the world's fastest runner.
I first saw this film about 20 years ago, rented on VHS with my family. Aside from the opening scene where they're running on the beach to the Vangelis song, "Chariots of Fire," I didn't remember very much. It is a very quiet film. In fact, I had to turn on the subtitles, because every time the air conditioner kicked in, I had trouble hearing. This subtlety can be a good thing, though, because it counterpointed the boisterous way these men behaved when they were together.
From watching the DVD extras, I know the director wanted this film to be the Lawrence of Arabia of sports films: a true epic that was nonetheless faithful to the stories of these men. The problem I had with this film was the same I have with many epics: at times it takes too wide of a perspective. It's difficult to focus on four main characters during the film, especially when their key interactions take place on a track, where words are few. The film therefore spends more time on Abrahams and Liddell, who earned the biggest medals at the games and also had the more interesting life stories. If not for the fact that both of them ultimately play key roles in the story, Montague and Lindsay often seem extraneous.
The women in this film serve almost as a plot device, so that their men can open up to them about their true feelings. For example, Abrahams talks about how important winning is to him and his self-doubts. Liddell talks to his woman about his faith and his plans to serve as a missionary in China.
The most entertaining part of the movie is the training session for the Olympics, which shows the four men training in very different ways. Abrahams works with a gruff, hard-driving trainer, Sam Mussabini, played by Ian Holm. Lindsay practices the hurdle by placing full wine glasses on top, attempting to clear each one without spilling a drop. Scenes like this make Lindsay a fascinating character, and yet the viewer never learns much about him or gets to learn about his internal thoughts.
This uneven treatment of Lindsay is characteristic of the film, where at times there are glimpses of real emotion that can help build a character, but at other times the film seems just like a schoolyard tale told over after-dinner sherry.
The Olympics montage, showing the athletes in action, is the most dramatic, moving portion of the film. Hudson uses a lot of slow motion photography and repeats one of the key races several times at different speeds and from different angles. These scenes were made more realistic by the fact that real athletes played the extras. They were motivated to do well, because they knew that those in the front of the pack were more likely to appear on camera.
Hudson was criticized for overusing slow motion techniques, but in the making-of documentary that accompanied this movie, he shrugged off such criticism. I'm not certain that the extreme slo-mo always works; there are times it seems forced. But in the moments when it does work, it captures the passion of these athletes. The music of Vangelis adds immeasurably to that feel, like a slowly building electronic tidal wave.
While this film is a little uneven, it will always be remembered for its strong visual elements and, of course, that famous scene of the athletes running along the beach. As far as epics go, despite the lack of focus, this movie has more heart than a lot of other epics and certainly most sports films.
Music can play a key role in setting the mood of a film.