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Chariots of Fire (1981) July 5, 2005

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Few people these days are willing to view “Oscars” as true measure of some film’s quality, because too many of “Oscar”-awarded films tend not to age well and have their reputation maintained after initial hype. This phenomenon isn’t exactly new and in past three decades there were plenty of examples of “Oscars” not preventing some films from sinking into obscurity. One of such examples is CHARIOTS OF FIRE, 1981 drama directed by Hugh Hudson.

Among the few people that remember majority is most likely to recognise musical score by Vangelis while not remembering the plot. It is set in 1924 Britain and tells a story of two very different men who are going to represent that country at Olympic Games in Paris. Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), a son of wealthy Jewish financier, has enrolled at Cambridge and sees athletics as his way to fight latent anti-Semitism. Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Christian who sees his athletic prowess as a way to honour God. Two of them compete against each other only to become part of British track team at Olympics where they would have to compete with highly favoured Americans.

It could be said that CHARIOTS OF FIRE is a successful film. The early 1920s period in Britain is well-reconstructed with relatively small budgets. The roles are played by a diverse cast, ranging from highly respected veterans like Sir John Gielgud to virtually unknown and relatively young actors like Cross, Charleson, Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell, many of whom would later become some of the most recognisable faces of British cinema and television. Script by Colin Welland tells a story very competently, while Vangelis delivers one of his first great film scores which, despite the use of modern electronic instruments, doesn’t seem out of place in period piece.

If the movie succeeds it is in spite rather than because of Hugh Hudson’s direction. This was Hudson’s first feature and it shows in couple of scenes where there is either too much cheap pathos – especially slow-motion scenes of track athletes – or film looks cheaper than it actually is. The viewers more familiar with British television are left to wonder whether CHARIOTS OF FIRE could work better if made with lesser budget and more experienced director. It isn’t hard to imagine why Hudson didn’t get far in his subsequent career. It could be argued that the producer David Puttnam, rather than Hudson, is the most responsible for the film’s ultimate success.

Success of the film also could be explained with the specific political context in which it was released. Story about athletes having to make difficult moral choices and noble sport ideals being corrupted by nationalism and politics was very relevant after the boycotts of 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. The movie, despite Puttnam’s attempts to inject left-wing politics in it, was seen as an example of unapologetic flag-waving – something sorely needed for the audiences in declining Britain of late 1970s and early 1980s. In many ways CHARIOTS OF FIRE represented British equivalent of ROCKY – a film that marked the tilting of political balance to the right that would occur under Margaret Thatcher, just as America had gone through the same process with Ronald Reagan.

However, even without its historic, cultural and political context, CHARIOTS OF FIRE should be recommended. The film is worth watching despite providing another reason to put words “Oscar” and “overrated” in the same sentence.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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