While the film is probably best known for its theme song, Chariots of Fire did indeed win the Best Picture Oscar the year of its release. While I know have been critical of such a claim giving a film validity, I figured with the recent closing of the London Summer Olympics there was no time like the present to revisit this film, which as you may know is about British track athletes. I knew the movie was going to be a traditional sports narrative of characters overcoming some social or physical obstacle in order to deliver a stunning feat of athleticism. What I did not know going into this work is how terribly British the film would be overall. While I have not seen Kes yet, I cannot help but suspect that this will serve as the penultimate definition of British filmmaking to me; however, there are a slew of Hitchcock films and David Lean works that could suffice. Overall the dialogue and choice for what made the narrative cut simply is not that of an American sports film and in a surprising way the film really has very little to do with Track and Field and much more to do with individuals identities and their confrontations with a society that simply does not accept things that are different. Chariots of Fire, is of course excellent as far as soundtracks are concerned, but beyond that obvious fact lies a well acted and incredibly shot film that inevitably causes viewers to reconsider their notions of a sporting film. At a very basic level, it is a movie about competitive running, on a grand scale it is a commentary on human strife fully realized.
Chariots of Fire is set in the early twentieth century, beginning a few years before the 1924 Olympics which will be held in Paris. The narrator of the film, Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Ferrell) serves as the eyes and voice of the story, although as it is made quite clear from the onset, his roles simply to observe and report the actions of Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a fellow Cambridge classmate who happens to also be Jewish, a label he caries with contentious pride. Abrahams desires nothing more than to prove the deans of the school and pretty much the whole of society that he is just as capable as any other Englishman of competing in athletics and that his ethnic existence does not cause him the slightest disadvantage. On the other side is and out of the narrative gaze of Montague is Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston) a famous Scottish rugby star who is devoutly Christian and finds joy and harmony serving as a missionary. However, due to some rather forceful nudging by a family friend, Liddell is convinced to also compete for a spot on the Olympic team, something he deems acceptable because it will prove as a form of glorifying God. The two men begin their quest for Olympic competition as they compete in various track meets eventually facing one another in a race. Liddell wins by the slightest of margins, losing as he later discovers by making the mistake of turning to check on the place of Liddell in the race Abrahams is quickly approached by the professional trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who helps advance the young athlete considerably, despite the disdain of Cambridge's deans. The two eventually make the Olympic team, along with Montague and a handful of other Cambridge students and head off by boat to compete. It is at this point that Liddell discovers his race will fall on a Sunday, his day of rest, a fact that causes him to refuse to run. He is moved into a slot in the 400m race, which means that Abrahams has a clear shot to win his 100m race, something he does with vivacity. All that remains is for Liddell to win his race, despite being far from a favorite in the sprint he manages to also win. The narrative then ends with the two of them returning to their daily lives as new Olympic gold medalists, forever cemented in the history of Britain.
Interesting enough, for playing so heavily into the differences between Liddell and Abrahams religiously, it is quite surprising that the film does not cause this to be a point of division between both athletes. While there are certainly moments of clear problems between the two culturally, they nonetheless manage to create a bond through athletics that makes them friends. Considering this fact within the narrative, it is clear that Chariots of Fire is about the transitive power of sports to merge seemingly divided groups of people. In a non-sports setting it would be improbable that Liddell would ever meet Abrahams, let alone engage with him in more than passing terms. Furthermore, the placement on a national and global podium allows for both men to share their stories and personal opinions in such a way that the world is forced to acknowledge their concerns. This is evident with Abrahams throughout the film, but comes full frontal when Liddell refuses to run on the Sabbath an action that makes national headlines. By doing so he is praised by fellow Christians and is even allowed to deliver a sermon at a prestigious church as a result. While the face of such abilities have change in the new century, one only needs to revisit the countless moments of courage and confrontation that occurred during the past few weeks of the Olympics. Individuals like Oscar Pistorious and Kirani James used their moment in the global spotlight to give a voice to paraplegics and impovershed peoples respectively. In a sense, they are this eras Abrahams and Liddell, both were out to prove something and both did so with great results.
Key Scene: Abraham's final race is an editing spectacle.
Chariots of Fire will always be a piece of must-see cinema, I suggest doing so while the aura of the Olympics is still fresh in your mind, however, owning this film is not necessary and renting it will more than suffice.