When Hugh Hudson’s (I Dreamed of Africa, My Life So Far) film Chariots of Fire won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981 it was a surprise. Chariots of Fire was certainly not a favourite. But it had all the necessary ingredients – it was British, a sports story featuring underdogs, a beautiful score, and it was based on a true story. The Academy Awards people eat up stuff like this. Writing, direction, acting, and music is amazing. Definitely worth a rewatch.
It is 1919 at Cambridge University and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross – First Knight, Star Trek – 2009) is about to begin as a student. Being a Jew he faces plenty of instances of anti-Semitism. Though he enjoys being part of the Gilbert and Sullivan club what he really does well is run and shows his skills by being the first to complete the Trinity Great Court Run. Then he goes on to win other running races across England. While gaining some notoriety as a runner he falls in love with a fellow Gilbert and Sullivan member, Sybil (Alice Krige – The Sorcerer‘s Apprentice, Star Trek: First Contact).
At the same time in Scotland, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson – Ghandi, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes), the son of missionaries, is also a competitive runner despite the fact that his devoutly Christian sister, Jennie (Cheryl Campbell – Tamara Drewe), disapproves. Eric plans to run to bring glory to God before he devotes his life to missionary work.
In their first race head to head Liddell beats Abrahams, who is not happy at all about losing. He turns to a professional trainer (Ian Holm – Alien, The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring) to help him with his technique. Both men continue to run and train.
Five years later both are selected to run on behalf of England in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell learns that his race is being run on a Sunday. He refuses to run it. Abrahams loses his first race and things look grim for him winning gold. Both men learn how strong they really are through the act of running and competition.
Chariots of Fire is a quiet and evenly paced film that is British down to every nook and cranny. The dialogue is fantastic with an attention paid to language that you don’t get in Hollywood films. Plus it is subtle. There is not hitting you over the head with its themes. Like many good British films the important things happen underneath the surface. You have to dig them out.
At its essence the film is about what drives people, what makes them do what they do no matter how hard. It also is about faith, values, loyalty, and competition. Competition is seen as healthy and a way to draw out of people what is great in them. Running was never as exciting as it is in this film. The way the races are filmed and the music (done by Vangelis and he won an Oscar for it) that accompanies them really elevate the tension and excitement.
Good films use universal experiences that really draw you in. They connect with you and make you care about the characters. Timeless themes, good acting and deft direction make this a film not to miss. If you haven’t seen the film since it was released then you owe it to yourself to see it again.
-36 pages of behind-the-scenes photos, production art, history and more
-2 all new documentaries:
Paris, 1924: Birth of the Modern Games David Puttnam
A Cinematic Champion
-New interview with director Hugh Hudson
-Commentary by Hugh Hudson
Wings on their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire
Chariots of Fire: A Reunion
-Soundtrack sampler; 4 songs from the Oscar-winning compilation