Chariots of Fire (United Kingdom, 1981)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sporting events today have become rancorous, angry affairs where the motto, more frequently than not, is "win at all costs." Exhibitions of good sportsmanship are about as rare as selflessness. Everyone is out for themselves, and the displays of athletes like Albert Belle, John McEnroe, and Dennis Rodman can sit in the stomach like a chunk of indigestible matter. So it's refreshing to look back at an era when victory didn't demand isolation, bitterness, and hatred of one's rivals. Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning 1981 film, transports us to the 1924 Olympics, and, in the process, highlights such commendable qualities as commitment, perseverance, and fraternity.

That's not to say that winning isn't important to the competitors in Hugh Hudson's film. On the contrary, for British track stars Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Lidell (Ian Charleson), it's a paramount concern, but neither is so obsessed by their goal that they lose sight of the larger picture. Eric is a devout Christian who runs because he believes it glorifies God. Harold is a Jew who competes as a way of proving his worth. Both are driven by an inner fire, and have nothing but respect for their rivals.

Chariots of Fire tells the story of the British triumphs at the 1924 Olympics, where the UK representatives took a number of medals over the heavily-favored Americans. With Abrahams and Lidell leading the way, the British track team had one of their best-ever showings. This film traces the two principal athletes' paths to the Paris games, where their on-field successes form a surprisingly low-key climax. Chariots of Fire doesn't rely on worn-out sports film cliches; it's more interested in motivation and character development. Yes, it's important to know that Abrahams and Lidell win, but the real meat of the story is contained in what leads up to the races. Like in Sylvester Stallone's first Rocky, it's possible to claim victory before the competition begins -- Lidell because he has holds fast to his beliefs and Abrahams because gives all he has to give.

At the time when Chariots of Fire was first released, many of the principal cast members, including Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, and Alice Krige, were relative unknowns. All give strong performances, and each was rewarded with future parts in other productions. Some recognizable faces fill supporting roles, including Sir John Gielgud as the Master of Trinity College and Ian Holm as Abraham's mentor, Sam Mussabini.

There's barely a whiff of melodrama in Chariots of Fire, which makes the film-watching experience all the more effective -- director Hugh Hudson shows respect for the integrity of his material and the intelligence of his audience. The absence of mawkish moments provides the narrative with a genuine quality that supports its factual background. Not only do we care about the characters, but we accept that they really existed. In fact, the entire production claims that same sense of verisimilitude. Most sports movies rely on nostalgia and adrenaline -- Chariots of Fire stands on strong writing, direction, and acting. Appreciation of this picture doesn't demand a love of sports, merely an understanding of human nature.

Chariots of Fire (United Kingdom, 1981)

Director: Hugh Hudson
Cast: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell, Ian Holm, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, Cheryl Campbell, Alice Krige
Screenplay: Colin Welland
Cinematography: David Watkin
Music: Vangelis
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1