Chariots of Fire

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Chariots of Fire is not one of my more anticipated Best Picture Winners, and this might have been a self fulfilling prophecy. Sure, I probably should have paid a bit more attention to Chariots of Fire as it played in front of me, but nevertheless I though it was pretty dull. Like the best Oscar bait, it seems to focus more on its own importance than anything else.

Chariots of Fire tells the story of two young British athletes, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), and focuses on the reasons why they run track and their competing in the 1924 Olympics. Both are determined by the faith and background in different ways. Harold Abrahams is Jewish and a student at Cambridge but still feels singled out because of the casual anti-semitism of those around him. Eric Liddell is Scottish Christian who takes a bit of flack for not wanting to run on a Sunday, forsaking his king and country for his God. Both are driven to run for these very reasons. Abrahams wants to win to defect attention from his being Jewish and Liddell sees running as a perfect expression of his faith.

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The film is supposed to show us how upstanding and moral these men are, and it does. It’s given quite a bit of weight, with the film’s quiet but deep dialogue and focus on the characters themselves. Normally I would really appreciated this type of character driven film, but because of the sense of moral obligation to pay attention it just had me tuning out. Everything about this film calls attention to how important it thinks it is.

What’s most famous about this film is not the characters or their convictions, but rather the slow motion running on the beach and the weighty synthesizer score. The slow motion running on the beach only appears during the opening and closing credits, but never fear, because the slow motion running in other locations appears throughout the film. In fact, there is only one regular motion race in the entire film, which is then played back again in slow motion from different perspectives. Going off that, the running scenes and the races are no where near the only slow motion scenes in the film. Overall, I feel like the slow motion was overused way too much in the most blatant attempt to make the movie Important and Ponderous and Oscar Worthy.

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The synthesizer score was also very strange. To me, it called attention to the fact that this was made in the 80s, whereas all the other period details seemed spot on. It was very jarring to have such a score inserted into an otherwise very early 20th century movie. Some anachronisms work, but I feel because the style of the score was really the only blatant one in this movie it really stuck out and made the whole thing a little laughable.

Let’s back up a little bit. I’m faulting this movie a lot for being Oscar bait, which I think it is, whether it was intending to be or not it fits in with that type of movie, but like say, The Theory of Everything last year, it’s a perfectly well made movie in most respects that only suffers from how important it thinks it is. Sometimes I really like those types of movies, but sometimes they just don’t work for me and Chariots of Fire was definitely the latter. The plotting and the acting was pretty solid, I didn’t ever not buy Charleson or Cross in their leading roles. I also (minus the excessive slow motion), liked the cinematography. Everything was bathed in a gold light reminiscent of a more honorable time. In between the slow motion they were a few shots that took my breath away.

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If Chariots of Fire is your cup of tea, more power to you. Ultimately, I just could not get on board with what seems to be to be an achingly average movie about honorable athletes. I never really got invested enough in what they were fighting for, though admittedly the film made that abundantly clear. Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Oscars in 1981, and took home four. It won Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score, while losing out on Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. This all sounds well and good, until you realize that Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated that year. If I were the Academy I definitely would have gone with that one.

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“Now there are just two of us – young Aubrey Montague and myself – who can close our eyes and remember those few young men with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review
Empire review
The Washington Post review

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