Winner of Best Picture at the 1981 Oscars, Chariots of Fire is set around the 1924 Paris Olympics and concerns two young British runners who are not only running for themselves and their country but for deeper, more personal reasons. Cambridge Undergraduate Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) has faced anti-Semitism throughout his life and wants to run and win to put that out of his mind and show he is not deterred by the hateful language and attention he receives. Scottish Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is devoutly religious and believes that his speed and determination is a sign from God that he should run. Both runners along with their friends Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) and Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers) enter the Paris Olympics with dreams of winning gold.
Chariots of Fire, though now over thirty years old has recently returned to the spotlight thanks to the 2012 London Olympics. The film’s famous opening has been repeated over and over and was even used as the basis for a comedy skit by Rowan Atkinson during the Opening Ceremony. Vangelis’ famous score also featured during medal ceremonies. I’d never seen the film before today and although I think it was worth seeing, I certainly won’t be in a hurry to watch it again.
I had a few personal problems with the film. My main problem was that the central characters were the sort of over privileged, old boy network toffs of an England that is thankfully mostly a thing of the past. Although none of the characters were unlikeable, they belonged to a class and era of self congratulation and superiority which I find detestable. It was a time of birth right and standing where a title or expensive school would lead to Oxbridge and a more than comfortable life regardless of aptitude while those with intelligence but without land or money struggled against the precipice. I say this as someone whose father and grandfather attended one of the schools in question. The film constantly reminded me of the Tory, landed gentry snobs who still run the country today and refer to the middle and working classes as plebs. Anyway, rant over.
As I said, the characters themselves were not unlikeable and I found their polymath abilities to be impressive but I found their reasons for running to be a bit lame. As an Atheist I found Liddell’s reasons for not running on the Sabbath to be ridiculous. Why would God create a day during which you are permitted to do fuck all? Why would God also not actually specify which day the Sabbath should be in his magic rape and slavery book? Abraham does receive some Anti-Semitism at the beginning of the film from a member of his University’s staff but the film doesn’t convince us as to what effect this has on his life and ambition. I’m sure that just one anti-Semitic remark is enough to cut through a man but he is also surrounded by friends and colleagues who respect him, an attentive and devoted coach, loving girlfriend and all the privileges that a Cambridge education can buy. It’s not that the remark is not terrible, it’s that the film doesn’t really explain why it is running that Abrahams chooses to combat it.
The period detail was very good and the costumes felt accurate. The performances were all very good too and Vangelis’ theme from the soundtrack was sublime. The film was also reasonably entertaining. I was invested enough in the character to want to see if they won their events and was pleased when those who did, won. I also enjoyed the Rocky IV style training techniques used by the US and Great Britain teams. The British trained in woolly jumpers and lived on a diet of brandy and cigars while the Americans took the science behind sport much more seriously. But, we all know that Rocky destroyed Communism by carrying trees up mountains. Overall I was a little disappointed by Chariots of Fire. There is a good film in there but I found the characters drives difficult to get on board with and found it hard to put my political and anti religious beliefs to one side.