THIS IS THE STORY OF TWO MEN WHO RUN… NOT TO RUN… BUT TO PROVE SOMETHING TO THE WORLD. THEY WILL SACRIFICE ANYTHING TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS… EXCEPT THEIR HONOR.
I have taken up running recently and discovered that it is easy to get hooked. It’s tough in the beginning but some days it is as if you soar, your legs carrying you on even when you thought you were too tired. In this film, Eric Liddell, the famous athlete, senses that when running he feels God’s pleasure. I wouldn’t say that happens when I move my feet, but that statement says something about the emotional power behind a simple exercise like that.
Struggling as a Jew
The film begins in the late 1910s when Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) enters Cambridge. He turns out to be a fine athlete, but keeps struggling as a Jew; he has faced a lot of prejudice and those experiences have made him sensitive to any kind of derogatory treatment. At the same time, Scotsman Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is also proving to be a promising runner (even being dubbed “The Flying Scotsman”). He’s a devout Christian who figures that running is one way of serving the Lord until he can go to China as a missionary, but his sister (Cheryl Campbell) is afraid that he’s starting to forget about the mission.
As the two men are preparing to face each other at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Harold is being trained by a true pro, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), and Eric is challenged by the fact that a heat of the 100 meters occurs on a Sunday, the only day of the week when the Lord sees no pleasure in his running.
Bold choice that paid dividends
It is a study of two athletes who shared similarities to some extent. The film shows both Abrahams and Liddell fighting for their convictions in the face of straining pressure; the Cambridge leadership was not pleased to see Abrahams being trained by a person with such a, shall we say, colorful ethnic background, and the British delegation in Paris (led by the Prince of Wales) wanted to see Liddell run that heat regardless of his beliefs. But they both persevered and won medals for their country, in part because of their beliefs and moral choices. It is an inspiring film, beautifully shot in the grayish British countryside by David Watkin, and having Vangelis (in his great breakthrough) write an electronic score for this period film was a bold choice that paid dividends for the future of the film music industry; his main theme is a powerful accompaniment to the famous sequence where the athletes run on a beach.
The cast is fine (Holm was especially praised, but I think Charleson and Cross give the most memorable performances) and so is the writing (the script has plenty of insightful dialogue)… but I can’t for the life of me see why this essentially simple film was so praised at its time of release, even going on to win an Oscar for Best Picture. It is easy to admire its ambition; producer David Puttnam was looking for a story about people who follow their conscience and he sure delivered an intelligent, emotional film… but hardly the best of the year.
Director Hugh Hudson got a marvelous breakthrough; this was his first film. Unfortunately, he has yet to deliver an equally successful film. I guess one could say that much like many athletes Hudson has had trouble recapturing the glory of his past success.
Chariots of Fire 1981-Britain. 123 min. Color. Produced by David Puttnam. Directed by Hugh Hudson. Screenplay: Colin Welland. Cinematography: David Watkin. Music: Vangelis. Costume Design: Milena Canonero. Cast: Ben Cross (Harold Abrahams), Ian Charleson (Eric Liddell), Nigel Havers (Andrew Lindsay), Nick Farrell, Alice Krige, Cheryl Campbell… Ian Holm, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, Brad Davis.
Trivia: Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry and Kenneth Branagh allegedly appear as extras in this film.
Oscars: Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Film, Supporting Artist (Holm), Costume Design. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Film. Cannes: Best Supporting Actor (Holm).
Quote: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” (Charleson)
Last word: “We’d been filming in Edinburgh so shot [the opening jogging scene] at St Andrews since it’s close, although it’s meant to be Broadstairs in Kent. There was no wind, the light was totally flat, but we didn’t have time or money to wait. As luck would have it, though, a grain of sand got into the camera and scratched the negative so we had to go back and redo it. This time the wind was up, creating all those white horses on the sea. We did it in just two shots, one wide and one close. The cinematographer, David Watkin, managed to create an extraordinary, almost strobe-like effect.” (Hudson, The Guardian)