If you had told me that forty years ago, the Academy Award for best picture went to a film about Man’s relationship with his religion versus his duty to his nation, I probably wouldn’t believe you. Because I had never seen Chariots of Fire, the true-ish-to-life story of the 1924 English Olympic track team. If the Internets are to be believed, this movie began as an attempt by producer David Puttnam (Midnight Express, Foxes) to create something with a sort of Man For All Seasons level of drama, and he very nearly makes it.
Our two central characters in the drama are a Jew, Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross, who played Barnabas Collins in the ’90s reboot of “Dark Shadows”) who is ambitious and driven to finding acceptance in English society, and a Calvinist Scotsman, Eric Liddel (played by Ian Charleson, who was in Gandhi and a lot of British TV shows before AIDS got him in 1990) who has to balance his God-given athleticism with his literal mission (which in real-life took him to China and eventual internment at the hands of the Japanese).
There are other characters as well, but The Boy and I are not great at telling people in these period pieces apart. (This would make our next film, La Cercle Rouge, a real struggle.) Also, the other characters seem to exist primarily to throw Liddel and Abrahams into contrast. In particular, I struggled with telling Nigel Havers’ (from that English TV series you like, and also Empire of the Sun) Lord Andrew Lindsay from Nicholas Farrell’s (from that other English TV series you like, and also the 1984 Tarzan movie, which featured Ian Charleson as well) Aubrey Montague till about halfway through the movie. Lindsay was kind of interesting because he was portrayed as being not driven like Abrahams and Liddel—just the kind of upper class fellow who did things on a lark, but was still good enough to make it to the Olympics. (Speaking of Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller would win three gold medals at these Olympics, before going on to play the best Tarzan in the 1932 adaptation.)
This character, Lord Lindsay, is a composite, apparently, but a surface look at the whys and wherefores is murky and contradictory, and I didn’t go see this movie for a history lesson.
Abrahams is the most compelling character, because he’s—as the kids say—a total chad. He does this legendary race around the Cambridge quad, “The Great Court Run”, and is the first person to beat the challenge since Aethelred the Unready or something. (In reality, it was the Lord Lindsay character who did it first.) When one of the guys (Aubrey?) takes him to see the Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of Mikado because he has a crush on the star (prime Alice Krige, most famously known as the Borg Queen but who I’ve had a thing for since Ghost Story), it’s Abrahams who asks her out—during the intermission.
Colin Welland’s script shows Abrahams as a character who is distinctly English and yet excluded from society, or at least suspect, because of his Lithuanian Jewish descent. Though it should be noted that the movie opens with Abrahams very, very Christian funeral while not ever mentioning that Abrahams converted. His utter lack of religion makes the entire focus about the English establishment, which ends up being less interesting. Krige has a good line early on when they’re on their first date: “Nobody cares.” I’ll leave it as an exercise for the viewer as to why that’s so great.
Liddel’s situation is more interesting. He’s running for God. And he doesn’t roll on shomer freakin’ Shabbos! He spends the whole movie (in-between training) delivering sermons and re-assuring his sister that he’s not being seduced by worldly temptations. And then his Olympic meet happens to fall on a Sunday. At that point, it’s a little unclear whether the French are just recalcitrant (the Olympics were being held in Paris that year) or whether the Brits were just too proud to ask a bunch of frogs to do some rescheduling, but it comes down to everyone (including future abdicator, the Prince of Wales) demanding Liddel run on a Sunday.
Liddel runs like a geek, which The Boy noted, and which I assured him was doubtless thoroughly researched. Amusingly, Liddel’s wife objected to the portrayal of his running, but the producer swears by the accuracy, and I’m inclined to believe him. Nobody could make that gait up.
Overall, whether or not to run doesn’t quite have the intensity of Thomas More standing up to Henry VIII, to be honest, but I liked it because it seems like such a novel thing, lo, these two score years later. The Boy was less impressed: He liked it but didn’t think it was a must-see. He did have to recalibrate while watching because so much of the film has been aped and parodied—especially the music, which perhaps ironically, I found very hit-and-miss—he had to remind himself that this was the original.
The Old Man was salty about this movie back in the day. It was put in the Best Picture category (which it won) whereas a similar Australian film, Gallipoli, was put in the foreign language category and didn’t even make it to the nomination phase. He would not be surprised that Gallipoli is rated higher on IMDB. Of course, virtually every other film nominated that year is currently ranked higher. Raiders of the Lost Ark towers over the others, but Atlantic City, On Golden Pond and even Reds—the odds-on favorite, especially after Beatty won Best Director—are all rated higher. Meanwhile there was Das Boot, The Road Warrior, The Evil Dead, Excalibur, Blow Out, Escape from New York and the debut film of Serbian director Emir Kusturica, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? But the Oscars post-’60s tended to split between empty echoes of former glories and communist agitation, until it gave way in the past decade to something resembling complete self-abnegation. (Nine of the last ten “best director” awards have gone to foreign born nationals.)
Anyway, even if there are twenty better films from this year, it’s still worth a watch.