It took me two viewings to really appreciate the film Chariot of Fire.
First released in 1981, Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for best picture. It’s also one of the few British productions to take the top award. (British films are regularly nominated but the winner is usually an American production.) A few nights ago, it was broadcast on TCM and I watched it for the first time. And I have to admit that I struggled to follow the film.
It’s not that the film’s story was exceptionally complicated. At heart, it’s an inspirational sports film and it features all of the clichés that one usually associates with inspirational sports films — i.e., come-from-behind victories, eccentric trainers, athletes who are determined to compete under their own terms, training montages, and a memorable score. (The score for Chariots of Fire was so effective that it’s still used as the background music for countless Olympic specials.)
No, I struggled to follow the film because it really was just so extremely British, featuring everything from Cambridge to Gilbert and Sullivan to a rigidly enforced class system to casual anti-Semitism, This may have been a sports film but it was a very reserved sports film. If Chariots of Fire had been an American film, we would have gotten countless shots of people screaming, “YESSSSS! GO! GO! GO! GO!” Instead, the characters in Chariots of Fire are far more likely to say, “Good show, old boy.” Whereas an American sports film would have scored a montage of competition to the sound of “Eye of the Tiger,” Chariots of Fire features a men’s chorus singing, “For he is an Englishman….”
It takes a bit of getting used to and perhaps I knew that because, even as I was watching Chariots of Fire, I still set the DVR to record it. The first time I watched the film, I was overwhelmed by the culture shock and the resolute Britishness of it all. My reaction was to think that, much like The Big Chill, Chariots of Fire was a “you just had to be there” type of film, the type of film that was once impressive but now just inspires you to go “meh.”
And I was prepared to write a review stating just that. But, somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew that I should give Chariots of Fire another chance before I dismissed it. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t get the damn music out of my head. Who knows? But I couldn’t think about the film’s opening — with all those men running on the beach and getting mud all over their white uniforms — without smiling.
So, seeing as how I am currently snowed in for the weekend, I spent this morning watching Chariots of Fire for a second time and I’m glad that I did. Because you know what? Chariots of Fire is actually a pretty good film. It tells the story of Eric Lidell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), two British runners who competed at the 1924 Olympics. Harold is a student at Cambridge. He’s an angry young man who is running to prove all of the anti-Semites wrong. (Of course, Harold is angry in a very sort of upper class British way). Eric is the son of missionaries who views running as a mission from God and who refuses to run on a Sunday. The film looks gorgeous, Charleson and Cross both give good performances, and that music demands an emotional response. While Chariots of Fire may not be a great film, it’s definitely a likable film and there’s something to be said for that.
Plus, did I mention that the music’s great?