Chariots of Fire
Director: Hugh Hudson. Cast: Ian Charleson, Ben Cross, Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, Alice Krige, Cheryl Campbell, Nicholas Farrell, Brad Davis, Dennis Christopher. Screenplay: Colin Welland.

The surprise victor of the 1981 Best Picture Oscar race, Chariots of Fire is a film about characters with heart, prowess, and unwavering conviction. The film itself is embarrassingly lacking in at least the latter two qualities; meanwhile, its heart seems to lead the picture into places its head doesn't want to go, and vice versa. The whole thing is a little ambivalent, sort of half-there, though it isn't wholly without interest or emotional reward. The key figures in this pleasant and dubiously elegant picture are Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), two students at Cambridge University who, for very different reasons, are vying for positions on the British track-racing team in the 1924 Olympics. Their respective approaches to both victory and defeat reveal much about each man's character, both individually and in relation to one another, though the amount of screen time shared by Charleson and Cross is comparatively little and no direct competition seems to exist between the two men. Abrahams, like Herb Stempel in 1994's Quiz Show, is a headstrong and grudging fellow who is sensitive to the anti-Semitism in his immediate environment and who hones his considerable natural skills—more athletic in this case than academic—in a self-styled campaign to prove the glory of his Jewish heritage to his unsympathetic hometown crowd.

Liddell, meanwhile, provides a fairer-haired, blue-eyed contrast to Abrahams, in another similarity to the Fiennes-Turturro pairing in Quiz Show. Liddell, though, is no Charles Van Doren-ish sham artist. In fact, it is Liddell's unswerving fidelity to his Christian ideals that lead him to withdraw from an Olympic heat even after the years of training that allow him to qualify, all because the race is on a Sunday and therefore, to Liddell, stands opposed to the holy edict of rest. Neither man's story concludes in predictable ways, and the film's refusal to couch its protagonists' moral victories in romantic or stereotypically heroic terms is one of its biggest virtues. I suspect this refusal of conventional plot mechanics is the reason Chariots of Fire appealed to the Academy, because in every other way the picture is modest to a fault. Indeed, the timorous screenplay retreats just as often from its promising subplots as it does from less welcome narrative avenues, which means it doesn't really go much of anywhere. Liddell and Abrahams both have girlfriends on the side, but in refusing to overplay the romantic angle of the story, Colin Welland's screenplay hasn't found anything better to do with these women. The interesting South African actress Alice Krige, later a Borg queen in the Star Trek film franchise, seems mostly here to wear the sunny white dresses and imposingly veiled hats that can help you win a Costume Design Oscar in an uncompetitive year.

Since Krige is delicately back-lit just like Glenn Close in The Natural, another sports film that passes at some point from laudable reserve to self-mythologization, she becomes an emblem of Chariots' addiction to its own nostalgia. Yes, the film means to document the epochal biases of the 1920s in Britain, but its lavish adulation of its exceptional characters seems to overwhelm the film's better judgment, and we're treated to yet another historical whitewash. Even the most interesting performances in the film, those of Nigel Havers (A Passage to India) as another member of the racing team and Oscar-nominated Ian Holm (The Sweet Hereafter) as Abraham's trainer, have trouble penetrating the teacups-and-sunsets milieu. And that immortal, anthemic score by Vangelis, stentorian and self-glorifying from the outset of the movie, sets a tone of high-deification that all but drowns out the dramatic conflict. It's Imperial Ideology 101: just a spoonful of triumphant underdog helps oppression go down, in the most delightful way.

That said, the key actors all do good work, and the unlikely conflation of athletic ambition and religious controversy makes for a potent combination. It's an easy film to brush off, and probably not one of which world cinema had a burning need, but it's also easy to enjoy and has more virtues while you're watching than you're likely to remember in retrospect. Without the metaphysical goo of something like Field of Dreams, the film still manages to limn its opposition between public sport and private faith with an accompanying focus on the spirituality of sport: not just the focused, ascetic discipline which Abrahams and especially Liddell bring to their training, but also the passion of the admiring masses, for whom the spectacles of track-and-field take on a kind of spiritual investment. Even if the lionization of its main characters feels overstated, there's a fruitful and subtle irony between the public adulation of its athletes (again, the cases of Abrahams and Liddell are seminally different in this regard) and the more direct forms of religion that motivate the athletes themselves. And watching from our own era, when it's hard to imagine anything more godless than the multimedia, multimillion-dollar carnivals of the NFL or NBA, it's bound to be eye-opening to witness sportsmen who still lived by some kind of ethical code. Be vigilant to what else the film asks you to accept by offering you these "heroes": aristocratic visual style, aristocratic cultural memory, English trackmen dashing through the surf to semi-Wagnerian accompaniment. But bump this movie down a few notches from its more florid registers, and there is still plenty to think about here, and a few cultural memories worth retaining. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Hugh Hudson
Best Supporting Actor: Ian Holm
Best Orignial Screenplay: Colin Welland
Best Costume Design: Milena Canonero
Best Film Editing: Terry Rawlings
Best Original Score: Vangelis

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign Film

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Best Supporting Actor (Holm); Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Special Mention)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Cinematography (David Watkin)
National Board of Review: Best Picture (tie)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Picture; Best Supporting Artist (Holm); Best Costume Design

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