Chariots of Fire is a true story of Olympian effort set a few years prior to and during the 1924 Paris Olympics. The protagonists—Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson)—were runners who came from radically different backgrounds. Liddell was a devoutly religious Scot who later became a missionary in China, Abrahams a British Jew whose scrappy, arrogant deportment became his defence against the
subtle racism all around him. During the games Liddell created a controversy by refusing to run the 100 metres on the sabbath, but won the 400. Abrahams won the 100, and both men found peace of mind through their triumphs.
While the film does not live up to prerelease expectations (it was one of the most highly acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival), it is nevertheless a considerable distance ahead of the pack. And while the audience doesn’t fully experience the spookiness of the sports arena where pain and ecstasy shake hands, it is given more than gratuitous glimpses into the lives of two young men out to better their best. Chariots of Fire is extremely wise about the motivations fuelling athletic behavior: God, country, family, love, vindication and personal loyalty. Running becomes the most profound justification of the self and it’s exciting to behold.
The structure of Colin Welland’s script, however, is rankling. There are superfluous flashbacks and flash-forwards, poor continuity and ragged editing, and a tendency to veer off into the tangential. Too often, despite the polish of the acting and some fine crafting, Chariots of Fire is presented piecemeal. The rhythms of athletic competition are fractured rather than poeticized by slow motion. The director, Hugh Hudson, apparently attempting to add new life to the visual aspects of running, squeezes too much into a frame and denies his audience the simple pleasure of watching an event for what it is—not what the camera can change it into.
Perhaps the most astonishing sequence is the 100-metre dash, over in a flash, as if dismissing and even mocking all the time and hope that had gone into it. The director reruns and reruns this event until it loses all its quick, forceful power. Few things in Chariots of Fire are left to speak for themselves.
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