I’ll come out and say it straight away. I think Chariots of Fire is one of the most overrated movies of all time.
Given Britain’s current, spectacular success in the 2012 Olympics, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the film, not to mention a re-release in cinemas and a brand new stage adaptation. But whenever I come across it, I can’t help but think said Chariots have a spoke missing.
The movie famously stormed the 1982 Oscars ceremony, winning awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Score and Best Costume Design, prompting screenwriter Colin Welland to utter those now infamous words: ‘The British are coming’. It’s bad enough that Welland’s words proved hollow in the following years (the 80s were a famously tempestuous age for British cinema); what’s doubly galling is that such self-congratulatory back slapping was in the service of such a monotonous drama.
The film is based on the true story of Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), two athletes from opposing backgrounds who competed together during the 1924 Paris Olympics. The former is a British Jew who runs to escape the anti-Semitism snapping at his heels. The latter is a devout Christian who plans to undertake missionary work in China following the competition. For Liddell, running is less a pragmatic release and more a spiritual statement. Support comes from Nicholas Farrell (in his feature film debut), Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay and Ian Holm as Abrahams’ trainer Sam Mussabini.
Hugh Hudson’s film can largely be broken down thus: slow-motion running scenes alternating with scenes of toffs in rooms talking about the running we’ve just seen. The problem is, there’s much more of the latter than there is of the former. Put simply, the characters spend endless amounts of time verbalizing the spiritual endeavour of running but given the banality of the dialogue and Hudson’s flat, pedestrian visual sense, it becomes something of a chore to sit through.
The cumulative effect is akin to sitting in a windowless room full of tobacco smoke: the endless parade of academic surroundings and plummy accents becomes stifling, and one yearns for the moment where the movie will take flight, where it will stop telling and start showing. During the infrequent moments when the movie does stop talking to hit the track, it feels tantalizingly alive, Vangelis’ intriguing, anachronistic score pulsating and churning and reflecting that elusive principle to which all the movie’s characters are striving.
In fact, the music is probably the best element of the film, and, I imagine, did more to seal it in the minds of Oscar voters than anything else. It was a wise decision indeed to score the movie with modern synthesisers: both Hudson and Vangelis realise that our emotional reaction as spectators need not be measured in terms of the period depicted on-screen. Emotions are contemporary and inherent to the context of the viewer, not the characters, the end result being a score that transcends the boundaries of the drama. It’s not as striking a score as his work on Blade Runner the following year but it certainly makes the film more intriguing.
It’s just a shame that the remainder of the movie falls so flat. The characters are defined by the parameters of the movie but never leap off the screen: Abrahams for example lives to run but there’s no poetry in the script’s treatment of him. The balance of talk and action is purely mechanical: when Abrahams is required to explain why he’s running, we get a sense the film is glibly circling difficult issues of anti-Semitism. Every so often, the film will show him pounding the track in order to justify what he has just spelled out for us, but there’s no psychological or spiritual depth to the portrayal, in-spite of how much the character verbalises it. It’s simply a lot of talking, interspersed with a bit of running.
As for the characters surrounding Abrahams (bar Liddell), we know they’re privileged and attend Cambridge because they talk with posh accents but there’s little sense of university life surrounding them. The flat lighting and endless succession of greys and browns in the art direction suggest actors walking through a waxworks. The only spark of life comes from Holm’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Mussabini, punching through the rim of his hat in a moment of exultation. In truth, the movie could have done with more overt action such as this.
The cumulative result is a movie that looks and feels as if it were made for TV. That’s not a bad thing but it’s hardly Oscar-winning material. For all the promise of the admittedly striking opening sequence (slow-motion running down a beach to the undulating glow of Vangelis’ score), the rest of the drama fails to live up to it. The characters lack definition, the themes lack nuance and the movie takes far too long to put the chess pieces into play. Chariots of Fire is currently 19th on the BFI’s list of Top 100 British Movies. For me, it’s less Sprint it Like Bolt and more Plodding like Bigfoot.