One would think that movies about the triumph of the human spirit would be the easiest to tell. But actually the opposite is quite true. Few, manage to bottle the elusive celebratory quality of the moment, particularly upon renewed viewing, without becoming maudlin or faintly ringing of overt and woefully pre-digested sentimentality. Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981) is the exception to that rule; a serenely understated and altogether emotionally nourishing tale about instinctually following one’s own moral compass. Producer David Puttnam inadvertently discovered the true life story of Eric Henry Liddell – ‘the Flying Scotsman’ - in 1978 while recovering from the flu, and thereafter commissioned screenwriter Colin Welland to adapt this piece of all but forgotten national history for the movies.
At its heart, Chariots of Fire is a story about the curious, often conflicted alliances in sports; honour, dignity, compassion for one’s competitors and the glory of competition itself. The film begins with Eric Liddell’s solemn funeral ceremony where Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers) is offering a heartfelt eulogy. From here we regress into one extended flashback depicting Lindsay’s sheer joy, racing barefoot with his contemporaries along a lonely stretch of windswept beach. Born to privilege, Lindsay is a rather devil-may-care young man who looks upon running as a grand lark. His lack of true conviction for the sport is overwhelmed by the camaraderie he experiences with his fellow athletes.
It’s 1919 and Lithuanian Jew Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) has just entered Cambridge where he experiences anti-Semitism from its staff. Driven by some mad inner pursuit to prove himself worthy – perhaps not of the university but himself - Abrahams becomes the first person to ever complete the Trinity Great Court Run by streaking a blur around the courtyard in the time it takes the nearby clock to strike the 12th hour. Cheered by his fellow students, Abrahams discovers his true calling as a runner and embarks upon a series of undefeated victories in national competitions. Outwardly, these triumphs fan his vanity but they do little to exorcise his inner demons. His heart is stirred by a chance meeting with soprano, Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), who is currently appearing as Yum-Yum in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. The two begin a flawed love affair that is frequently interrupted by the insecurities Abrahams carries with him, and by his blind determination to maintain a public façade at the expense of a more intimate and meaningful private life.
On the other end of the spectrum is Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson); a passionate Scotsman who races as though he had wings on his feet. Eric’s sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell), a devout missionary moderately disapproves of her brother’s plans to pursue competitive running. But Eric insists that he runs to glorify God, to show Him thanks who gave him the strength and agility to compete. Eric makes Jennie a promise to return to China – the place of his birth – and work as a missionary as their parents once did. But when he misses church services one Sunday in order to compete, Jennie believes Eric has lied to her and chides him. Eric responds with “I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.”
Liddell and Abrahams face off in their first competition. Although Abrahams vows to emerge victorious, and pours every last ounce of his strength – and considerable ego - into the competition, he is seemingly effortlessly defeated by Liddell, whose graciousness in victory is superseded by Abrahams’ bitterness and outrage at having lost. Abrahams has missed the point of competition, misperceiving it as a war against the others in the race. But Liddell has won because he truly believes in the competition of one – to challenge one’s self and find his strength not in victory, but in the sportsmanship.
After the race, Abrahams is pulled aside by professional trainer, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who offers to take him on to improve his technique. Abrahams, who had sought out Mussabini earlier, willingly agrees, incurring the dismay of his headmasters (John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson). Both suggest to Abrahams that he is an amateur ‘playing’ at being the tradesman. Undaunted by their class based smug superiority Abrahams engages Mussabini and the tutelage begins in earnest.
Lindsay befriends both men, introducing them to his life of privilege. He is stimulated by their friendship and is a selfless true admirer of both Liddell and Abrahams. Eventually, these adversarial champions are chosen to represent Great Britain at the 1924 Olympiad in Paris, along with Lindsay and fellow classmates Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) and Henry Stallard (Daniel Gerroll). The men accept their appointments with great humility. However, when Liddell discovers that his 100 metre race is scheduled for Sunday he respectfully declines to compete, despite strong ‘encouragement’ from the Prince of Wales (David Yelland) and the British Olympic committee. Liddell, however, remains steadfast and true to his Christian convictions.
Lindsay suggests that since he has already won a silver medal in the hurdles he will relinquish his place in the 400 metre race the following Thursday for Liddell to compete. Liddell accepts and the committee agrees. Abrahams is badly beaten by American runner Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis) in the 200 metre and elects to challenge himself in the 100 metre that Liddell ought to have run. There, he is victorious and Mussabini is overcome with elation.
Preparing for the 400 metre, Liddell is ridiculed by the American coaches. However, Scholz hands Liddell a note in support of his religious convictions. The men race and Liddell wins the race to a thunderous standing ovation. The British team return home in triumph and Sybil and Abrahams are reunited. Before fading to black we learn the fate of these Olympians. Abrahams eventually married Sybil and settled down. Liddell fulfilled his promise to Jennie by returning to China as a missionary. He was interned in one of their concentration camps during the conflicts and died of a brain tumour and malnutrition on February 21, 1945.
Chariots of Fire is exuberant film making. It celebrates the undiluted joy in athletics rather than in victory itself. The Welland screenplay is passionate about its subject matter, the all-British cast and crew more enthusiastic still and the results are immensely satisfying in unexpected ways. The film charts the chequered progress of flawed heroes who ultimately believe in themselves, occasionally even when those closest to them are all set to simply walk away. The great strength of the film is that it doesn’t try to iron out inherent dramatic flaws for the sake of achieving a more grandiose narrative perfection. We get a ‘warts and all’ perspective – albeit with the warts lit in soft focus and with the iconic Vangelis’ techno ‘80s theme blaring across the screen as the wind at each runner’s back. But at its very soul, Chariots of Fire retains the kernel of truth for life as it was rather than as it should have been.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is bar none a blind repurchase must have! The full 1080p image is a sumptuous feast. Colours are rich. Contrast is spot on. The hi-def image captures the diffused David Watkin’s cinematography with an ethereal glow and just the right smattering of film grain. The image is ‘vintage’ in the very best sense of the word, with fine details evident throughout. Close ups are startlingly robust. The DTS 5.1 audio is equally impressive, capturing all of the subtle nuances in dialogue, score and effects. I cannot think of a single negative. The film looks and sounds perfect!
Warner has gone all out on the extras this time around too. The snazzy 36 page booklet packaging is just for starters. We get two new half hour featurettes – one on the Paris games circa 1924, the other on the making of the film. Director Hudson also appears in a newly produced Q&A that is fascinating. Hudson covers a lot of the same ground he did in the audio commentary (also included). We also get all of the old extra features from Warner’s old SE DVD; including The Making of Chariots of Fire, deleted scenes, a reunion featurette and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: there’s absolutely NO reason why you shouldn’t own this disc. And with the summer games set to kick off in Britain very soon, Chariots of Fire is the ideal movie to put you in the proper frame of mind. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)