REVIEW: Chariots of Fire
Produced by: David Puttnam
Written by: Colin Welland
Edited by: Terry Rawlings
Cinematography by: David Watkin
Music by: Vangelis
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Cheryl Campbell, Alice Krige, Ian Holm, Nicholas Farrell, Henry Stallard
Based on a true story
I have a bit of a weird relationship with Chariots of Fire. The first two times I saw this movie were each divided across multiple classes in two different Christian schools – once in 8th grade, and again in 10th. Each time, I found the movie ridiculously boring and overlong, little more than an excuse to tune out and passively watch the screen as the time ran out, making sure to at least get as much in as possible so that I could turn in a respectable enough paper that was assigned both times. Both times, we were expected to reflect upon the Christian themes, primarily related to Eric Liddell, whose religious beliefs put him at odds with his passion and talent for running at one pivotal point in the film.
While my high school would be a big part of why I became interested in analyzing pop culture (and movies in particular), I have to say that I was never a fan of directed note taking. The elective and art credit classes I took usually encouraged us to use our own perspectives when analyzing the works we watched, while the two classes that forced me to watch Chariots of Fire had a certain agenda behind them, and we were expected to make sure we noticed the points that the teacher wanted us to notice. It wasn’t that critical thinking wasn’t encouraged of course, but the topic was still mostly guided by the subject the teachers wanted us to write about – which all these years later I don’t really remember the specific details of. This directed notes method was the same method that led me to dislike reading for quite some time – having to take notes while going along really ruins one’s enjoyment of these things – and I think that’s largely what made me dislike Chariots of Fire – apart from the fact that I was probably still just too immature to appreciate it.
I hadn’t seen it since then, however, and ever since I started watching some of the recent Christian films I boldly endeavored to watch – Johnny, Fireproof, Courageous, and Blue Like Jazz (the latter two of which I may or may not still review) – I was stricken by how a large majority of them were still just – well, horrible. (Blue Like Jazz was a decent surprise, though.) It was around the beginning of this phase that I decided I was reminded of Chariots of Fire, a Hollywood film, but one that, thanks to my schools, I always associated with Christianity. I decided that it was time to try watching it once again, and so into the DVD delivery queue it went – but how much more would I like it without the directed note taking?
Though based on true events, the film is a fictionalized account of the trials undergone by the British track team competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics – particularly Eric Liddell, a devout Christian, and Harold Abrahams, who was struggling in the face of casual anti-Semitism (even being told in so many words that he was not “English enough” by school officials) to make a name for himself and his people in the races. The film also shows how their relationships with the women in their lives affected their athletic and professional careers, particularly Abrahams’ relationship with Sybil, an actress and singer who just so happens to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, of which he is a fan. Sybil stands as one of the few unrelentingly positive voices in Abrahams’ life, apart from coach Sam Mussabini, and encourages him even when his often sour demeanor and lack of attention puts her off. Liddell, on the other hand, worries his equally devout sister, who accuses her brother of becoming less focused on God than on running, which even results in Liddell missing a prayer meeting. Liddell promises his sister that he will come with her to China to be a missionary to the people he grew up with, but he also has an obligation to exercise his God-given talent, through which he also feels God’s pleasure.
Both Abrahams and Liddell, often considered rivals, are among those selected to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Paris games. While Abrahams deals with the accusations of his having an unfair advantage, thanks to the hiring of a professional coach, Liddell discovers that his main event is scheduled on a Sunday – the Sabbath. Believing that competing on that day would be blasphemous, Liddell, despite the insistence of both the British Olympic committee and even the Prince of Wales himself, chooses God over country and respectfully refuses to take part. Suddenly, as if by God’s good graces, an alternative is presented by fellow British athlete, Lord Andrew Lindsay, who proposes that Liddell can abstain from the 100 meter race and instead take his place in the 400 meter race that Thursday. Despite the sizable increase in distance, an agreement is made, and word of Liddell’s devotion to his God spreads throughout the world, gaining him fans even among those from competing countries, though Liddell, a short distance sprinter, is hardly expected to win. His teammate, Abrahams, meanwhile, takes a beating in the 200 meter run, with only the 100 meter race being his last chance at the gold medal. Despite both men suffering for years in devotion to their passion, the question of whether their faithfulness and dedication will payoff in the end is basically the primary reason why this movie is considered one of the most inspirational films of all time.
Given the ability to watch the film, finally, on my own time and of my own free will – not to mention under my own terms – I’m glad to report that Chariot s of Fire was, in fact, much more enjoyable this time around, and I was surprisingly able to appreciate the inspirational message a lot more, as well – though it’s also possible that this is also just a result of maturing since 8th and 10th grades. Though the film is inspired by true events (though not exactly accurately – the Sybil depicted in the film is not the same Sybil that Abrahams actually married in real life, for instance, giving odd new meaning to the phrase “marital infidelity”), given my past history with the film, I suspect that even those who know the stories of the two men prior to seeing the film will find it hard to not be at least somewhat moved by their stories, dramatized and altered though they may be. I can certainly also understand why my teachers insisted that we watch this film, as a result, too.
Though it certainly felt as though it was not given as much screentime or gravitas as Liddel’s side of the story, Abrahams’ underdog tale and struggles with racism are timeless tropes that, at least when given the right packaging, pretty much never get old. And though Liddell’s unwavering religious stance seems painfully legalistic to me, the message in his actions regarding putting faith and devotion to God above even your country is powerful, especially when so many people these days, especially certain Americans, seem to put them on the same level, whether they intend to or not. Both stories also stand together as one of the more powerful tales of pursuing one’s passions and the kind of impact that can have on the lives of others, as well.
The film is also beautiful to look at and, despite what younger me would have claimed, is very well paced. The acting is also superb, particularly from Ian Charleson and Ben Cross as Liddell and Abrahams, with the former never becoming too saintly and the latter never being unreasonably or unjustifiably intolerant of the forces keeping him down. Supporting players all around are all also fantastic, with not a stinker in the crowd. I do have to say that I’ve never really taken to Vangelis’ Oscar-winning score, however. As iconic and beautiful as it may be, I could never really reconcile the very 80s, synth-infused soundtrack with the 1920s setting. It’s just a strange anachronism, and if it was meant to connect audiences of the 80s with the story, then it was also a bit shortsighted. I’m obviously in the minority, however, as the film’s theme song has gone on to become one of the most recognizable and beloved movie themes of all time. One of my mom’s mutual friends on Facebook suggested it was a novelty at the time, which resulted in Vangelis’ Oscar win. Of course, that just makes me feel even more like Daft Punk was totally robbed of at least a nomination when they scored the fantastic Tron: Legacy soundtrack – and I’m not normally a fan of electronic music, either.
Apart from that one bit and the odd historical inaccuracies, however, I’m happy to report that I’m a Chariots of Fire convert. It’s a great film, carefully and beautifully constructed and with every bit as much passion and conviction as the two runners featured. In light of the previous couple movies I’ve reviewed – Johnny and Fireproof – the film is also at the pinnacle of films that my fellow Christians should look toward if they even think of attempting to merge their beliefs into a dramatized story that they intend to appeal to the masses, too. Christian cinema need not be a bad word if they’re made as compellingly and beautifully as Chariots of Fire.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5