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Driven by a personal struggle against anti-Semitism, devout Jewish student and runner Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) became the first man in seven centuries to dash round the Cambridge courtyard perimeter in 46 seconds. In Scotland, the son of a missionary Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) has been burning up the track and has earned a reputation as The Flying Scotsman. The two men are selected to represent Britain at the 1924 Paris Olympics, but a question of faith may stop one from competing. 

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
In a year notorious for the sickly On Golden Pond, the pretentious Reds and the monstrous Mommie Dearest, Oscar honoured this sanctimonious British epic with Best Picture, ahead of Steven Spielberg’s thrill-filled Raiders Of The Lost Arc and Louis Malle’s magnificent Atlantic City. This was the year in which Chariots Of Fire was the chosen one: seen to be superior to Arthur and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which were not nominated, and to Milos Forman’s Ragtime, which received eight Oscar nominations (not including Best Picture) and did not win one. Mercifully, not everyone was moved by the film’s spiritual spiel or Vangelis’ synthesized squeal and could judge the film more on its merits than its music. Pauline Kael said that it had “too many tricks and lots of dead spots,” while one British critic resorted to high treason, hollering that Chariots Of Fire was “an overblown piece of self-congratulatory emotional manipulation…” and “claptrap!” Here, here, sir, here, here!

The facts were fiddled with in the tale of two British athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who in the 1920s were determined to run faster than anyone in the world. Abrahams (Ben Cross), the Cambridge-educated son of a Lithuanian Jew and Liddell (Ian Charleson), the Scottish-born preacher son of Chinese missionaries, were seen as misfits among their peers and the establishment and were targets for discrimination. They ran to assert their dignity. “God made me devout,” Liddell said. “He made me fast and when I run, I feel His pleasure,” and all that pious nonsense that only the devoted can endure. For his part, Cross brought his fitness to such a level that he could perform 500 push-ups in one session while Charleson read the Bible from cover to cover and ran over eight kilometres a day. Neither, however, impress as likely Olympians. They are so preoccupied with lofty ideals that the disciplines of training never seem to interfere. No surprise then that producer David Puttnam had a hell of a time trying to hawk the screenplay around, so that eventually, when things got desperate, half of the modest $6 million budget was beggared from Egyptian shipping interests. 

The film gave the Brits the chance to wallow in the glories of bygone heroes, but it also gave licence to first time director Hudson to make the rest of the world suffer with his persistent use of slow motion, as if the technique had just been invented. There is one excruciating scene when the athletes burst into a slow-go seaside gallop as the strains of Vangelis soar to a Rocky-like crescendo and in a crowd scene at the1924 Olympics in Paris, dummies are daubed onto a crude studio background. The film’s major crisis is Liddell’s refusal to compete on the Sabbath and while the film is based on a true story the most offensive aspect of it are its falsehoods. Liddell’s sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell), who is shown to have resented his running and would rather he went preaching in China, was in fact, fiercely supportive of his athletic pursuits. 

The race against the clock in the Great Court at Cambridge never took place; American athlete Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis) did not hand the inspirational note to Liddell before the start of the 400 metres and the flags of the United States and Canada were years out of date. This is a film about the will to win, the power of faith, and sticking it up the establishment (represented by Sir John Gielgud, Nigel Davenport and others) but there’s nothing profound or terribly perceptive about it…and there’s that blasted music, ringing in the ears, like chronic tinnitus. Have I nothing positive to say about a film that charmed the Academy and won pure hearts all over the world? No, but I confess to having problems with films about unbridled faith…that help fill the pockets of predatory evangelists and the coffers of a hypocritical Church. 

Had Chariots Of Fire refrained from convenient box office lies, it might have achieved its carefully calculated aims to be rousing and invigorating; might have been more credible and more palatable. I’ll allow Ian Charleson to have the last word. “How it ever won the Oscar is beyond me. I think the music score swayed the voters and I think if you see Chariots a second time, you realise there is less there than meets the eye.” The real life Liddell, by the way, was truly a Man of God, but for all of that he did not survive the ungodliness of a Japanese POW camp.

Published April 29, 2004

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(UK, 1981)

CAST: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers

DIRECTOR: Hugh Hudson

SCRIPT: Colin Welland

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16 : 9 widescreen


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: April 28, 2004

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