Warner Bros. // 1981 // 124 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // March 8th, 2005
This is the story of two men who run...not to run...but to prove something to
They will sacrifice anything to achieve their goals...Except their honor.
Atlantic City. Chariots of Fire. On Golden Pond. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Reds. These are the five films nominated for Best Picture in 1981, and it was Chariots of Fire that walked away with the honor. I'm almost tempted to say that Chariots of Fire (CoF) isn't fully deserving of that prestigious win, but when I look at the other four films on the list, none of them leap out at me as being more worthy of the prize (though it sure would have been fun for Raiders to nab it). CoF is a good film, but it didn't and still doesn't click with me. I never found the rich and rewarding emotional and moral center that so many others praise. I never found myself fully vested in these two men who would fight to win gold medals in the 1924 Olympics. To me, CoF is just a good film.
We follow the lives of several men who will end up racing for the British team in the 1924 Olympics. Forefront to the story is Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross, First Knight) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson, Gandhi). Not only are these two men competitors against each other in the 100-meter dash, but they also have bigger agendas in the quest for gold: Abrahams races as a stance against the anti-Semitism of the day; Liddell races to praise God and to extol Christianity.
The story starts many years earlier as Abrahams enters Cambridge College and begins to blaze an amazing amateur record. While at school, he makes many friends who will join him on that future Olympic team, including Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers, Empire of the Sun) and Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell, Pearl Harbor). Showing that nothing will stand in his way, Abrahams goes against popular society by enlisting a personal trainer, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). Meanwhile, in Scotland, Liddell ponders his missionary work, competes in events, and eventually earns his place on the Olympic team.
But one last obstacle remains. As both Abrahams and Liddell are slated to compete against each other in the 100-meter dash, Liddell bows out of the race because preliminary heats take place on a Sunday. Liddell, the devout man, refuses to compete on the Sabbath. Will these two face off? Will Liddell run on the Sabbath? What other forces will come into play? Will either or both men attain their personal and "professional" goals?
"I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when
I run I feel His pleasure."
-- Eric Liddell
Over the years I've always thought that I enjoyed CoF, but watching it again, I remembered that I really don't think much of the film. It has remarkably little to offer, for it is a film based around one minor Olympic footnote: Liddell wouldn't run on the Sabbath. Once you dig into the history and learn why Liddell did this and the resolution to the "crisis," there's really not that much to tell. We learn that Liddell was truly a good man, a devoutly religious person, and a fast runner. Because he wouldn't run on a Sunday, his team switched that one event, the 100-meter dash, to another, the 400-meter, that didn't have any heats on a Sunday. That's it. I admire the man for his stance, for his solid moral foundation, but that's the end of it. He got his gold medal in the 400-meter, and he also got a bronze in the 200-meter (which was ignored by the movie since it ruins the anticipation and excitement over the Sabbath conundrum and the eventual gold).
"I'm an addict. [Running's] a compulsion, a weapon...[against] being
Jewish I suppose."
-- Harold Abrahams
To flesh out the story, in comes Abrahams -- another man with a similar religious passion that had a strong bearing on his life and his Olympic quest. Today, it's interesting to see religion play such a strong, similar role in the lives of two athletes, who just happen to end up on the same Olympic team. If I were to investigate the society of the time, I might not be so surprised to learn how pervasive religion was in everyday life. It is just a sign of the ever-changing times. Still, if I stop to think about it, the movie also works to build the tension between Abrahams and Liddell. My brief story synopsis skips all of that, how Abrahams and Liddell met and raced and how that changed Abrahams. There is an entire parallel story in which Abrahams works to best his biggest challenge, Liddell. The Olympics is meant to be the ultimate challenge, yet that is all tossed aside and forgotten when the Sabbath issue comes up. Quite interesting how all the subtext and drama was laid for naught.
Perhaps the crux of my problem with Chariots of Fire stems from the immortalized opening sequence of the runners on the beach. This scene, in which the British Olympic team is running on the beach to the Vangelis theme song, has become a classic movie moment. Just about everyone knows this scene, what movie it's from, and the music, though many may have no further knowledge of CoF itself. For some reason, this scene transcends the rest of the movie in its perfect creation of the moment. Everything gels and resounds with power and passion: the glee of the runners, the turmoil of the ocean, the power of the music. This scene raises its viewers up, captivates them, and exalts them. This scene is the perfect embodiment of the movie, but it is more and better than the movie itself. The movie starts with a huge bang but cannot sustain the power, and, thus, it quickly winds down and loses the power from the beginning. This one scene is more than the rest of the movie. I can watch this brief scene several times over and feel complete and thrilled, yet watching the rest of the movie does nothing for me. Luckily, the scene also back-ends the movie, once again reminding the audience of the power and majesty of what was.
Chariots of Fire was previously released on DVD in 1997 as an ugly, bare-bones, full-frame edition. I have never seen that release so I cannot compare transfers to see if there is any marked improvement over the years. However, according to the packaging, we have been given new video and audio transfers for this special edition. The 1.85:1 anamorphic print is highly disappointing and would never register as a "newly remastered" print to me, unless I was so told. There are many problems with the print but primary is its lack of clarity. The entire presentation is extremely soft, with a strong presence of grain and soft colors, and missing detail and sharpness. The print screams for another run through the remastering process to further clean up the dirt and grain and make it as sharp and clean as it was twenty years ago. The video does not have the depth and dimensionality we expect from DVDs today. Adding to the problem is the new Dolby Digital 5.1 track, for which the dialogue has been improperly mixed. I found it very difficult to hear the dialogue and had to turn up my center channel to hear it over the music and sound effects. Additionally, I still had trouble on occasion, as some dialogue remained muddy and difficult to understand. Beyond that, this new 5.1 mix barely uses the rear speakers, which is a shame, as Vangelis's score would have been most impressive in a true surround mix. Perhaps the source material is in bad shape, but I think the studio missed the boat on this one and should have and could have done a much better job.
A slight reprieve is found in the bonus features, which are quite compelling and provide some much needed background to the film. First up is an audio commentary by director Hugh Hudson, who shares a lot of interesting details about the people, places, and events of the film. Hudson has a tendency to stay silent for long stretches, but when he does say something it is unquestionably absorbing. I just wish he didn't have so many pauses during scenes I wanted to know more about. Next is "Wing on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire" (27 minutes), a featurette that is solidly informative, well crafted, but perhaps a bit too short. I felt there was more I could have learned about the film, and I would have enjoyed a longer, more thorough documentary. Next is "Chariots of Fire: A Reunion" (19 minutes), which is a casual chat between the director, a few other production folks, and two of the actors (Havers and Farrell). This piece isn't as interesting, for too many of the key stars were missing; I would have enjoyed their insights into the film. Moving on, there are eight additional scenes (11 minutes), including the "cricket in the ballroom" scene from European versions of the film. As always, these cuts seem like wise trimmings, as they don't add anything to the film. Lastly, there are the screen tests for Ben Cross and Ian Charleson (8.5 minutes total), the theatrical trailer, and a few Easter Eggs.
Chariots of Fire is an incredibly moving and heartwarming tale about the steadfast determination to fulfill a personal goal, no matter the price. Life gives us many hurdles, and we must face them head on and use all our energy to overcome them. CoF will inspire you to realize that some challenges are worth the pain, for the ultimate triumph can help you become a better person along the way.
For many, Chariots of Fire is a powerful film that captures the drive and determination of two incredible men. Their tale of perseverance is an inspiring and captivating story that many embrace. I fully realize that most of this power is lost on me, for the film doesn't affect me in this fashion. It is a good film, just not a great one. The acting, the direction, and the cinematography are almost enough to keep me interested, but the thin story left me wanting more. You have to be the judge on this movie and realize what it means to you. Therefore, all I shall do is remind you about the disc itself. This DVD has weak transfers: Neither the video nor the audio is top of the line, and both have significant problems. While the disc is certainly watchable, it leaves a lot to be desired. And, while the bonus materials are a nice supplement, I felt there could have been more. Based on the disc itself, I cannot give you a buy recommendation, just a rental. Hopefully the third time will be a charm.
Chariots of Fire is hereby found guilty of splashing sand and water onto the lens. It is sentenced to 24 hours of community service.
Review content copyright © 2005 Eric Profancik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Audio Commentary by Director Hugh Hudson
* "Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire"
* "Chariots of Fire: A Reunion"
* Additional Scenes
* Screen Tests
* Theatrical Trailer
* Easter Eggs