Judge Paul Pritchard suggests you run; the British are coming.
Our review of Chariots Of Fire: Special Edition, published March 8th, 2005, is also available.
Bring Me My Bow Of Burning Gold
"I am going to take them on one by one, and run them off their feet."
Facts of the Case
Chariots of Fire is the story of British athletes Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross, Star Trek), who competed at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Both men race for different reasons: Liddell runs for God, claiming when he runs he "feels His pleasure." Abrahams, tired of the anti-Semitism he so regularly faces, runs to prove himself. The film documents their initial rivalry, their personal battles, and ultimately their shared triumphs.
The problem with winning the Academy Award for Best Picture is that you immediately have a target strapped to your back for all to snipe at. Chariots of Fire surprised everyone by beating Warren Beatty's much fancied Reds, in a decision that—now more than ever—just doesn't seem right. By sheer coincidence, I caught Raiders of the Lost Ark (another film Chariots of Fire bested for the Oscar) just prior to my viewing of the film for this review, and once again a sense of utter bemusement came over me that was hard to shake. While Reds and Raiders have increased their standing amongst cinema's elite, Chariots of Fire has been (relatively speaking) all but forgotten…and, dare I say, with good reason. Ignoring its Oscar success (a ceremony I place little stock in), Chariots of Fire is revealed to be a solid but somewhat lacking picture that hasn't aged as well as its peers.
No one can take away the artistry Chariots of Fire possesses, but the lack of an emotional bridge from the film to its audience means this is a picture that's difficult to care about. While the stories of Liddell and Abrahams certainly contain enough to make for an engaging experience, the fact that both share the film's focus means neither is afforded sufficient time to connect with the viewer. If anything, Liddell's story feels secondary to that of Abrahams, which is frustrating. Although Abrahams' holds an element of interest, Liddell's crisis of faith is far more worthy of our attention. Certainly there is a subtle undercurrent of anti-Semitism toward Abrahams from his college tutors and older folk, but this seems to be forgotten all too quickly. Liddell, on the other hand, is in a constant battle between his faith and his running. The strain this puts on his personal relationships makes Liddell's story far more involving, or at least it would were he given the more prominent role.
Structurally, Chariots of Fire is built around a handful of key moments from Liddell and Abrahams' training, but having the letters of Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) frame the film seems an odd choice. Montague quickly loses his initial prominence in the story, and fades to bit part status all too soon. So much so that, when the meat of his narration does arrive halfway through, it feels out of place and wholly unnecessary.
To the film's credit, bold decisions were made. The cast is remarkable, placing nary a wrong foot wrong. Even the lesser (underdeveloped) roles—everyone besides Abrahams and Liddell—are delivered impeccably. And having Vangelis compose the musical score was a stroke of genius. In a sharp contrast to the film's 1920's setting, Vangelis made full use of modern (for the time) technology, delivering a synth-heavy experience. It's a decision that undoubtedly works, to such an extent that the title theme is the most memorable aspect of the entire production, having taken on a life of its own. Then again, one could argue Vangelis' music is relied upon too much, kicking in at specific key moments to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.
There's no denying director Hugh Hudson's visual triumph here. Though frequent imitation and parody have perhaps diluted them, the race scenes (and their heavy use of slow motion camera work) are beautifully realized. Each captures the very heart of the runner, as a singular determination separates the good from the great. Beyond that, Hudson rejects anything flashy in favor of a more simple beauty. One scene sees Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) alone in his room, silently acknowledging the British National Anthem that signals Abrahams' triumph. It's an image that lingers in the mind, long after the closing credits have rolled.
Presented in remastered 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Chariots of Fire (Blu-ray) has been granted a Warner Home Video DigiBook release. This isn't a film that immediately suggests it will gain much from an HD upgrade. Yet despite the often dull British skies and lack of a bold color palette, this Blu-ray looks amazingly natural. There's a high level of fine detail, with the image holding a good level of depth. Black levels are strong, as is highlighted during a banquet scene. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track delivers clear dialogue, though there's no denying the mix lacks range and rarely sparkles; the exception being whenever Vangelis' score kicks in.
Bonus features are vast, befitting a special edition release…
• "Commentary by Director Hugh Hudson"—Director Hugh Hudson provides a solo track, in which he discusses the film's production and numerous points of interest.
• "Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire"—Cast and crew are interviewed on their experiences and recollections. With plenty of production stills and test footage, this 27-minute featurette is full of anecdotes.
• "Chariots of Fire: A Reunion"—Director Hugh Hudson; actors Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell; Producer David Puttnam, and Director of Photography David Watkin reunite for a 20-minute discussion that serves as a fine companion piece to the making of.
• "Paris, 1924: Birth of the Modern Games"—This 27-minute featurette focuses on the importance of the 1924 Olympic Games, in which both Liddell and Abrahams competed.
• "David Puttnam: A Cinematic Champion"—Colleagues and friends wax lyrical on producer David Puttnam and his work.
• "Hugh Hudson: Journey to the Gold"—Former TV commercial director Hugh Hudson discusses his career, and the remarkable effect Chariots of Fire had on it.
• "Ben Cross and Patricia Hodge Screen Test"—Test footage of a scene where Abrahams contemplates defeat.
• "Ian Charleson Screen Test"—Ian Charleson's Eric Liddell experiences resistance to his participation in the Olympics.
• "Sprint Around the Quad"—Hudson, Havers, and Puttnam come together to discuss the famous scene of the Cambridge Dash.
• "Famous Opening Shot"—Actor Ben Cross discusses the film's famous opening shot.
• "Deleted Scenes"—Several scenes cut from the final film.
• Theatrical Trailer.
• 4-track CD sampler of the film's soundtrack.
• 36-page booklet, containing liner notes and numerous production photos.
Despite my criticisms, Chariots of Fire is an undeniably well made film, and frequently entertaining. Taken purely on the strengths of its visuals, the film is far more worthy of its many accolades. Had it engaged on a more personal level, and perhaps been more singular in its portrayal of Liddell and Abrahams, the film would have reached the heights it seeks to attain. Individual moments come close, but unlike Rocky, Hoosiers, or even the recent Warrior, we are not given enough to truly relate to, and thus have little reason to root for them…beyond the fact they are both honest, good men. Even those who are not completely enthralled by the film should consider picking up Chariots of Fire (Blu-ray) DigiBook.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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