I clearly remember being stunned, STUNNED, when Chariots of Fire (1981) won the Academy Award in 1981 over Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), the expected winner. No one could have predicted that this small British film with a wonderful musical score would win the highest film award on the planet, besting an American masterpiece and the box office smash Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). |
Warner Brothers Home Entertainment has released a double disc special edition of Chariots of Fire (1981) allowing me to watch the film again for the first time in twenty four years. My initial impression was Chariots of Fire (1981) was a handsomely made film that benefited enormously from the synthesizer music of Vangelis, because the truth is told the film was a tad slow, preachy, and felt self important.
Watching it again last night, nothing much has changed and I marveled at that this film actually won an Academy Award as the bets picture of 1981. Mind you, it did not win the directing award which went that year to Warren Beatty for his extraordinary achievement Reds (1981) nor any acting awards. Was this a case of the best picture winner benefiting from a split vote and picking up the slack it needed to win the Oscar? I think it might have been.
The film tells the story of British track stars Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) during the 1924 Olympics, exploring the very different reasons each man runs, and how that obsession impacts on their lives. Abrahams is a Jew and runs to prove his worth, while Liddell runs to glorify God, believing that his speed is God given. Each man is driven within, and possesses nothing but admiration and kind words for their opponents. In 1924 the heavily favoured American runners were defeated soundly by the Brits, who were not expected to defeat the speedy American team. The film traces the training of the men leading up to Paris games, allowing each actor to shine, well supported by an excellent cast of British actors who were largely unknown at the time.
Ian Holm won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his superb performance as a trainer, while Alice Krige would parlay her success in the film to greater, though short, success in the United States.
I give the director Hugh Hudson credit for staying away from the clichés of sports films though in doing so he never quite captures the excitement of such events or the determination to win of the men competing. We know they want t win because they tell us so, but there is no spark in their eyes to tell us just how much.Hudson would go on to direct the vastly under appreciated Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) before virtually disappearing. Nominated for best director for Chariots of Fire (1981) his producer, the outrageous David Putnam made a great deal of noise about his losing stating that his directors was much better than Beatty or even Steven Spielberg, also nominated for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
The film did not move me, the film did not excite me, save for one scene, which is at the very beginning, that lyrical moment when the athletes are running across the beach with Vangelis’ glorious music on the track. There is a magic to that scene I cannot quite describe, and that quickly fades never to equaled throughout the picture again. It is not that Chariots of Fire (1981) is a nbad film, on the contrary it is very well made, and finely acted, but sadly lacking of burning passion.
The DVD comes with directors’ commentaries and a host of extras including a making of documentary and reunion of the cast and production crew, with the exception of Ian Charleson who died of AIDS in the early nineties.Hudson tends to come across as very pompous, as though he were discussing the making of the greatest film ever made as opposed to a well crafted little film that stunned the world by winning an Oscar it certainly did not deserve. Presented in anamorphic widescreen the picture looks terrific, as fine as it did so long ago, and the sound it equally superb.
And sadly, the film it beat for that Oscar, Warren Beatty’s magnificent Reds (1981) is still not on DVD.