My first time seeing Chariots of Fire came soon after it won the Best Picture Oscar at the 1981 Academy Awards. I recall vivid anger that some “boring” movie about running beat out Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was the greatest film achievement I’d ever seen to that point. Needless to say, sitting in the movie theater with my mom and dad, I wasn’t too thrilled. Still, movies were a rarity back then, the least I could do was stay awake and try to understand why a bunch of movie people had chosen this one over Spielberg and company. I was eleven that year and it was one of the first times I began to understand how a movie could be about more than just entertaining. It was the first time I saw a man so committed to his God that he would forgo the greatest showcase for sportsmanship. With its electronic score by Vangelis and two moving performances by the film’s stars, Ben Cross and Ian Charleson, I fell in love with Chariots of Fire that evening. In my lifetime, I’ve now seen it more times than Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Chariots of Fire was dream project of producer David Puttnam, who had overseen diverse films such as Bugsy Malone, The Duellists and Midnight Express. He’d come across a book on the Olympics and was fascinated about the story of runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who both competed in the 1924 Olympics. This fascination led him to hire screenwriter Colin Welland to piece together history and create a narrative. As Welland began his task, he placed an ad in the newspaper asking for help from anyone still living from that time period. He struck gold when the family of Aubrey Montague, a teammate of the two athletes, sent him a box a letters Montague had written to his family- daily- during the entire Olympic period. These letters would serve as the backbone of Chariots of Fire.
Welland’s emotional screenplay constructs the parallel lives of the two men and follows as they meet in competition and then become teammates in the 1924 Olympics. Abrahams (Cross), was a Jewish student at Cambridge whose large (legitimate) chip on his shoulder drove him to be the fastest man in the United Kingdom, and Liddell (Charleson), was a devout Christian missionary who believed that God gave him the gift of speed, and to not use that gift would be an insult to his creator. Both men take great pride and love in running. For Abrahams it is a means to show up the people who are prejudice against his heritage, for Liddell it is ecstasy and release.
Once Welland’s script was approved, Puttnam brought aboard first time feature director, Hugh Hudson, who had a vision of shooting the film like a David Lean scope movie. Casting began and like any smart indie film (which is what Chariots of Fire was) the filmmakers cast unknowns as the leads and surrounded them with several of England’s finest, including Sir John Gielgud, Patrick Magee and Ian Holm.
The film has been given a respectful Blu-ray treatment with this beautiful release. The film looks as wonderful now as it ever has. Hugh Hudson’s vision of creating an epic looking film (on a small budget) together with the stunning cinematography by David Watkin and Terry Rawlings’ inspiring editing, quickly place you in the mind of all the runners who take center stage. What amazes me about this film each time I watch it is how it surprises me. Little nuances that I didn’t pick up on in previous viewings stand out and I fall in love with the movie all over again. Of course, there are also brilliant moments like Liddell’s speech to a rapt crowd (see below) that always give me chills.
In addition to the nice transfer of the film, the Blu-ray includes some excellent featurettes that explain the genesis of the film and Puttnam’s will to make the film a success. The way he diligently worked to find a distributor and how word of mouth and awards made the film a success reminds me of the path to glory recent Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire took. A reunion of some of the cast members, along with Hudson, Watkins and Puttnam is fun. The Blu-ray also comes with a 4-song sampler of the film’s groundbreaking soundtrack, which is a little odd. I don’t know why the disc’s producers didn’t just include all of the music.
If you were a naysayer who was pissed that Indiana Jones didn’t walk away with the Oscar in 1981, give Chariots of Fire another chance. It holds up remarkably well and still packs an emotional punch. If you haven’t seen it, with the Olympics a couple weeks away, now is the perfect time to get pumped up for the summer games with a little history and slow motion running.