This is a beautiful film, well directed by Hugh Hudson in his theatrical film debut. It features the true life story of two Olympic runners, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who ran for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games and brought home the Gold.
The film tells the story of these two individuals, who are as different from each other as different can be, and explores their personal drive and reasons for running. Eric Liddell is a staunch Scot and a fervid Presbyterian (He would put John Knox to shame!). The son of a missionary and himself a missionary by avocation, he runs because "God made him fast for a reason". His running is a reconciliation of his faith and his passion, which is running. He runs for the glory of God. His faith always remains constant and pre-eminent in his life. His devotion to it causes some controversy during the Olympics, as a consequence of the stance he takes when he discovers that the preliminary mete for the 200 metre race would be held on a Sunday. Liddell simply refuses to run on the Sabbath! Luckily for Great Britain, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), a gentleman and fellow competitor, graciously steps in and, as he had already won a gold medal in the hurdles, gives him his place in the 400 metre dash, which would take place on a Thursday. This would never happen today in the dog eat dog world of competitive sports, much less in the Olympics of today!
Harold Abrahams is completely different. A secular Jew and Cambridge scholar, he studies in the bastion of upper crust British society, struggling to fit in but always remaining the proverbial outsider. He has a passion for running that is motivated by his passion for winning. In his world, God has nothing to do with it. Winning is merely an affirmation of himself in a world that he believes thinks less of him because he is a Jew. Consequently, his desire to win is superceded only by his fear of losing. When two Cambridge dons, the Master of Trinity, played by the late John Gielgud, along with the Master of Caius, meet with Abrahams, they are concerned that his hiring of a personal professional trainer, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), to help him with his running is not quite in keeping with the amateur tradition of the Cambridge gentleman. Implicit in their criticism is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, one to which Abrahams does not take kindly. It is that moment that defines what makes Abrahams run.
This is ultimately a story about faith. With Liddell, it is about his faith in God. With Abrahams, it is about his faith in himself. Both were propelled to Olympic glory by it. It is a story sublimely told, though a little slow at times. It is not an action type of sports movie. It speaks gently of a time long passed, when the Olympics was truly the bastion of amateurs. It is amazing to see track events of the Olympics of 1924 depicted in all their simplicity...no flash, no glitz, no gimmicks. The runners ran on dirt tracks. They all carried spades in which to dig their footholds for their starting "blocks", something that surprised me. This attention to detail permeates the entire film, and its evocation of a bygone era makes the film linger in one's memory long after it has ended.
Ian Charleson gives a notable performances as Eric Liddell, infusing him with a gentleness and purity of spirit that is compelling, while Ben Cross plays Harold Abrahams with an intensity and singularity of purpose that is riveting. Their stellar performances, as well as those given by the excellent supporting cast, coupled with exquisite cinematography and the excellent direction of Hugh Hudson, make this film worthy of its 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture. The beautiful and soaring, synthesized music of Vangelis also won an Academy Award and went on to become a number one hit in the pop charts in 1982.
on July 20, 2005
Chariots of Fire, no matter what I view in the future, will always be in my Top 10 list of movies. The setting, the actors, and the plot are incomparable. However, what I treasure the most are the values intrinsic to the tale. How often does film concern infidelity, murder, hatred, deceit or the pathological need to dominate others? Well over 80 percent of the time I would guess, but here, in this masterwork, man is depicted at his finest. In Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, we are presented with exemplars of our species. These are the adults you dreamed of being when you were a small child. Their lives showcase a grandeur seldom seen in our own.
The film is set in the years immediately following the first world war, when feelings of grief and despair were ubiquitous. Upon their arrival at Cambridge, Abrahams and Montague are assisted by two former wounded soldiers, and one of them could best be described as "mutilated." Such a fate, the two young athletes were quite lucky not to have shared.
Societies that experienced the caldrons of the Somme and Paschendale were not as quick to dismiss the existence of God as we are today with our spoiled affluence and inflated life expectancies. To be saved from the carnage raging around you is not something to take lightly. Given the solemnity of their era, the seriousness and devotion integral to Liddell and Abrahams is not surprising. Competition was undertaken for more important reasons than money or fame.
Eric Liddell eventually concludes that missionary work in China will have to wait until he fulfills his athletic promise. He believes that God did not give out gifts without a purpose. The Lord's intention was that what Liddell was given must be used. Eric felt "God's pride" as he ran and never forgot who gave him the power he possessed. A decision that would mean nothing to most of us (running on the Sabbath) is not one he can even consider undertaking. For Liddell, God must come before country, king, and personal glory.
For Abrahams, his drive stems from the alienation he feels from being a Jewish outsider in Christian England. His goal was to "run them off their feet" and conquer who he views to be his oppressors. He does not run for pleasure; he competes only to win. His story is quite compelling. Abrahams' relationship with his coach, the also alienated Sam Mussabini, is intense and the bonds between them are nearly familial. Indeed, during what I regard as the most touching scene in the film, as Mussabini gazes at Olympic Stadium, and then stumbles to his bed, he mutters, "Harold, my son."
There's no sex, violence, or car chases in this movie. All that Chariots of Fire can offer is a depiction of the nobility of man. It is an extraordinary celebration of the forgotten values of chivalry, friendship, brotherhood, duty, and that the fact that God undoubtedly takes a direct interest in our lives on His earth.
The athletes of the British running team who went with hope in their hearts and wings in their heels in the VIII Olympiad in Paris in 1924 is the focus of this movie, but there's also the dynamics of what it means to be English, and the reconciliation of one's soul and religious convictions in the Modern Age. Three of them are students from Cambridge. There is the quiet and soft-spoken Aubrey Montague, Lord Andrew Lindsey, and Harold Abrahams. As the head of Caius (pronounced Keys) College tells them when they first attend in 1919, they are the first post-war generation who have inherited the dreams of a generation that perished on the fields of France, a generation embodying "goodness, zeal,...and intellectual promise."
The two main athletes here are a contrast from one another. One is Harold Abrahams, a Jew who wants to be seen as English as the fellow next to him. Hence his enrolling in all these clubs and fraternities in Caius College, from track, tennis, and even the Gilbert and Sullivan glee club-he wants to enter the Christian, Anglo-Saxon corridors of power, i.e. the old school tie. He succeeds in getting to an English girl in the form of Sybil Gordon, who doesn't mind he's Jewish. He can run like the wind, and nothing would fulfill his dream of being English more than winning so he'll be accepted, but he's so driven, hinging so much of his success on his winning, that he acts like its his own funeral when he loses in a race. He engages Sam Mussabini, a private and professional coach, which is contrary to the implied rules of Cambridge. When the heads of Trinity House and Caius House, (Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) use their prep-school mentality to chastise him, saying Cambridge prided itself on the amateur attitude as opposed to the professional, and an esprit de Corps as opposed to individual glory, Abrahams tells them off.
Scottish Eric Liddle, on the other hand, is a missionary born in China, who plans to return there to continue God's work, but the "muscular Christian" runs like a wild animal. With religion as a metaphor, he compares faith to running a race, describing the energy of the soul, the elation of breaking that tape, but he says that the power comes from within. "If you commit yourself to the love of Jesus Christ-that is how you win a straight race." To win is to honour God, and the gift he was given. His faith is tested twice, between the missionary work and running, and his respect for God and running on the Sabbath. He's clearly more Victorian, but also a Scot, choosing God over country instead of the more secular British. But will his faith help him triumph over favoured Americans Jackson Scholz and Charles Paddock?
The slow-mo shots of the running athletes, the looks of elation, the disappointment of those who didn't qualify shows the various reactions of the soul. And New Age composer Vangelis Pathaniossou made his mark with his score, during the races and the scenes of Americans training, but especially the moving main theme that opens and closes the movie as the athletes are running along the ocean shore. This sequence itself is repeated twice, once where we know nothing about these athletes on who the cameras pan in on, but by the end, when the camera does its work, we know these people better, and they have names, as the credits identify actor and role. This was an early role for Nicholas Farrell (Montague), who was Horatio in Branagh's Hamlet. But Ben Cross as the driven Abrahams, Ian Charleson as the debonair blond Christian Liddell, Nigel Havers as Lindsay, Ian Holm (Mussabini), and Alice Krige (Sybil) do well. And yes, the Head Porter at Caius College is Richard Griffiths, best known as Harry Potter's Uncle Vernon, and quite thinner too.
As the winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, Chariots Of Fire remains an unpretentious film where the finish line is a moral, spiritual, and of course a physical goal, and how one must be true to oneself to reach that goal.
on May 25, 2005
I watched this movie when it first came out in the theaters some twenty odd years ago. It has remained one of my favorites ever since, both for its inspirational story and its deeply moving quality. It contrasts two men who run in the 1924 Paris Olympics. One man runs for the glory of his God. The other runs to prove that even a nobody, an outcast, can be as good as any of the privileged of the land. Cynics may call it cheap manipulation, but the film still brings a tear to the eye each time I watch it. It certainly deserves to be ranked as one of the finest movies ever made. It is uplifting, it is triumphant and most of all it is filled with a grace and a quiet decency that sadly seems to have been lost through the intervening years.
After years of having to watch it in a claustrophobic pan-&-scan format, it should be a joy to finally be able to see it in its widescreen splendor once again.
However, this DVD is NOT in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 although it blatantly advertises itself as such on the back cover. It has been cropped at the sides to 1.78:1 (anamorphic). A true 1.85:1 transfer would have thin black bars appearing across the top and bottom of a widescreen TV. This version has been modified to fill up the entire widescreen TV probably to please some people who cannot seem to stomach any black bars appearing on their screens. If you want to check, you can play it back on a computer and measure the actual frame dimensions. The ratio works out to 1.78:1. Another way is to just compare some of the deleted scenes, which are in the actual 1.85:1 ratio. Where the deleted scenes and the main feature overlap, you can see where they cropped off the sides. It's disappointing. When I buy a Special Edition, I expect to view the film in its original aspect ratio, not in some modified cropped format.
Aside from that quibble, this is the best this movie has looked since its first release. The opening and closing credits are noticeably grainy but the movie itself is beautifully restored with sharp, clear images, good contrast and beautiful well saturated colors. There are some dirt specks and the occasional juddering frame but this is kept to a minimum. The 5.1 surround excellently reproduces Vangelis' throbbing score. Hopefully when they next release this movie in the upcoming high definition format, they will finally get it in the correct aspect ratio. Till then this DVD is the next best thing.
P.S. To whoever is in charge of re-releasing Chariots in the future, kindly reinsert the cricket segment into the movie. I remember watching that at the theater the first time round. Apparently the cricket segment was shown worldwide with the sole exception of America. It belongs in the film, not in the Deleted Scenes section - looking dark, grimy and totally unrestored. It is the first time in the film that all the characters meet. Does Warner have a thing against cricket? It is England's national sport. It is the sport of Gentlemen. It is the older cousin to baseball. The word cricket itself has become a synonym for fair-play in the English language. And it marks these men for who and what they are. For goodness sake, get it right the third time round.
on May 24, 2000
This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Perhaps I'm partial because I'm a runner - I viewed it in a theater the night before I ran my first marathon - but it is a great inspirational story, portraying two characters driven by ambition that is fueled from completely different sources. Vangelis' score resonates throughout the film, in addition to one of the greatest film/music openings I've ever seen. (The reports that the film was almost never completed due to budgetary limitations make its story even more impressive.)
DO NOT, however, rush out and buy (or rent) this title on DVD. Having just completed a home theatre system I made this one of my first DVD purchases and was THOROUGHLY disappointed, not so much by the full-screen presentation but by the extremely poor transfer of video and sound to DVD. It truly looks like a 2nd or 3rd generation copy of a bootleg video. Especially since it is an Academy Award winner, I hope it will eventually be re-released in a respectable presentation.
*** THIS REVIEW IS FOR THE USA 'BOOK PACK' BLU RAY REISSUE and THE 2 UK VARIANTS ***
Little will prepare fans of "Chariots Of Fire" for this BLU RAY reissue - the picture quality is SENSATIONAL - and for a British film made on a budget in 1981 - that says a lot. Also - re-watching it in 2012 (the year of the 30th Olympiad in England) - it's nice to find that this homage to Sporting achievement and human spirit hasn't lost any of its capacity to stir the soul and bring a tear to the eye. It was nominated for 7 Oscars at the time and won 4 - including Best Picture.
The first thing to note is that even though the print quality and abundant extras are the same for the UK and US versions - they differ greatly in their 'packaging' and there's actually 3 variants of the BLU RAY to choose from. The UK issue comes in two versions - a simple uninspiring plastic clip-case with just 1 disc at around ten pounds (type in barcode 5039036052344 into the Amazon Search Bar) and a second issue with the music CD as well for a few quid more (type in barcode 5039036051163).
This US Warner Brothers version (at about twenty pounds) that I'm reviewing however comes in a beautifully presented 36-page embossed hardback 'Book Pack' (or Digibook as its sometimes called) with an outer page attached to the rear (type in barcode 883929093946 into Amazon). Regardless of which issue you buy or where you live - ALL are 'REGION FREE' - so will play on every machine.
The booklet for the US variant is beautiful - featuring articles and pictures on Producer David Puttnam, Director Hugh Hudson and Writer Colin Welland. There's also text and photos on the principal cast members as well as notable supporting roles by John Gielgud, Ian Holm, Alice Krieg and Cheryl Campbell. There's also a page on the huge contribution made by Greek keyboardist VANGELIS - whose musical score has been both revered and parodied in equal measure ever since (most notably in the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics just a few days ago).
This US issue and the UK double also house a 4-track music CD by VANGELIS (13:47 minutes) that features 2006 remasters of "Titles" (A Number 1 US hit in February 1982), "Abraham's Theme", "Eric's Theme" and "Jerusalem" (Vangelis with The Ambrosian Singers).
But the big news is the print - which has been FULLY RESTORED and defaulted to 1.85:1 aspect ratio - thereby filling your entire screen. Even in the notoriously difficult-to-light indoor sequences there is only slight blocking and grain - but on all outdoor scenes (of which there are many) - the clarity is exemplary. The DTS-HD Master Audio is English 5.1 Dolby Digital and Subtitles are English for Hard-Of-Hearing and French. Extras are discussed below...
Taking its name from William Blake's preface to the epic "Milton: A Poem" - it focuses on the team who secured 4 medals for Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris - in particular the two Gold winners - Eric Liddell for the Men's 400 metres and Harold Abrahams for the Men's 100 meters. Nicholas Farrell (as Aubrey Montague), Nigel Havers (as Lord Andrew Lindsay) and Daniel Gerroll (as Henry Stallard) make up the other runners. Blink and you'll miss them cameos are - two sightings of American Comedienne Ruby Wax as a lady spectator in the Olympic crowds towards the end of the movie and an uncredited Stephen Fry in the "HMS Pinafore" chorus line-up.
Born in China but raised in Edinburgh - Eric Liddell (nick-named "The Flying Scotsman" after the famous steam train) was the son of a devout Missionary - and like his father before him cherished and practiced his religious convictions. Played to perfection by Scotsman Ian Charleson - Liddell often said that he was 'running for God' or 'felt His pleasure' as he speeded around track after track leaving all in his wake. Both King and Country would sorely test these implacable beliefs in Paris when they asked him to run on the Sabbath - and he refused. A little jiggering of racing dates saved face and the day...but it was the measure of the man that he withstood all that pressure and still won...
His principal rival was Harold Abrahams (played with huge gusto by Ben Cross) - a Jewish Cambridge University intellectual determined to deal with society's bigotry towards his kind by crushing all detractors in his path - including Liddell - whom he both feared and admired. But when he finally faces Liddell in a run and looses by a ticker-tape inch - the outsider is crushed. But help is at hand in the shape of an unorthodox Jewish coach called Sam Mussabini (a fabulous turn by veteran actor Ian Holm) who promises to make Harold faster and better (and does).
These indomitable boors inhabit a world of privileged chums wearing boater hats and striped blazers - men who sing Gilbert & Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore" songs with alarming relish. This is Britain after the senseless generation-depleting butchery of World War I - but still with that inbred sense of Empire coursing through their veins. You'd be right in thinking that all this snobbish elitism could become quickly tedious (and it threatens to do so for the first half hour), but the script rightly concentrates on something all the more compelling - their dedication, self-sacrifice and guts. Genuinely inspiring a country hungry for something noble to celebrate - you could even say that these athletes joined Christianity and Judaism on the Sports field for the National good. And on it goes to the 8th Olympics Games in 1924 and a funeral in London in 1978 (making it contemporary).
The wad of extras are superb - modern day interviews with all the protagonists - Ben Cross and Nigel Havers particularly animated and witty and pouring praise on Ian Charleson who sadly passed away in 1990. And again when they use the old stock footage of the film - you see just how glorious the full restoration truly is.
Like "The King's Speech" in so many ways - "Chariots Of Fire" is filled with British pride - but in a good way. This is a story about people worth remembering - their struggles - their heartbreaks and triumphs - their journey. Having not seen it in probably 30 years - I found it moving, inspirational and not in the least bit dated. And now it has the transfer and format it deserves. I know the US version may cost twice as much as the UK issue - but if you can go the few quid - then do so.
When Screenplay Writer Colin Welland accepted his Oscar - he famously announced "The British Are Coming!" Well, they're back...because this really is a fantastic reissue of a great movie.
I'm off now to run in slow motion by the sea and surf with that synth riff pounding through my very tight Speedos...oh dear!
BLU RAY versions:
UK 1 disc - barcode 5039036052344
UK 2 disc - barcode 5039036051163
USA 2 disc 'Book Pack' - barcode 883929093946
on June 22, 1999
"SO WHERE DOES THE POWER COME FROM, TO SEE THE RACE TO IT'S END? FROM WITHIN." Eric Liddell
Funny, I am neither an athlete nor very religious, but this movie stands as one of the triumvirate of movies which I consider to be the greatest I've ever seen (the others being "It's a Wonderful Life" & "The English Patient"). What "It's a Wonderful Life" did for duty & friendship, what "The English Patient" did for passion, "Chariots of Fire" does for principle & open-mindedness - it gives an endearing & compelling demonstration of these values, better than any movie ever has.
There is little more I can say which hasn't already been said before - the cast is magnificent, the screenplay superb, and the soundtrack among the most famous ever - but I'll add this: Ian Charleson's voice overs (as Eric Liddell) are a magnificent treat, in two running scenes - the most important of the movie - which sum up the whole point of the movie.
If you have children - heck, even if you don't - I can't think of any piece of entertainment that could teach them better values than this film. This movie belongs on your shelf...
on February 20, 2002
The time is 1924. The finest athletes of England have begun their quest for glory in the Olympic Games. Their success will win honor for their nation - but for two champion runners, the honor at stake is a personal one...and their challenge one from within.
Chariots Of fire tells the exciting, inspiring true story of Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell, and the dedicated team of competitors who brought Great Britain one of her most legendary victories in international sports. It is also the film that marked the brilliant resurgence of the British movie industry - and won four 1981 Academy Awards - including Best Picture.
Virtually a succession of smashing debuts, which it proved to be for Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell, Alice Krige, Jeremy Sinden, and Daniel Gerroll in their first major film roles, and Hugh Hudson (a veteran of British Television)directing his first theatrical feature. With such other wonderful talents by veteran actors Sir Ian Holm, Sir John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson, and Nigel Davenport, the collective people together shaped a film whose impact is still lasting and unique. From its bracing footage of competition and pagentry, to the haunting image of the English runners on the beach, to the extraordinary music score by Vangelis, Chariots Of Fire has left its mark on film fans everywhere. It also has proven that British filmmakers and film crews are the best, and only the best, in the world.
If you are looking for the finest in entertainment, art films, or otherwise, you need not look any furthur than Chariots Of Fire. The finest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
on June 7, 2000
It is a DISGRACE that Warners would treat a BEST PICTURE winner in this fashion. Why the poor transfer to DVD? Why not put the film onto DVD in its original aspect ratio (widescreen), as it was meant to be seen? Both The Sting (Universal) and Driving Miss Daisy (also Warners) are two other best picture winners which received the same sorry treatment. I will NEVER buy the DVD of this EXCELLENT film until a proper release is given.
on August 2, 2005
My absolute favorite scene in the movie was Eric Liddell's speech in a Cathedral on the sabbath when he should have been running in a qualifying heat for the 100 meters in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He read from Isaiah 40, the title for this review from verse 17. He had refused to run on the sabbath because of his intense faith; he would be breaking one of the ten commandments if he did so but most importantly would not be consistent with what he had encouraged and taught others to do. His decision was not made to draw attention to himself nor to draw attention to a religious idea he wanted to promote. His motives were pure, based on principle. He was born in China, both of his parents were missionaries there. He also died in China in 1945 having been interned in a Japanese concentration camp working as a missionary; supposedly he had a tumor in his brain. But that is not mentioned in the movie. His rival in the 100 meters, Harold Abraham was a jew who went on to win the 100 meters for Great Britain. The movie begins with a eulogy for Harold Abrahams by his friend, Cambridge classmate and Olympic team member, Lord Andrew Lindsay, at his funeral in 1978. All flesh is grass, Isaiah says in this chapter, and so it is.
When this movie came out in 1981, I was running track in high school, and this movie was all the rage amongst my classmates. And it is still as inspirational as it was then. Eric Liddell is clearly the standout in the crowd, but for reasons other than his athletic skills. His whole outlook is radically different from the other runners, and from what I've read about him elsewhere, he was known for his total "absence of vanity". So, the movie is about his character and also that of his British teammates and their Olympic experience. For the 1924 participants and particularly for Liddell, one's best efforts was purely for love of the Games, what a contrast to today's Olympics what with all the athletic endorsements, media hype, advertising, self-promotion. All nations are before Him as nothing, no matter how large the parade of nations gets. (Read Isaiah 40 to get the gist of what he's saying).
Eric Liddell was also nicknamed "the flying Scotsman" after Scotland's most famous steamengine. He had a unique way of running which Ian Charleson tries to replicate. He was described as running with his arms waving through the air whereas Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) runs very precisely since he has consulted with knowledgeable coaches. There are many contrasts between them, and rivalry, yet they both respect one another. Much of the movie was filmed in Scotland at St. Andrew's University, near the site where St. Rule brought a few of St. Andrew's bones to Scotland from Greece. If you've read any of my other reviews, you'll find this story of St. Andrew's.
"Chariots of fire" are mentioned in the bible in the book of 2 Kings 6:17 with regard to the prophet Elisha, not just in a poem by William Blake as I've read elsewhere.