Classic Film Review: An Epoch-defining Oscar winner — “Chariots of Fire” (1981)

The movies that matter in your life burn into the memory that first encounter with them.I saw “Chariots of Fire” at a preview in Charlotte, N.C., with local college and high school track teams in attendance, at a now long-closed cinema near now-renamed UNC-Charlotte. And I remember getting downright teary over just how beautiful this lovely period piece unfolding before me was.

It’s not just the stunning images of “Out of Africa,” “Moonstruck” and “Memphis Belle” director of photography David Watkin, or the crystalline synthesizer score of Vangelis Papathanassiou. There’s the immaculate period-perfect production design, the world of weathered stone and inherited, poshly-turned-out privilege it depicts.

The cast, a blend of the fresh-faced and the legendary, is remarkable. Lump them in the with stars of the PBS import “Brideshead Revisited” and you could feel a tidal wave, a whole generation of British actors about to wash over world cinema thanks to what the Brits would spend the ensuing decades proving that they do best — recreating their recent and distant past. And the synthesizer wasn’t the only music in it. There are lush sacred choral works, snippets of the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan, bagpipes and bands laced throughout. The story is a flashback within a flashback. In the “present,” we sit in on a 1978 memorial service for the Elder Statesman of British sport. Through that, we drift into that iconic image of the film, young track athletes training by running down a Scottish beach (Fife) just before the 1924 Olympics.

One of their number, Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) writes a letter home, taking us back to 1919, when he met the great sprinter Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) as they enrolled in Trinity College in Cambridge. “Monty” and we see the intensity of the Jewish Abrahams, and his prickliness. It is just after World War I, and disabled veterans are all about, as is anti-Semitism. Abrahams is determined to stand out, win and shave their snobbery up their noses.

“I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I am chasing.”

John Gielgud and the great British director and sometime narrator and actor Lindsay Anderson (“If…,” “Oh Lucky Man,” “The Whales of August”) play the high-born “masters” of their respective colleges, anti-Semites from birth.

“Academically sound. Arrogant. Defensive to the point of pugnacity,” the Master if Caius (Anderson) intones.

“As ‘they’ invariably are,” Mr. Master of Trinity (the Oscar-winning Gielgud) sneers. Abrahamson means to win an Olympic medal a few years down the line, and his determined push for personal glory rankles the higher-ups.

Meanwhile, to the north in Scotland, the saintly Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a star rugby player, the son of missionaries who grew up in China, and a man whose own mission is preaching and returning to China to spread the word of God. He is a naturally gifted runner coaxed into changing his focus, if only for a while.

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

Abrahams figures out he’s going to need a “professional” coach to best Liddell and chase a gold medal and hires the even-more-outside outsider Sam Massabini (Ian Holm). He’s also distracted by the transcendent beauty Sybil Gordon, a singing stage actress played by South African Alice Krige

Nigel Havers plays the Oxbridge dandy, renamed Lord Lindsay in the film, a “natural” athlete of title and impeccable breeding who puts down his cigarette to sprint and dash through the low-hurdles, which he masters by parking glasses of champagne on each one, vowing to “not spill a drop” as he gallops through them.

He’s meant to be adorably insufferable, and he is, although most viewers might embrace him as the embodiment of noblesse oblige and the privilege “amateur” athletics set out to test and honor.

The “villains” of the Olympics are the always-to-be-feared American Olympians, with two famous sprinters, Charles Paddock and Jackson Scholz, played by peaking stars Dennis Christopher and coiled, compact walking muscle Brad Davis (he was in producer David Puttman’s “Midnight Express”).

Location after lovely location for this film captures the place and recreates the time in glorious detail.

Some of the loveliest scenes in “Chariots of Fire” are slow motion reveries on the track. But terrific tracking shots takes us through the pell-mell that first day at Cambridge, and an intimidating peek at the American team training in Paris, all business. Note Christopher’s choice of leg warm-ups, on his back, mock-pedaling a bicycle.

Whatever the film and filmmakers’ politics, “Chariots of Fire” is an inherently conservative enterprise, never wholly mocking the high born, never wholly embracing the outsiders and most fervently celebrating the pious and divinely-inspired Liddell.

No one “brings down” the system. Abrahams merely infiltrates it and comes to be accepted as both “a gentleman,” a patriot and “one of us.”

“Chariots” exists in a few versions, so be certain to choose the longest you can find, as sequences are omitted by this one, and a trickier opening can be seen in that one. Otherwise, you might miss Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Fry in crowd and ensemble scenes, with Fry one of the singers in the finale of a production of H.M.S. Pinafore the students mount. Michael Lonsdale, already a star thanks to “Day of the Jackal” and as a Bond villain in “Moonraker,” is allegedly in here somewhere, but I’ve never noticed him. Among the men of this male-dominated cast, I’d say Farrell, the embodiment of privilege and also-ran pluck who outlives most of his teammates in “Chariots,” had perhaps the most durable career, in supporting roles in the decades that followed. There he was in “The Iron Lady,” here he is in “Munich: The Edge of War.”

The Scot Charleson, who peaked with “Chariots” and a plum supporting part in “Gandhi,” died of AIDS less than ten years after “Chariots.”

Cross had a long if less stardusted than one might have hoped career. I just reviewed the last film he appeared in, a horror tale, “Prey for the Devil.”

Holm’s lovely twinkle in “Chariots” was a nice contrast to the heartless android he’d played in “Alien.” He’d eventually achieve fantasy film immortality with the “Lord of the Rings” films, returning to Tolkien as adorable Bilbo after first playing Frodo in the definitive BBC/NPR radio series back in 1979.

But Krige, who emerged from “Chariots” as a not-quite-name star, quickly established herself in horror (“Ghost Story”) and who became a fan favorite in the “Star Trek” universe, is the one player in the enterprise (ahem) who became an icon. She acted in period pieces, romances and thrillers. She was the Witch in the brilliant “Gretel & Hansel” and the title role and magnetic presence at the heart of “She Will,” she has the kind of fame that films confirm and fan conventions render immortal. Actor turned screenwriter Colin Welland went on to adapt the South African and the “Lord of the Flies” parable “War of the Buttons.” Director Hugh Hudson aslo peaked with “Chariots,” with “My Life So Far” and his last film, “Finding Altamira” far from atoning for the big budget disasters “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,” “Revolution,” in which he failed to wrestle America’s founding into a movie and “Lost Angels.”It was Oscar-winning producer David Puttman who went on to preside over years of prestige pictures such as “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission,” taking a shot at turning Columbia Pictures into a prestige studio in the ’80s. He failed. One common thread in stories from film magazines and trade publications from that era seemed to me, as a budding critic back then, and how resented and disliked the folks behind “Chariots” were by mainstream Hollywood. Like Harold Abrahams in “Chariots,” they were seen as “brash” and “arrogant” outsiders by the Old Guard. The notion of what “snobs” they were turned up in profiles of Puttnam and Hudson, pouring out of the pages of “Fast Fade,” a quickie “biography” of Puttnam that came after his brief run at Columbia. You can see it on the IMDb bio of Hudson, accurately labeled an “Etonian” as if that shorthand (entitled upper class Brit) could be missed by anyone. But there’s no escaping the impact of their landmark film, a game-changer for British cinema and a piece of Thatcher-era triumphalism that shifted Britain’s place in the world of film, a moment worth heralding as moment of returned glory in Sam Mendes’ semi-autobiographical “Empire of Light.”

Seen today, with all its striking, dated synthesizer music and stuffily-tolerated British classism, it’s still glorious, the sort of dreamy memory that provokes Pavlovian tears in a film fan who remembers what a stunning moment it recreates and what a wonder that the film itself was when first seen.

Rating: PG

Cast: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Alice Krige, Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell, Ian Holm, Nigel Davenport, Brad Davis, Lindsay Anderson and John Gielgud.

Credits: Directed by Hugh Hudson, scripted by Colin Welland. A Warner Bros. release on Vudu, Apple TV, Amazon, Youtube and PositivTV

Running time: 2:05

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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