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CHARIOTS OF FIRE(director: Hugh Hudson; screenwriter: Colin Welland; cinematographer: David Watkin; editor: Terry Rawlings; music: Vangelis; cast: Ben Cross (Harold Abrahams), Ian Charleson (Eric Liddell), Nigel Havers (Lord Andrew Lindsay), Nicholas Farrell (Aubrey Montague), Ian Holm (Sam Mussabini), Sir John Gielgud (Master of Trinity), Lindsay Anderson (Master of Caius), Nigel Davenport (Lord Birkenhead), Cheryl Campbell (Jennie Liddell), Alice Krige (Sybil Gordon), Dennis Christopher (Charles Paddock), Brad Davis (Jackson Scholz), Patrick Magee (Lord Cadogan), Peter Egan (Duke of Sutherland); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: David Puttnam; Warner Home Video; 1981-UK)
“A pleasant inspirational movie that failed to inspire me.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pleasant inspirational movie that failed to inspire me. It lacks melodrama and tension, much like a BBC special. “Chariots” was the winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The true story was a real crowd pleaser, but it wasn’t deserving of all the adulation it received: much too much of it is patriotic balderdash and filled with reactionary platitudes for religious fundamentalism. Nevertheless it’s this sort of muck, that mixes sports with religion and hints at wider issues, that the public craves when their strings are jerked in the right way and they’re manipulated into reaching for a simplistic heroic sentimentality.

It’s about two runners who both won gold medals for Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics: Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Christian Scotsman, who believes he runs to honor his God and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish Englishman from Cambridge University who wants to be accepted in a prejudiced society and overachieves to prove to the world that Jews are not inferior athletes and to destroy class elitism.

The title was taken from William Blake’s Milton; in it the poet asks, “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” Two stanzas down he urges:

“Bring me my bow of burning gold:Bring me my arrows of desire:Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!Bring me my chariot of fire.”

It’s written without an edge by Colin Welland and it’s helmed by novice film director and veteran TV director Hugh Hudson (“Revolution”/ “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”/”My Life So Far”), who lifts whole scenes shamelessly from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. The film became noted for cinematographer David Watkin’s lyrically photographed scene of the runners striding through the surf in slow motion while in the background we hear Vangelis’s stirring score.

The movie veers back and forth between the lives of both men as they meet for the first time and compete at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Liddell became a Christian missionary who was stationed in China, and eventually died as a true believer in a Japanese POW camp. Abrahams became the spokesman for English amateur athletics, was knighted, and died a respected elder statesman in 1978.

Sir John Gielgud plays a crusty, anti-Semitic Cambridge master, who resents Abrahams as an upstart. Ian Holm was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in his role as Abrahams’ coach, whose excellent coaching provides Abrahams with an “extra two yards”– the winning margin needed in the race. After the Paris race, Holm tells the lad he won the gold not for God or country but “for us.” I can buy that, it’s sort of like “win one for the Gipper.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”