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Review: Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Directed by: Hugh Hudson

Premise: The story of British track athletes competing at the 1924 Olympic Games. In their quest for gold, the Olympians find their integrity and perseverance tested. 

What Works: Chariots of Fire is a terrific sports film because it departs from the usual sports formula and plays more like a character study of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross). Of the two, Abrahams has the most interesting story. He is a Jew and encounters some antisemitism, which the film handles very well by not hitting it on the head, but confining it to more passive aggressive behavior by those around him. Abrahams’ inferiority complex fuels a competitive streak that drives him to excel but ultimately plagues both his losses and his wins, and the script and Cross’ performance bring this out terrifically. Charleson also delivers a good performance as Liddell, a devout Christian who finds his values at risk of compromise in the athletic competition. Although the story is not as compelling as Abrahams, it does not fall into the traps of cliché; Charleson’s story is unlike any other athletic narrative in film in that it focuses on the man’s faith and the tension between his desires for personal glory and his duty to his values.

What Doesn’t: Chariots of Fire is a film of its time, so the picture does not include many of the kinds of scenes and cinematic techniques that contemporary audiences expect from sports films. The upside is that the film is largely cliché free, but the downside is that the film will seem slow to contemporary audiences.

DVD extras: The two-disc special edition includes a commentary track, featurettes, deleted scenes, screen tests, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Bad sports films warm over footage of Leni Riefensthal’s Olympia with quick cuts and a pulsing soundtrack. Good sports films take time to craft the exhibition of athletic prowess and deliver thrills akin to watching a live event. The great sports films like Rocky, Raging Bull, Friday Night Lights, and Chariots of Fire put the sport in a personal or cultural context and use it to show something true about the athletes and about ourselves.

Episode: #200 (August 17, 2008)