Director: Hugh Hudson, UK, 1981, 124 mins
Review By Dave Smith
Best remembered for its use of slow motion and Vangelis’ memorable score, this newly-remastered version of the film is to be released as part of the celebrations of 2012 London Olympic Games, and tells the true story of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) in the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Chariots of Fire is a look back at an era when victory didn’t demand isolation, bitterness, and hatred of one’s rivals. That’s not to say that winning isn’t important to Abrahams and Liddell , but neither is so obsessed by their goal that they lose sight of what is most important in their lives. Eric is a devout Christian who runs because he believes it glorifies God. Harold is Jewish, who competes as a way of proving his worth. Both driven by an inner fire, they have an inbuilt sense of fair play and have nothing but respect for their rivals.
Chariots of Fire tells the story of the British teams triumphs at the 1924 Olympics, over the heavily-favored Americans. With Abrahams and Lidell leading the way, the British track team had one of their best-ever showings. This film traces the two principal athletes’ paths to the Paris games, where their on-field successes form a surprisingly low-key climax.
Director Hudson doesn’t rely on sports film cliches; focusing on motivation and character development. It’s important to know that Abrahams and Lidell win, but the real story is contained in what leads up to the races.
At the time when Chariots of Fire was first released, many of the principal cast members, including Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, and Alice Krige, were relative unknowns. All give strong performances, and each has gone on to greater success. Some recognizable faces fill supporting roles, including Sir John Gielgud as the Master of Trinity College and Ian Holm as Abraham’s mentor, Sam Mussabini.
There’s barely a whiff of melodrama in Chariots of Fire, which makes the audience’s experience all the more effective — director Hugh Hudson shows respect for the integrity of the material and the intelligence of his audience.
The absence of sentimentality provides the narrative with a genuine quality that supports its factual background. Not only do we care about the characters, but we accept that they really existed.
Most sports movies rely on nostalgia and adrenaline – Chariots of Fire stands on strong writing, direction, and acting, so you don’t need to have a love of sport to appreciate it.