Chariots of Fire is about, foremost, manners, which once upon a time, at the remove of an ocean and a Vince Lombardi, existed, even in sports, in a place called England. The film is a period piece, lovingly, faithfully constructed by director Hugh Hudson, and essentially it presents two one-hour stories about the '24 Olympics in one two-hour film. The events are all the more affecting in their antiquity in that they took place but 60 years ago and not in some make-believe King Arthur's court or Robin Hood's forest. Here the people dress nearly like us and drive motor cars and go off to the Olympics every four years. But how they think and what they say and what matters to them are so very different. Hudson has not let nostalgia get in the way. Especially in our throwaway world, the re-creation of the recent past—when properly done, as here—staggers the imagination so much more than does going way back into time, when people dressed funny and didn't have Blue Cross or indoor plumbing.
Indeed, I fear this work, with the cultural detail of a Dutch genre painting, may be too perceptive, too evocative for the broad American taste in sports art. It would be a pity. Neither of the athletic heroes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Lid-dell, is what we have come to expect—Frank Merriwell or Joe Palooka or Rocky Balboa or even Reggie Jackson. Rather, Chariots of Fire is a tale about an era and two real men who happened to run through it in their own fashion, meeting only once along the way.
Abrahams, played by Ben Cross, is Jewish, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian. The father was self-made, and Harold is now a Cambridge Blue, "arrogant...defensive to the point of pugnacity." Liddell, portrayed by Ian Charleson, is the son of Scottish Christian missionaries. Determined to become one also, he is wholly devout, utterly sure and humble alike, untroubled: "When I run I feel His pleasure." Abrahams and Liddell are both sprinters, pointing to the '24 Games in Paris and a showdown with the two U.S. speed merchants, Charlie Paddock and Jackson Scholz.
Because it's a great deal easier to portray compulsion than faith, Abrahams has the more appeal and provides the better part. Movie people never know quite how to present men of faith without making them hopelessly tedious in their piety and surrounding them—as is the case here—with even dippier friends. Abrahams has all the good backup characters on his side as well, including Sir John Gielgud. All the more credit to Charleson then for how stoutly attractive he comes off. When he must confront the Prince of Wales and other Olympic pooh-bahs, he commands the single best scene in the film.
September 27, 1981
Liddell stands, by the way, as an interesting transitional figure in sports religion, in a continuum that begins with the Victorian concept of "muscular Christianity"—exhaust boys on the playing fields for the same reason saltpeter is put in their food—and extends to the present Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which uses sports heroes to advertise Jesus. Liddell sometimes reads scriptures and delivers sermons after he sprints.
Cutting back and forth from his homely services in the Scottish highlands to Cambridge and the other venues where Abrahams and his upper-class WASP chums congregate isn't always easy. There is too much backing and filling. For the same reason, though the whole film is so very subtle, the minor characters who come across best are necessarily the most obvious ones: Gielgud as a Cambridge master; Ian Holm as Abraham's coach; Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay, who trains for the hurdles on champagne and cigarettes; and, perhaps best of all, David Yelland as the supercilious Prince of Wales, the incipient Duke of Windsor.
What makes these two disparate sagas meld and grasp us is, above all, the gentle camera work, which so perfectly fondles England at this moment in its past that never do we doubt the people who inhabit the place, even if we may be puzzled by their attitudes. It's only a shame that once again—even in a movie as true and sophisticated as this one—the sporting scenes are marred by slow-motion sequences. Can't people in movies run and jump and bat and throw at the same speed with which they do everything else?
But if Chariots of Fire is tarnished by that one ghastly clichè, no other part is seriously flawed, and one comes away with a warm sense that whatever Abrahams and Liddell took from athletics was a fair bargain for sport. It's not just England that has changed.