The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies
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Chariots of Fire - 1981

When Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1981, it was a huge upset. The film was up against a strong field—Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds, On Golden Pond and Atlantic City were the other nominees—and the tale of two British track stars seemed to have about as much chance as a sprinter with a pulled hamstring.

When Loretta Young opened the envelope to announce the winner, she could not hide her surprise. Her eyes widened and she paused for a second as if to make sure there wasn’t a mistake. When she announced “Chariots of Fire,” it was hard to tell if the screams that followed were screams of delight or disbelief.

Even now, you can still start a lively debate asking people what they think of the film. Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated considers it the best sports film ever made. Premiere Magazine rated it one of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of All-Time. Many critics adored it—as did many athletes. Dara Torres,the only American swimmer to compete in five Olympics, says it is her favorite movie ever.

It is easy to find fault with Chariots.The first half is downright boring at times. Certain plot points are repeated until they are beaten into the ground. Harold Abrahams feels persecuted because he is Jewish. Eric Liddell is devoted to his Christian faith. OK, we get it. Can we move the story along now?

For a movie about men who run fast, Chariots often seems stuck in molasses. And when Abrahams and Liddell finally do run, they are shown in slow-motion, which annoys even Deford. (“A ghastly cliche,” he calls it.)

“It’s 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,” Deford wrote in his review. “Can’t people in movies run and jump and bat and throw at the same speed with which they do everything else?”

The reason the film works—and it really does work—is the actors (Ian Charleson as Liddell, Ben Cross as Abrahams) are so good they make you care about their characters. The fact that it is a true story, and the script—which won an Oscar for screenwriter Colin Welland—is pretty faithful to the real events, gives Chariots almost a documentary feel.

Abrahams, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant, enrolls in Cambridge. As one of the few non-Anglo-Saxons on the hallowed grounds, he feels like an outsider. He says he feels “a cold reluctance in every handshake.” But it only makes him more determined to succeed. “I’m going to take them on, one by one, and run them off their feet,” he vows.

Abrahams makes good on his promise. In one of the film’s best scenes, he becomes the first student to run a complete lap around the Great Court in less time than it takes the steeple clock to strike 12 bells at midday. Looking on, the school master (Sir John Gielgud) says, “I doubt there is a swifter man in the kingdom.”

That is the cue to introduce Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries and a world-class sprinter. He enjoys the competition, but it is secondary to his religion. Liddell is shown winning races and preaching sermons to his adoring fans afterwards.

As the 1924 Olympics approach, Liddell’s sister Jennie(Cheryl Campbell) accuses him of putting his training ahead of God’s work. She says, “You are so full of running, you have no time for standing still.” She is preparing to meet their parents at their mission in China. Eric is expected to join them, but he wants to run in the Olympics first. He tries to makes his sister understand that his athletic pursuits are really an extension of his faith.

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

Abrahams is running against prejudice. Liddell is running to honor his God. They are very different sorts of heroes, but by the time they climb aboard the steamer in London and set sail for the Olympic Games in Paris,you are rooting for both of them. You are also prepared to root against their jaunty American rivals, Charlie Paddock and Jackson Scholz, who are expected to kick butt in Paris.

Abrahams and Liddell are entered in the 100 meters, but as it turns out the qualifying heats are on Sunday. Liddell refuses to run on the holy day. The head of the British delegation pulls him into a meeting with the Prince of Wales and other politicians who try to pressure him into changing his mind. Staring into the eyes of the future king, Liddell stands his ground.

“God made countries,” he says. “God makes kings and the rules by which they govern. And those rules say that the Sabbath is His. And I for one intend to keep it that way.”

Another member of the British team offers Liddell his spot in the 400 meters which is scheduled for later in the week. Liddell, who has successfully competed at the longer distance, accepts. But word of his principled stance makes headlines back home and assures his sister that he still has his priorities in order.

When the Games begin, director Hugh Hudson faces a structural dilemma. Filmmakers talk about “delivering the moment”—that is,building the emotion to one climactic scene, one event that pays off everything that has gone before. Hudson is faced with two endings: Abrahams’ quest for gold in the 100 and Liddell’s race in the 400.

It is to Hudson’s credit that the two scenes play so well. Abrahams’ victory, which comes first,is not shortchanged and Liddell’s triumph does not feel like an anti-climax. Itis a neat bit of storytelling on the part of the director, who was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Warren Beatty (Reds).

Hudson makes it work by showing the two races from different perspectives. He lets us see Abrahams’ victory through the eyes of his coach Sam Mussabini (IanHolm), who is not allowed in the Olympic stadium because he is considered a professional. Sam stands at the hotel window, waiting to see which flag is raised for the medal ceremony. It is not until Sam sees the Union Jack go up that he knows his man has won the gold. All alone, Sam celebrates by punching his fist through his straw hat.

Liddell’s victory is told in more straight-forward fashion with the runner—yes, in slow-motion—hitting the tape, his head thrown back, smiling as his words (“When I run, I feel His pleasure”) echo above the roar of the crowd.

Copyright © 2011 by Running Press