“Chariots of Fire,” which weaves the stories of two former British track aces who both won major events at the 1924 Paris Olympics, is about the will to win and why. It’s also a winner for director Hugh Hudson in his theatrical bow after an apprenticeship in commercials. With strong script values and top-notch performances, he makes it almost look easy. As to business outlook, the David Puttnam production for 20th Fox should prosper in the urban markets on satisfied word of mouth, and it’s also a worth competitor as this year’s official British entry at Cannes.
As between the slapstick comedy and scary contrived shlockers that predominate in the current marketplace, “Chariots” offers jaded fans an un-common chance to relate to believable people in a drama of affecting emotion and tension, plus more than a little social and psychological complexity. In short, the Colin Welland script has a lot to admire in the engrossing way it counterpoints the progress of its two sporting heroes, each driven by impulse that has little to do with mere fame per se and even less with national honor.
Ian Charleson and Ben Cross are both exemplary as the respective super-runners, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, the first a Christian Scot who believes that by winning can he best honor the Lord; the latter an English Jew with a chip on the shoulder for whom over-achieving is his ticket to acceptance in a prejudiced society.
For the record, Liddell later went to China as a Christian missionary and died in a Japanese POW camp. Abrahams, who died three years ago, went on to become an elder statesman of British athletics. Also for the record, his alma mater, Cambridge U., declined the use of its hallowed Anglo-Saxon precincts for location purposes. Stand-ins more than suffice.
What with two social “outsiders” hogging the glory for dear old Albion, the snobby establishment doesn’t come off to raves. Yet at the same time, “Chariots” is also a warm salute to the best of British tradition and values, as well as vivid testament to individual integrity and supreme determination. Welland’s sympathetic screenplay generally succeeds at emotional honesty, time and again inducing a tug or choke but without confusing schmaltz for decent sentiment.
Hudson’s direction gets it all together with admirable assurance and narrative style. No arty tricks, no self-conscious posturing. His use of slow motion and freeze frames for the various racing sequences turns out to be a valid device for sharpening emotional intensity and competitive agony, not the cliched gimmick it might have been.
Convincing conflict is rife, with the two heroes either at odds with the establishment, their women or themselves.
No imbalance mars the pic, whose cross-the-board achievement lifts it to an impressive level of unified accomplishment. David Watkin’s lensing is excellent without being fussy or contrived. The score by Vangelis, richly orchestrated with uplifting cadences, suits the action with a lingering quality.
The casting is pin point. Charleson and Cross, neither meaningful to film fans up to now, come over as plausible types rather than stereotypes. John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson contribute sharply as university officials dismayed by the upstart young Jew. Nigel Davenport is very good as the Olympic squad’s titular leader, and Patrick Magee is excellent in a brief turn as a blimpish peer of the realm.
Cheryl Campbell and Alice Krige have effective moments as the principal women. But it’s Ian HoIm who scene steals every time as a professional coach whose mentoring ultimately provides Abrahams with an “extra two yards,” or the winning margin. And as Holm tells him after the big Paris race, he won it not for God or country but “for us.”