It was one of the biggest Best Picture upsets in the history of the Academy Awards, and some believe one of the most unjust. In true David and Goliath fashion, 'Chariots of Fire,' a relatively small movie directed by the little known Hugh Hudson, took down Hollywood giant Warren Beatty's epic 'Reds' to the slack-jawed surprise of almost everyone attending the 1981 Oscars. Beatty had already won the Best Director prize for his bloated biopic about American Communist revolutionaries, but Tinseltown's top honor would go to a British film chronicling the travails of a group of English runners training for the 1924 Summer Olympics. Many cried foul, and many still do, but at the time I cheered the Academy's choice. Thirty years have passed since that fateful envelope was opened, and like many movies, 'Chariots of Fire' has lost some of its Oscar glow, but remains a meticulously produced, wonderfully acted, and appropriately rousing film that's perfect to revisit before, during, and after the 2012 Olympic Games.
Often reminiscent of an elongated episode of 'Masterpiece Theater,' 'Chariots of Fire' is quintessentially British, from its stuffy Cambridge and bucolic Scottish settings to the participation of such stalwart English actors as John Gielgud. It's literate and leisurely paced, yet possesses an inner passion and joyful spirit that, like its fleet-footed subjects, propels it forward and draws in its audience. Without browbeating the viewer, the film expresses the excitement and exhilaration of sport, along with the dedication and sacrifice required to be successful, and the agonizing setbacks and defeats that shape, inspire, and occasionally devastate athletes. Far from a 'Rocky' or 'Major League,' 'Chariots of Fire' is a thinking man's sports movie that focuses more on character and moral codes than the track-and-field events that comprise its climax.
Of course, what most people most remember about 'Chariots of Fire' is the opening title sequence during which a flock of barefoot runners jog along the beach to the highly recognizable electronic strains of Vangelis' Oscar-winning score. Both the single of the main title theme and the movie's soundtrack album reached #1 on the Billboard charts - quite an achievement for a majestic, synthesized, instrumental melody at the dawn of the 1980s. And though over the years the tune has eclipsed the film and become a bit of a cliché, 'Chariots of Fire,' 30 years later, remains a beautifully filmed, acted, written, and directed motion picture that deserves to be honored and rediscovered.
The British Olympic runners never achieved lasting worldwide renown, prompting one to ponder why a film was made about them in the first place, but their story is nonetheless interesting, and, as told by Oscar-winning screenwriter Colin Welland, achieves a delicate intimacy that enhances its meaning. The two main protagonists, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) each have crosses to bear that shape their competitive spirit. A Jew swimming against the tide in a sea of Christianity at Caius College in Cambridge, the arrogant Abrahams sees anti-Semitism everywhere and uses running as a weapon to combat it, while the stoic, humble Liddell, who hails from modest roots in the Scottish highlands, must balance his burgeoning career as a missionary with his passion for sprinting, which inspires thinly veiled disapproval from his prim, devout sister (Cheryl Campbell), who fears athletics will lead him astray and spoil his promise as a preacher. Liddell runs for God, but Abrahams runs for glory, and when the Scot defeats the Brit in a local heat, it sets up an intra-squad rivalry that carries through to the Olympics.
Of course there's a bit of romance, as Abrahams cracks the pretentious shell of a Gilbert & Sullivan stage actress (Alice Krige), and there's the requisite training sequences with Abrahams' colorful multi-ethnic coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm in a wonderful, Oscar-nominated portrayal). But 'Chariots of Fire' is ultimately short on plot and long on character development and interaction. We also get to know Abrahams' teammates, Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), a flamboyant, privileged lord, and the shy, introspective Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), who openly worships his more gifted, confident, and outgoing comrades. Nuances and subtleties fuel this tale, with small moments resonating far more than big events.
Films with religious undertones occasionally become preachy and message oriented, but 'Chariots of Fire' keeps such issues in their proper place, adding context and shading to the story, but never consuming it. It's a difficult tightrope to walk, but Hudson does it well. We respect both characters' outlooks and perceptions, and appreciate the profound influence their respective (and divergent) faiths exert upon them, but we leave the film extolling their athletic accomplishments, not the impact of religion on sport.
Though the lead actors were unknown at the time of the film's release, they all give sincere, vigorous performances. Cross embodies the pugnacious, driven Abrahams, allowing viewers just enough glimmers into his inner pain to make him not only admirable, but also likeable, while Charleson brings marvelous sensitivity, grace, and plenty of stubborn resolve to Liddell. The two are highly believable, as are their compatriots, and both Krige, as the stuck-up stage star Abrahams brings down to earth, and Campbell, as Liddell's pious, disapproving sister, shine.
With understated passion and a delicate lyricism, 'Chariots of Fire' allows us to see the human side of sport, as it depicts the courage and dedication it takes to strive for excellence. Yet in the process, Hudson's film never sacrifices the excitement of the race, the thrill of victory, or the agony of defeat. One may question whether this beautifully produced tale deserved to be anointed Best Picture, but there's no denying its stature as a high-quality, emotionally affecting, and often thrilling piece of cinema.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Chariots of Fire' arrives on Blu-ray attractively packaged in a Warner digibook with embossed lettering and a slightly raised and textured reproduction of the Olympic flame on the cover. The 50GB disc, which houses the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, is tucked inside the front cover, while a four-track CD Soundtrack Sampler, featuring selections from the Oscar-winning score by Vangelis, sits inside the back. In between are 40 lavishly illustrated pages, with many full-color portraits and scene shots, and selections of text that briefly outline the movie's genesis, analyze the story, and celebrate its distinctive music. Mini bios of Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, producer David Puttnam, director Hugh Hudson, and Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams are also included, along with a trivia quiz. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'Chariots of Fire' looks lush and elegant on Blu-ray, thanks to a high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that showcases the film's hallowed English settings and period decor. Just a hint of grain adds welcome texture and a nostalgic glow to the image, while superior clarity and contrast lend many scenes a vibrant pop. Any scratches or print marks that afflicted earlier incarnations of the movie have been erased, leaving a clean picture that brims with detail.
Colors fluctuate between muted and bold. The verdant hues of the Scottish countryside bathe the screen, while many of the track sequences adopt a slightly washed out appearance that highlights the grit and competitive nature of both the characters and their sport. Black levels are strong - the formal dinner jackets and scholarly robes look especially good - and fleshtones remain stable and natural throughout. Background elements are easy to discern, too, and no banding, noise, crush, or other pesky issues afflict this fine treatment.
It's safe to say that 'Chariots of Fire' has never looked better, as this Blu-ray edition outclasses the previous DVD by a substantial margin.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies clear, nicely nuanced sound that captures all the atmosphere of this rousing and poetic film. Wide dynamic range allows highs to flourish without risking distortion and lows to achieve proper weight without lumbering heaviness. Surround activity is unfortunately limited, but often pronounced, as the wind and some chirping birds emanate from the rears from time to time, and the Vangelis score radiates with pulsating power and searing grace as it effortlessly swirls across every channel. The Gilbert & Sullivan music also sounds hearty and robust, complementing the contemporary electronic strains.
Dialogue in this film can be a bit problematic, due to thick Scottish accents and some overly quiet line deliveries, but the track handles such challenges well, and most conversations are easy to understand. Atmospherics are also finely rendered, from the countryside ambience of rural Scotland to the bustling din of London and cheering throngs of spectators at the Paris games, and accents are crisp and distinct. Though no one would term 'Chariots of Fire' an audiophile's dream, this track is solid and improves upon the original theatrical experience without dishonoring the film.
All the extras from the 2005 double-disc DVD have been ported over to this release, and it's quite a nice package, offering a comprehensive look at the conception and production of this Best Picture winner.
Whether you agree with the Academy or not, there's no denying 'Chariots of Fire' is an engrossing, inspirational, and beautifully filmed and acted motion picture. Hugh Hudson's chronicle of British runners training for the 1924 Olympics is perfect viewing to ramp up enthusiasm for the upcoming London games, yet this sports movie possesses more depth than most, exploring weighty personal issues that enhance the athletic drama. In addition to Best Picture, 'Chariots of Fire' took home Oscars for original screenplay, costume design, and music score, and remains as quietly affecting and understated as it seemed three decades ago. Warner's digibook offering is as classy as the film, and features excellent video and audio, and a wide array of absorbing supplements that both celebrate and probe beneath the surface of this acclaimed film. Highly recommended.