Sunday, July 1, 2012

CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)


CHARIOTS OF FIRE (DIR:HUGH HUDSON SCR:COLIN WELLAND)

The win for CHARIOTS OF FIRE as  best picture of 1981 remains as one of the biggest Oscar upsets in history: somehow, this unassuming, low budget English film, with no big stars won out over Steven Speilberg's rousing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Warren Beatty's sweeping epic REDS, and Mark Rydell's sentimental hit, ON GOLDEN POND, surprising many people on Oscar night, and causing some to think that perhaps the three bigger films split the vote and pushed it over the top.  In any event, director Hugh Hudson's movie remains one of the most unlikely (and least liked) best picture winners ever.  If the film is remembered today for anything at all, it's for composer Vangelis's beautiful soundtrack, one of the most famous in movie history.  Personally, I find the film pleasant enough, hand some looking and well made, but it falls far from greatness, with many slow moments that don't justify its two hour running time.

It began when film producer David Puttman wanted to make a film about someone who follows his conscience, like 1966's best picture winner A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Then, while flipping through a copy of THE OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE OLYMPICS he decided that a movie about the British athletes of the 1924 Summer Games would fit the bill.  ("Sport is such a clean simple metaphor" he would later say).   He hired writer Colin Welland (who had mostly worked in British television) to write the script; Welland researched heavily, interviewing surviving athletes and even getting copies of letters that one of the runners sent home.  (Despite Welland's research, there are somewhat inevitably, a few historical errors in the film). Puttnam felt that it was important to have new faces in the film instead of established stars, even if that would make getting the funding more difficult.  He also made the surprising choice of Hugh Hudson as the film's director, even though Hudson had only directed short films and documentaries up to that point.  Eventually, the film was privately financed by the Allied Stars company, with distribution controlled by Hollywood film companies 20th. Century Fox and Warner Bros.  Unknown actors Ben Cross and Ian Charleson were cast in the leads, and the film was set.  When shooting was completed, Vangelis's all important score (his first) was added.  The finished film was wisely opened in London before reaching America, and good word of mouth aided it's arrival in the states, where it eventually grossed around sixty million dollars on a budget of around six.

The famous opening 

The film's story is about two British runners, the Scottish missionary Eric Liddell (Charleson) and the Jewish Englishman Harold Abrahams, who are rivals before both being picked for the 1924 Olympic games in Paris.   Although trouble comes when Liddell refuses to run on a Sunday for religious reasons,  he is allowed to switch with another runner, and both he and Abrahams go on to win gold medals.

One of the big criticisms of this film is that it feels more like a long episode of the English TV series MASTERPIECE THEATER than it does an actual film, and I think that that is a fair point; like that show, this is a film set in a highly romanticized version of England's past, in which the upper crust live on beautiful estates, attend Cambridge, engage in low key, high toned conversations with muted emotions and dress in dinner jackets  while attending Gilbert and Sulivan performances.   Unfortunately, this also means that the film, like the show, often feels pallid and bloodless when it should be emotional and uplifting.  The movie only really succeeds during the racing scenes, which are excellently photographed by David Watkin and edited by Terry Rawlings.  They contain all of the drama and excitement that the rest of the move often lacks, and, fortunately there are quite a few of them. In one striking moment, the camera shows the race track from the runner's point of view seconds before the race begins, and it seems to stretch out to infinity.   Another great moment comes when Puttnam shows Abrahams racing victory at normal speed, and then immediately flashes back to the same race in slow motion, heightening the hard fought nature of the runner's achievement.
The performances are all fine, especially considering how the actors had to train hard to believably  portray Olympic caliber athletes, but I wish there was a little less classic British stoicism in our two leads and little more sense of feeling.  This is especially true in the romance between Abrahams and singer Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), which is distinctly lacking in passion.  My favorite performance in the film is given by Ian Holm as Abrahams trainer, Sam Mussabini, who's outspoken energy and gruff likability gives the film a needed shot in the arm whenever he's on screen, and who really should have been in the film more.

Ian Holm


I think the film really misses an opportunity in having the characters of Abrahams and Liddel share so little screen time together.  Here you have a Jewish man who's running is fueled by his anger and frustration at being Jewish in a mostly Christian country( he calls running a "weapon"), and a Christian missionary who is willing to give up Olympic glory if it means running on a Sunday.  Surely these two men would have something interesting to say to each other, especially when they go from being rivals to being on the same team.  But the film keeps them mostly apart, even when they are both traveling to the Olympics on the same ship.   I do admire the fact that the film doesn't take sides when they are competing, showing them both as honorable and dedicated men who run for good reasons.
I've already mentioned the excellent score by Vangelis, and really, it's hard to imagine the film without out it, especially in the famous opening shots of the young runners racing down the beach.  Using electronic music for the soundtrack of a film set in the 1920's was a very interesting gamble that pays off, as the music highlights the beauty and tension of the races.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's clear that, apart from the racing scenes, I'm not a big fan of this film, and I don't think that it should have won best picture.  Along with preferring both REDS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, I also liked Louis Malle's ATLANTIC CITY and Karel Reiz's THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN more.