The Best Picture
Our Columnists Reflect on Oscar's Best Films
#54 BEST PICTURE OF 1981
An upset winner, 'Chariots'
is all-time great sports film
By STAN ISAACS
I love "Chariots of Fire"! It is my favorite sports movie of all time. It is one of my favorite any kind of movie of all time.
I first saw it in London when I was covering the 1981 Wimbledon tennis matches. Bud Collins, the roguish tennis sage, introduced me to a young woman friend who was a runner because he knew that in those days I was a jogger (actually more of a slogger). She said, Theres a terrific movie about running playing down in Piccadilly.
So we went. And as the movie progressed my thoughts went from, This is a terrific movie about running to This is a great movie. I then was surprised and delighted when this dark horse of a film won four Oscars, including Best Picture the following March.
The movie is about two English runners, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who compete for greatness at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, France, even though they're on the same English team. The film indicates key figures involved with the English team were biased against Abrahams, a Cambridge student, because he was Jewish. The film suggests they didn't want a Jew to show up their favorite, Liddell, a Scottish missionary who lived strictly by his Christian faith.
Liddell himself is not depicted as bigoted and much of the film's drama comes from the struggle of these two talented athletes to rise above the climate of prejudice and keep their duels on the highest and purest level of sports competition.
These are some of the outstanding elements of the film:
Sam Mussabini: He was the track coach who worked with Harold Abrahams. He's played beautifully by Ian Holm, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Take that name, Mussabini, and roll it on your tongue a few times. Mussss-a-beeeen-ee. Its rich, and thats the kind of juicy character Holm portrays, chewing on a stogie and expounding about running and dedication and winning.
The Races: There is impeccable attention to detail throughout the picture. Note the runners digging toeholds in the cinder at the starting line in one sequence. That would satisfy the most nit-picking track purist. Director Hugh Hudson masterfully changes pace in letting different elements carry a race. Sometimes it is the close-up of straining faces, sometimes it is the music, other times it is the use of slow motion combined with silence broken by the crunch of footsteps. In one of the climactic races he shows you the entire race first, then goes back and shows it again in segments, breaking those up with bits from the post-race scenes.
The Music: Vangelis Papathanassiou (now theres a name for you, which is probably why he just went by "Vangelis") put together a glorious original score and also threw in bits and pieces of Gilbert and Sullivan. I have always thought I would like Gilbert and Sullivan if I ever could make out the words. In this movie I could make out the lyrics and what a pleasure that was. When they finished off a rousing scene at Cambridge with a lusty chorus of He Remains an Englishman, this Anglophile went limp. The Chariots theme, played prominently as the runners jog on the beach in the opening scene of the picture, pacing themselves in the shadow of the famous St. Andrews golf clubhouse, became a Top 40 hit and is now a staple on TV and in movie documentaries. Vangelis' music also won the Oscar for Best Original Score.
Inspiration: At a time when we are disheartened by the crassness and material lust of many star athletes, it is a tonic to be taken back in time to the pure amateur spirit that drives the central characters. Harold Abrahams says, I run for my family, my school and my country. Eric Liddell, the divinity student, says, When I run, I feel Gods pleasure. And for sure a lump formed in the throat here when the dean welcoming them as freshmen says, Let each of you discover where your true chance of greatness lies. Too often when we walk away from the stadium in real life, we are caught up in petty winds of controversy; we come away from Chariots with our vicarious dreams of glory realized. This movie is better than our arenas.
The Uses of Silence: There is a classic scene in Citizen Kane involving Kanes wife, the inept opera singer. As she sings, the camera accompanies the sound of her voice up into the rafters where two workmen are on a scaffold listening. The point is brilliantly made without a word when one workman turns to the other and holds his nose. There is a scene in Chariots in which Mussabini, who is not permitted in the stadium because he is a paid coach, waits for the result from his hotel across the street, and then gets the word by seeing the British flag of victory raised for Abrahams above the stadium. Mussabinis silent reaction is eloquent. Silence is employed beautifully as well in a locker room scene as it envelops the close-ups of runners suiting up for a race.
Accuracy: And now a dilemma for me. Anybody who has read my screeds against the acclaimed movie, Seabiscuit because of the distortions of the truth that are rampant in that film, could ask about the inconsistencies I found in Chariots. Much is made of Abrahams Jewish pride as a driving force for his success. This emphasis on anti-semitism is at the heart of the film's distortion because critics say Abrahams did not suffer from anti-semitism and was wildly popular at Cambridge. Actually, in real life Abrahams converted from Judaism. The film attends to this with a quick early scene showing him being eulogized at a church service, a facile way of skirting the conversion so it could later emphasize his Jewishness.
Also, screen writer Collin Welland changed the sequence of Abrahams sprint races. In reality, Abrahams won the 100-meter dash then lost the 200-meter race. For dramatic effect Welland's script had Abrahams losing the 200, then winning the 100. And also, Liddell knew weeks in advance that he would run the 400, not the 100, so it is pure fabrication that the political bigwigs allowed him to switch from the 100 to the 400 to emphasize his resistance to compromising his beliefs.
I found out about these liberties somewhat after I saw the film. My lame excuse for lauding Chariots despite these falsities is that I knew the real Seabiscuit story; I didnt know anything about the 1924 Olympics. Yes, it is lame.
A final note: the title, Chariots of Fire is from a line: bring me my chariot of fire in the William Blake poem, Milton.
©2007 by Stan Isaacs. The "Oscar" logo and the phrase "Academy Awards" are the registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. This column first posted Feb. 19, 2007.
THE OTHER 1940 BEST PICTURE NOMINEES: "Atlantic City," "On Golden Pond," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Reds."
TRIVIA ITEMS: "Chariots of Fire" was the first English-made film to win the Best Picture Oscar since "Tom Jones," a stretch of a dozen years, and its victory is considered one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history....Producer David Puttnam was hailed in England as the savior of the sagging British film industry, but in 1986 he accepted the job as CEO and head of production at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood. He lasted only two years and was blamed by many for the collpase of the studio and its sale to Sony...Director Hugh Hudson, who was nominated for Best Direction, had directed TV commercials, but had never directed a film before. He lost the 1981 Oscar to another first-time director, actor Warren Beatty, who won for his "Reds"...Actor Ian Charleson died in 1990 of AIDS, but Ben Cross continues to work in films and television. His upcoming film is "Species IV."
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