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Chariots of Fire: Best Picture, 1981

chariotsoffireposter.jpgThe 54th Annual Academy Awards ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson, and introduced the Best Makeup category (thanks to the outstanding work done on The Elephant Man the year before). Chariots of Fire was nominated for 7 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Costumes, and Best Supporting Actor (Ian Holm). It lost Best Director to Warren Beatty for Reds. Reds was also nominated for Best Costumes, which is rather ironic. Chariots of Fire had a number of Edwardian costumes reserved for use after Reds (set during the same period) had finished with them. When Reds went over schedule, the costumes became unavailable and other arrangements had to be made. Chariots went on to win the award.

Meanwhile, Best Editing went to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Reds and Raiders were also both Best Picture nominees). Ian Holm lost to John Gielgud for his performance in Arthur. Interestingly, Gielgud also played a minor role in Chariots of Fire as a character who regards Ian Holm’s character somewhat disdainfully. Chariots won its other nominations for a total of 4 awards.

The movie follows two very different men, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who both ran and won gold medals for Great Britain in the 1924 World Olympics in Paris.

Abrahams is an Englishman of Jewish descent attending Cambridge. He is obsessively competitive and cannot conceive of losing. All his life he has felt that he has something to prove, seeing prejudice (real and imagined) against his race all around him. He believes that victory on the racetrack will not only cement his right to be called an Englishman, but that it will justify his very existence. “If I can’t win, I won’t run,” he forcefully declares. But later, in a moment of doubt, he admits to a fellow athlete: “That is your secret, contentment; I am 24 and I’ve never know it. I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I am chasing.”

Liddell is a Scottish Protestant whose parents are missionaries to China. He feels called to follow them there, but first he wishes to glorify God by racing in the Olympics. His sister, Jenny, worries that spending time racing instead of attending to his ministry will damage his commitment to the Lord. His response: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” He is truly not interested at all in personal glory. When he wins a race, he capitalizes on the gathering of people to reel off an impromptu sermon (and what a handy metaphor to go from!).

Abrahams finds his perviously unshakeable confidence faltering after he loses a race to Liddell, and recruits a coach to improve his form. As the big race nears, he finds himself intimidated. “I’ve known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win,” he says. We see the elation of victory rush to his face as he crosses the finish line, but his success leaves him feeling strangely empty. Having achieved his purpose, he begins to feel keenly the void it left behind. Victory for self-glorification has failed to give him meaning.

Liddell faces a very different problem when he discovers that the heat for his race is to be held on Sunday. He will not run on Sunday, standing firm on that principle even when pressured by a small group of the nobility and the prince of Wales himself. He recalls not only the worries of his sister, but also his privileged position as a very public representative of his faith. And, most of all, he believes in the importance of following his convictions about God’s law, even if no one is watching. People are watching, though, and soon his principled stand is receiving world-wide press.

His countrymen and his fellow Christians have every reason to be proud of him, but there is still the matter of his being able to run. This is solved when a fellow member of the British team offers Liddell his spot in a different race. Just before the race, one of the American runners hands Liddell a paper with 1st Samuel 2:30 scrawled on it: “He who honors Me, I will honor.” Liddell goes on to win the race in his own strange way: head thrown back, mouth wide open, hand clutching the note. And then, elated but without missing a beat, he goes on to become a missionary to China. His entire life’s focus is to glorify God, and there will always be ways to do that.

Abrahams lived until 1978, and stayed involved in athletics throughout his life. His funeral bookends the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the movie. Liddell died in a prison camp in China near the end of World War II. As Chariots of Fire informs us just before the credits, “All of Scotland mourned.”

My one complaint would have to be directed at the music. Shocking, right? I mean, the opening theme of Chariots of Fire is legendary, and the score won an Oscar. There are parts of it, indeed, that are quite excellent, but overall I found it intrusive. More than anything else, the score grounds this movie solidly in the decade in which it was made. So much synthetic music; so very 1980s. If they had just done the same things with more conventional instruments, there wouldn’t be such a jarring sense of anachronism. I have always felt that with a historical movie like this, the music playing over scenes should not be something that the characters would be confused or baffled if they heard. It ought to fit somehow with their time and place, either in style or instrumentation.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty good movie, made all the more excellent by its thematic elements. It manages to come across more as historical fiction/biopic material than as inspirational sports movie, which is all to the good. This may be the closest thing to a Christian movie that has won or ever will win an Oscar, with the possible exception of A Man for All Seasons (in fact, producer David Puttnam was searching for a story about conscience in the same vein as that film when he stumbled across the story of Eric Liddell in an Olympic trivia book). The lead actors get completely lost in their characters, and all of the performances are marvellous. Chariots of Fire also truly evokes its period setting, and I was particularly impressed by the difficulty of reproducing so convincingly the Olympic games of 80 years ago.


As for the other movies that came out that year, they’re a pretty rum bunch (as you might expect from the early ’80s). The only other truly great movie I’ve seen from this year is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is certainly a heavy contender, but perhaps not quite as worthy of the Best Picture award. That aside, I don’t think anyone will argue with me when I say that Raiders should have won Best Original Score. The themes from that movie are even more popular than the still well-known Chariots theme, and John Williams never made the desperate mistake of abandoning the traditional symphony orchestra when scoring movies.

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~ by Jared on April 5, 2007.

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