Skip to main content

My arrogance, sir, extends just as far as my conscience demands.


Chariots of Fire
(1981)

The problem with Chariot of Fire, a slight but likeable tale of overcoming hurdles (ahem) in order to bask in glory (your classic sports movie, basically), is not the film itself but its success. Garlanded with Oscars and hexed by the pronouncement “The British are coming!” (surely one of the most ill-advised acceptance speeches ever, perhaps topped by “I’m king of the world!”), Chariots became forever entwined with the Conservative nostalgia of Thatcher’s Britain. The juxtaposition of Vangelis’ sublime electronica with post-WWI period trappings was undeniably effective and evocative, but it lent itself all-too easily to artificially bolstered national pride and “British is best” sentiments. Indeed, while the film makes some counterarguments against the arrogance of public school Englishness and unfiltered patriotism, ultimately these defer to rose-tinted imagery of a triumphant island nation.


Colin Welland appropriated his title (originally the entirely banal Running) from William Blake’s Jerusalem, which is sung at the film’s 1978 bookend. I don’t think there was any irony in his choice, since he was reportedly inspired to use it after seeing it sung on Songs of PraiseJerusalem (the hymn) has become a virtual national anthem, but Blake’s verses are most certainly not a paean to Britain; rather, he recognises its dire state and that a monumental effort is necessary to right the land. So, not through a spot of jolly running then.


Welland’s script ensures that the principles, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) must face trials and tribulations. Abrahams, a Jew at Cambridge who encounters both thinly veiled and undisguised anti-Semitism wherever he goes, could be argued to represent proto-Thatcherite values. He is focused only on success and willing to trample over others to achieve it. He loves his country, but personal ambition comes first. There is some attempt to temper this, to furnish Abrahams with a learning curve through his relationship with soprano Sybil (a pre-Borg queen Alice Krige) and his straight-talking trainer Sam Mussabini (a typically virtuoso Ian Holm), and his silent departure from the changing rooms after taking the Gold is surely intended to reflect inner contemplation (or is it just being overwhelmed?)


But even Abrahams’ clash with his Cambridge masters (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) forwards a capitalist/Tory ethic; traditional values (the prep school pride in the achievement of the amateur at loggerheads with Abrahams taking on a trainer) are only to be upheld as long as they are no impediment to making money (or winning races). Abrahams is too self-involved to be truly sympathetic, but this scene does much to redress the balance; his correction of the suggestion that Sam is Italian with “He’s half Arab” is one of the few moments of humour this character is allowed. Gielgud’s character resorts to blatant anti-Semitism once Abrahams is out of the room, but has an “I always knew he’d do it” response when he wins the race. The college is quite happy to reap the acclaim that comes with a Cambridge man (even a Jewish, plebian Cambridge man) taking the medal. But isn’t dragging yourself up by your bootstraps what Thatcher was all about; regardless of your background, the greenbacks are what count (that it was Abrahams’ father who had made all the money is beside the point)?


Chariots is that rare film; it throws a sop to those with faith, particularly those of the Christian persuasion. Eric Liddell is nothing short of the hero who risks public disapprobation when he puts God before country (standing up to the monarchy) and refuses to run on Sunday. That he comes out on top makes him an ideal poster boy for the church (the film is slightly coy about this aspect, no doubt astutely reckoning that your audience will be wider if you hedge your bets).


But Liddell is so self-effacing, so guileless (in a fine performance from Charleson, who died very young at the age of 40) that you can’t help but be on his side. There is no air of “holier than thou” to him. He’s a man who is utterly sincere when he shakes the hand of each competitor and wishes him best of luck. Even his brand of Christianity is announced as the “Kingdom of Heaven is within” variety (suggesting personal discovery of God rather than the trappings and regalia of the organised church). So his bristling defence against the contempt-filled Lord Cadogan (Patrick Magee) is naturally the high watermark of the film, more so than his victory in the race itself.


Eric’s sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) provides a contrast to his positive piety, doing all she can to guilt trip him over his running (which she sees as supplanting his call to the church); apparently, this tension was created by Welland, as the real Jennie was fully behind Eric. It’s an understandable decision (as are many of the creative licences), as the film’s version of struggle is a very genteel one, and needs cajoling to exert any kind of grip. At the climax, though, Eric is nevertheless there with the other winners (Abrahams aside), waving the flag. It’s a neat visual trick, that God is allied with state in this moment.


But this is the “cake and eat it” approach that Welland and director Hugh Hudson take throughout. The Daily Telegraph put it at Number One in a list of top Conservative films, and it’s easy to see why. The most likeable character is the cobbled-together louche Lord Nigel Havers (based loosely on Lord David Burghley), a thoroughly spiffy sort who’s having a smoke just before high-tailing it round the Trinity Great Court Run and is later seen practicing for his event with glasses of champagne placed atop each hurdle. He’s so dashed decent he gives up a race (he’s got his medal, the good egg) so Liddell can take part in the Olympics (complete invention, of course). So really, this is the true spirit of England the film is promoting; the fairy tale toff, racing just to take part and for the lark (rather than for personal glory) and blessed with good manners and generosity of spirit such that he’ll give anyone a leg up. It’s a gift of a part, and Havers has rarely been so good since; he quickly descended into a holding pattern of annoyingly posh, but here he is witty and vibrant (he does seem strangely content with being splattered with mud during the slow motion introduction, however).


The rest of the cast is filled out memorably. Holm wasn’t the most prolific of film actors at the time, but nearly every (supporting) role showed his sure touch (Alien, Time Bandits, Brazil, Dreamchild). Gielgud brings an imperious disdain to his ivory tower superiority that speaks volumes in just a couple of well-place scenes. Dennis Christopher (recently given a role of some profile in Tarantino’s Django Unchained) and Brad Davis (like Charleson, he died of AIDS at a young age) both make an impression in very brief appearances as American athletes. But the reliable Peter Egan comes slightly unstuck when asked to deliver the most indigestible of dialogue, stating overtly the thematic underpinning of Liddell’s beliefs.


There can be little doubt that Chariots wouldn’t have attained the success it did without Vangelis’s score. It is the film, preceding it and informing its triumphalism. Even more so than Rocky’s (also a Best Picture Oscar winner), the theme inflates and emotionally propels the proceedings. I have to admit that I’d forgotten that it isn’t used for the main races (more discordant and uncertain, but no less charged, themes are used for Abrahams and Liddell). To the ears of those newly discovering Chariots, the electronica may seem out of place and jarring (although the nostalgia for such sounds should not be underestimated). The actual images of the runners on the beach, even given the slow motion, are only made epic by the theme. They linger in the mind with more resonance than the rather mundane manner in which Hudson has shot them. It’s this alchemical combination of sound and image that got Academy members ticking the box for the film; it evokes a memory of a more expansive, substantial piece than the one experienced. It prods the emotions, and one can’t help but respond approvingly.


I emphasise Vangelis, because Hudson’s contributions, although vital in several key areas, are generally not nearly so extraordinary as his composer’s (of course, he must be credited for bringing Vangelis on board in the first place). After all, we are used to seeing slow motion replays of sports events, it’s not as if he came up with something startling. Aside from the training and events, Hudson’s set-ups and shooting style are simple and straightforward. He doesn’t draw attention to the camera or technique; he saves the “rush” for the competition. David Watkin’s cinematography is similarly unobtrusive (he worked on a number of films I have revisited recently, including Gibson’s Hamlet and Robin and Marian).


Did Hudson just get lucky with Chariots, given his later failures? He tells the story with confidence, and the occasional touch of inspiration (Abrahams’ Gold-winning race is played in real time, before being repeated in slow motion) but his light seems to have risen and dimmed with that of Goldcrest (the fledgling studio that seemed on the cusp of greatness with Chariots; the film was co-financed by 20th Century Fox). Greystoke, his follow-up, succeeded in spite of being a botch from the casting down to the execution. Then came Revolution, which spelled the beginning of the end for the studio and saw Hudson vanish into semi-obscurity. Hudson had experienced considerable success as a director of documentaries and adverts before Chariots came along. As with other directors who rose during the ‘80s (such as Ridley Scott), he was approaching or into his 40s when fame happened. Perhaps the problem was suddenly being offered the world on a plate. He hasn’t come near to the quality of Chariots subsequently.


The film garnered four wins (Picture, Original Screenplay, Costume Design and, obviously, Score) out of seven nominations (in contrast, it only took home three BAFTAs). Producer David Puttnam, much given to pronouncements concerning (lack of) quality in cinema, went on to fall flat on his arse when he became chairman of Columbia Pictures. Like many an Oscar winner, it isn’t held in quite the esteem it was at the time (although many are seen as unjustly rewarded immediately). Welland’s speech has done much to tarnish it, but it lives on through its score (which still gets used as a quick reference point; evidence of how The Grinch was running on empty).


It’s unfortunate that the success of Chariots of Fire will forever inform its retrospective appreciation. On its own terms, it’s a solid, enjoyable little pocket of British nostalgia. Puttnam’s conception concerned a man who follows his conscience, and that remains intact, but along the way it has become an emblem for all that is British – a status that at times borders on the jingoistic. I don’t think the film itself has a particularly staunch position. Rather, it is happy to play the field, inviting felicitations from those of any predilection. The point at which it becomes cynical is difficult to discern, however; one gets the feeling it took form in post-production, when its overtures to the “Great” Britain that was past (perhaps not quite the unmentioned Empire, but not far off) solidified.


Chariots of Fire is, essentially, an enjoyable film in spite of such trappings. It succeeds on the basis of  an irresistible premise, one that sports-themed movies really have to struggle to make a hash of; the journey of the underdog, his triumph over adversity. One can at least console oneself that the conflated hubris of the pronouncement of the great British coming was but a pipedream, and reality soon dawned.

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really. I guess as a "Yank" I just did not see all of what you saw in the movie. I saw the story of two heroic men, one who became the elder statesman of British athletics (Harold Abramson), and the other (Eric Liddell) who became a missionary to China, and was martyred overseas. I didn't perceive it as being cynical. I simply enjoyed it as a reasonably accurate period piece, not unlike Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" (although "Chariots of Fire" was based on historical characters, and certainly was less bloody...at least, no one died until the end of the movie, and even then, it was not portrayed onscreen; if it had been produced more recently, the times might have demanded the full, gory representation of Eric Liddell's martyrdom in order to compete with the other gore-fests being produced. Thank heavens we were spared that eventuality.) Sorry it took me three times to catch all the typos. My proofreading is not as accurate as it used to be, alas.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think your assessment is fair; as I suggest in the piece, the cynical aspect is probably more related to the packaging of the picture and the hype that surrounded its awards success than its actual intent. So too, the reading of Thatcherite themes in to it is just that; a reading. As it is, it's a modest and likeable film, but one whose reputation has become entwined with a nostalgia for a certain rose-tinted image of Britain.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…