Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chariots Of Fire Reinforces That It's Better To Be In The Race Than Watching It!

The Good: A decent overall story, Moments of character, DVD bonus features
The Bad: No great acting, Moments of soundtrack, Pacing
The Basics: A strikingly average film, Chariots Of Fire is light on plot, character and acting, so much so it's astonishing such a detailed special edition DVD could be created for it!

There are very few films I have watched that have to do with sports, much less racing. In fact, the only one that comes instantly to mind is Seabiscuit. But as I make my way through the various winners of the Best Picture Oscar, I have been compelled to watch more sports films, a genre I am inherently biased against. Tonight's outing into sports films was Chariots Of Fire. And while I might not be into sports films, I went into the film with as much of an open mind as I could and I was not impressed by this one.

Before the uprising against this humble reviewer begins, it is worth noting that I used to be a runner. I know the anguish of defeat and how nerve-racking it can be to feel chased for minutes on end. I've often said of such sports as track and field that it is far more satisfying and enjoyable to participate in the events than it is to watch them. Watching this film only reinforced that. Chariots Of Fire is based upon both a book and historical events and it is worthwhile to note that this review is solely of the film, not on any of the related works (or the truth).

Opening in London 1978, a man speaking at a funeral begins to recall a bygone era. A Scottish Evangelical named Eric Liddell raises awareness about god while running sprints. Working with his girlfriend, he tries to arrange missionary work in China (where he was born) and he divides his time between god and running. At the same time, Harold Abrahams makes his debut running sat Cambridge and in 1919, the Jewish runner competes to be considered the fastest man in Britain. When Abrahams and Liddell have their first race, Liddell wins and Harold sinks into a funk. He is rescued from his depression by the professional trainer, Sam Mussabini.

After training with Sam, Harold proves himself and both young men end up on Britain's Olympic team in 1924. Concerned about the American runners, Liddell and Abrahams prepare to square off once again. While Harold's running brings him closer to his girlfriend, Eric finds himself in an emotional and moral quandary about what his running is doing to him. As the games progress, both men figure out why they are running.

Chariots Of Fire is a short concept film fleshed out with subplots that never truly develop or never become as compelling as they could be. Harold deals with anti-Semitism at Cambridge, but it is often veiled in the old guard establishment at the college. The entire subplot of Harold wrestling with the dislike of Jews illustrated by the elders is dealt with in one scene after an aside at the beginning of the film. Far more of the film deals with Eric wrestling with his faith. That plot includes seeds, like Liddell lecturing a child who is playing rugby on the sabbath, which ultimately bear plot fruits, Liddell taking on the olympic committee over having to run a heat on the sabbath.

But more of the plots are fractured vignettes that do not develop nearly as well as the overall story. So, while the mirroring romantic plots - the dissolution of Liddell's relationship contrasting with Harold's love getting stronger through the running - are there, they are absent for most of the film. As well, a hurdler for Britain's team is shown training and his arc is mostly missing from the rest of the film. This makes one wonder what the point of his early scene was.

Largely, Chariots Of Fire is a plot-based film and this is why the movie holds up poorly. Without an emotional resonance to either of the film's protagonists, it becomes quite difficult to care what happens in the plot. Because the plots like the anti-Semitism against Abrahams is less-developed, one does not get the feeling he is truly running to prove anything, nor is he running to win the love of his life's affections. Similarly, once Liddell abandons his principle race, his character becomes vastly less important. When Eric is a runner, he fits the story being told well, when he becomes more of a preacher, this is not his film.

In addition to being light on character, none of the actors truly stand out. Outside Sir Ian Holm, who plays Sam, the actors are very white bread in their performances. While their characters might be droll, it is the death knell of the film for the performers to seem similarly bored or boring with playing their parts. By the time Chariots Of Fire was finished, I felt no care, no catharsis and for a film that is supposed to be a timeless story, this was a huge disappointment.

Those who love the conceits of films from the 1980s will appreciate the soundtrack by Vangelis Papathanassiou. The synth-based soundtrack is a wonderful one and it is easy to see how this influenced Ridley Scott with the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for Legend. But on this movie, the soundtrack is far too obtrusive. While the main theme is recognizable and grand, much of the rest of the movie's music - when it does come up - is distractingly out of setting. In other words, for a film about stiff British characters, the music ought to have been more orchestral than modern.

On DVD, Chariots Of Fire is presented with a lavish two-disc version. The second disc includes featurettes on the making of the movie as well as adapting the book to a film. While most of the featurettes are typical for a drama - deleted scenes, casting, conversations with the director - the bonus disc for Chariots Of Fire includes some cool programs from the early 1980s when the film was originally released. This makes it the ultimate edition for fans of this movie. On the principle disc, there is also a commentary track, which offers an additional value to fans.

A slow, fairly dull sports film bogged down with subplots and flashbacks that do not truly develop, Chariots Of Fire is an unremarkable movie. While this is an exceptional DVD presentation of the movie, the movie itself is dominated by characters it is hard to empathize with or care about the fate of. Those who like great drama will find this to be anything but; it is a sports film with limited melodrama centering around nationalism and religion.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project which is available here! Please check it out!]

For other films with competitions, please check out my takes on:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire 
The Blind Side


For other movie reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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