Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Favorite Films: "Chariots of Fire"


If you know Chariots of Fire at all, you know its musical score by Vangelis, which transcended the movie and became one of the cultural touchstones of the early 1980s.  And you've probably seen the slow-motion images of the men running on the beach accompanied by that lushly synthesized music, which means you know, at the very least, that it's a movie about running.

But Chariots of Fire is about running only in the way that La La Land is about Hollywood or 2001: A Space Odyssey is about astronauts -- that is, don't mistake the its surface-level subject for its deeper meaning and its emotional core.

Chariots of Fire is a film I hadn't seen in many, many years.  As a teenager it had an outsized influence on me because of the way it regards passion, motivation and drive.  I saw it four or five times in the movie theater, and I don't imagine that its overt themes of religious faith and national identity mattered much to me.  Of its two main characters, I was more drawn to Harold Abrahams, the Jewish aristocrat who runs for reasons he doesn't fully understand.

Of course Abrahams, played by Ben Cross, comprehends that he runs simply because he can, because it is his talent.  But he harbors a lot of bitter resentment about the way Jews are treated in British society, and running becomes a sort of rebellion for him.  As a student at Cambridge University, he's accepted by the ruling class only to a certain extent, and throughout Chariots of Fire, Abrahams has something to prove.  His fire and drive are what drew me in way back then, and what I remembered most about the movie.

The other side to Chariots of Fire seemed, back then, to be the softer, less interesting side: the story of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the Christian missionary who treated his speed and athleticism as gifs from God, and who committed himself to running even above religion -- but only to a point.  During the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where Chariots of Fire reaches its climax, Liddell refused to run a key race because it took place on a Sunday, the holy day.  It becomes a test of and testament to his faith that he steadfastly refuses, even when the Prince of Wales basically commands him to change his mind.

Liddell's stunning adherence to his beliefs is, all these years later, what most captivates me about Chariots of Fire, especially living in a time when religion is used for many reasons, but rarely, it seems, for its primary purpose of enlightenment and praise.  It seems hard to argue that religion has become, to use a popular phrase, weaponized, but Chariots of Fire is a potent reminder of how the faithful can affect the world in less confrontational ways.

Chariots of Fire is a singular sort of cinematic achievement, a movie that can't be replicated, either for its beauty or for its bold and impressive commitment to its central theme of individual achievement to fulfill a greater good.  Every one of the runners in the film -- there are sharply drawn, though lesser, characters than Liddell and Abrahams -- recognizes that the singular glory of winning is less important for the individual than for the identity of England or, really, of the world.  Chariots of Fire was made near the beginning of the now global obsession with sports celebrities, and it finds a great deal to admire about the time when there were ambitions that exceeded individual success. The film frames itself as a mournful elegy to a lost time; it's aware of how much has changed.

That Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture still takes many people by surprise.  It's the opposite of a "Hollywood" film in almost every regard, especially in the stylistic ways director Hugh Hudson tells the story.  Chariots of Fire requires patience and attention throughout, sometimes only alluding to key plot points, or relaying them through lines of dialogue that seem almost off-handed. One of its most important lines is easily overlooked: Liddell, addressing a group of his admirers, asks "Where does the power come from to see the race to its end?" then pauses and answers the question: "From within."

Chariots of Fire doesn't dwell on that moment or even push it particularly hard -- the film anticipates a certain level of intelligence from its audience, and it rewards that intelligence by being tightly structured, and beautifully written and acted.  Charleson and Cross convey such determination, such commitment to their chosen causes -- and to their shared cause of glory for their country -- that they convey the movie's strong sense of grace and dignity effortlessly.

Chariots of Fire continues to impress.  It's a film that deserves rediscovery, one that is more than 35 years old but hasn't aged at all -- even its much-parodied theme song still works beautifully.  Chariots of Fire grows richer with age.  It seems entirely fitting that its own fond and melancholy look back at two men who were filled with the courage of their convictions has turned it, over time, into a film that is defined by its own.

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