In 1924, Harold Abrahams, a Lithuanian Jew born in London, and Eric Lidell, a Scottish Protestant born in China, were the two best runners England had to offer. Both in their mid-20s, the two young men were the chief talents that competed in track and field for Great Britain at the Paris Olympics, and this, more or less, constitutes the plot of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire, the title of which is derived from a passage in the Book of Kings. The narrator of the film, however, is Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), a classmate of Abrahams at Cambridge, and what Abrahams, played here by Ben Cross, refers to as his “most complete man.” Montague is a good-humored, sincere, and lovable fellow, but more importantly, he offers a very safe and relatable vessel for the audience to view this tale of competition, both with one’s self and the world.
It’s a smart tactic from screenwriter and sometimes actor Colin Welland, who played a schoolteacher in Ken Loach’s sublime Kes. It’s also something of a ploy, a way to veil the fact that, despite the appearance that the film is a balanced account of the talent and determination of both Lidell (Ian Charleson) and Abrahams, and to a lesser extent their teammates, Chariots of Fire is practically a loving testament to the endurance of Protestantism over what’s here characterized as bitter Judaism.
Whereas Lidell is nourished by a deep, wholly encompassing faith, which he believes and tells the press both produced and is championed by his talent for running, Abrahams is pushed by a need to dominate the field, to best the preconceptions others have about his heritage. We are allowed nary a view of what Abrahams’s heritage meant to him, good or bad, while Lidell, himself a missionary awaiting his return to China, is seen expounding wisdom at and around church. And there’s something most eerie about the way Lidell ties religion to physical domination and true power, but the tone of the film remains rigidly upbeat and determined.
Hudson, working with the great DP David Watkin, has crafted an exquisite glass house in which to witness this uneasy, irrefutably well-meaning, and quite physical drama. There are running sequences of stunning power, as well as several scenes of hearty, worn-in humor, largely involving the invaluable Ian Holm as Sam Mussabini, Abrahams’s half-Arab, part-Italian running coach. And there’s great intimacy to Abrahams’s romance with soprano Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), whom he first spies during a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.
And yet it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the intonations of the screenplay as it goes along, and Hudson’s direction sags under the weight. The film’s climax, for instance, is less concerned with Abrahams’s spectacular win, the preparation for which has been a major focus of the film, and more about his solemn, tortured reaction to not being able to race Lidell, as the heats for their shared event, the 200, is on the Sabbath; Lidell’s upset of taking first place in the 400 is, in actuality, treated as importantly, if not more, than Abrahams’s triumph. And if the film does pay a bit of anti-fascist lip service by having Lidell nearly refuse to meet with the Prince of Wales, soon to be Hitler-sympathizer King Edward VIII, it nevertheless preaches an unquestioning allegiance to some ostensibly perfect, all-important authority figure throughout, whether it’s in the service of God or the monarchy.
When they put their elbows into it, Warner Home Video produces some of the best packages currently available on Blu-ray and, despite my issues with the film, this transfer of Chariots of Fire is astounding. A healthy grain is maintained and the clarity of the image is truly stunning. Colors, both bold and dour, look fantastic, from the greens of grass blades to the perfect amber of the pints shared by Abrahams and Mussabini. There’s a wonderful sense of texture, seen largely in the suits, dresses, and uniforms worn by the characters. And there isn’t a single distracting sign of the clean-up for the transfer. The audio is also superbly transferred, with the dialogue clear and out front and wild sound, Vangelis’s score, and the occasional jazz tune filling out the back beautifully.
The “Behind the Story” set of featurettes clocks in at around two hours, offering about all the information you could want involving the history of the story and the production of the film. Topics vary from a by-the-books behind-the-scenes featurette to an overview of producer David Puttnam’s career to the importance of the 1924 Paris Olympics. Anything that isn’t covered here is certainly covered by Hugh Hudson’s consistently interesting commentary, where he addresses location shooting, the flexibility of accuracy when adapting real-life events, and the film’s messages. There are also some deleted scenes that are largely forgettable and a CD sampler of the film’s memorable, if distracting, score by Vangelis. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Warner’s Blu-ray release of this dubious classic features a spectacular A/V transfer that rightfully lends focus to the film’s excellent technical merits, while adding a tonnage of solid extras.