When Loretta Young presented the Oscar for Best Picture of 1981, it became quite obvious which nominated movie was her favorite as she congratulated ‘tasteful filmmakers’ for showing that reality was not only violence or swearing but also heroism, inspiration and romance. Chariots of Fire, the upset-winner that night, was certainly the kind of movie that the old-fashioned part of Hollywood would love to honor. It’s based on the true story of two young men, one Christian, one Jewish, who run at the 1924 Olympics. Harold runs out of the urge to fight against anti-Semitism while Eric feels the presence of God whenever he is running. This certainly sounds as noble as it can be and director Hugh Hudson does his best to present the whole story as harmless, uncontroversial and sublime as possible. The outcome is a movie that does feature some interesting aspects and elements but is too slow, safe and uninspired at the end.
Speaking of dramatic music: The most famous aspect of Chariots of Fire is, of course, Vangelis’s legendary score. A couple of young men, running along a beach, accompanied by synthesizers and a piano – an iconic movie moment. But watching this scene, it’s almost shocking how little the score actually works within the presentation of the scene. There is almost a disharmony between Vangelis’s score and Chariots of Fire and a lot of times it feels as if there was no other reason for the use of this particular score than the need to do ‘something different’. In some later scenes, the music blends together with the movie better but once the novelty has worn off, little excitement remains.
But besides all these problems, Chariots of Fire does present some special moments that prevent it from being a true failure. The use of Gilbert and Sullivan is a rather nice touch and the training sequence, accompanied by ‘For he is an English Man’ is put together expressively and is probably the only moment of the movie when Hudson really captured the joy and the seriousness that these two men feel when they run. And while Ben Cross and Ian Charleson never really impress on their own, their succeed in their scenes together and make the ‘backstage’-story aspects of Chariots of Fire much more interesting than the Olympics themselves.
Overall, Chariots of Fire is a surely interesting concept but unfortunately the realization is often too bland and unimaginative and needed a better cast and more developed characters to impress.