Thursday, 23 July 2015

Chariots of Fire (1981)

I dimly recall seeing at least part of Chariots of Fire as a child.  I definitely heard the theme any number of times - it was pretty ubiquitous for a while there.

This film is a dramatisation of the athletic careers of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, British runners who competed at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.  Both men won gold medals, which might be worth a film if that was all there was to the story, but this one comes with an extra wrinkle.  Liddell was a deeply religious man, and the heats of his favoured event - the 100 metres - were to be held on a Sunday.  He thus declined to participate in the event, as it would require him to break the Sabbath.  He instead participated in the 400 metres, and won an unexpected and unlikely victory.

Of course in the real world the schedule of the Olympics are known for months in advance, and Liddell had publicly announced his decision, and begun training for the longer event, well before the Games themselves.  The movie eschews this in favour of a splash of melodrama, and has Liddell learn the schedule only as he boards the ship to France.  This leads to a scene where the British Olympic Committee - including the Prince of Wales - attempt to convince him to run.

I can forgive such embellishments in the pursuit of a more compelling story (though I think the real story could have been made just as compelling), but I'm rather less impressed by the film's handling of Harold Abraham's personal life.  Not only does it have him meet his wife 10 years earlier than was actually the case, but it gets the wrong woman.  Rather sloppy, that -- though I imagine it won't matter much to the average viewer.

In the film's favour, it has some layers beyond the Olympic story and the men's personal lives.  There's considerable time and attention paid to Abrahams's position, as a Jew and the son of an Eastern European immigrant, in British society of the time.  While Liddell's victory is perhaps more impressive, coming as it did in an event where he was not favoured, Abrahams's story is the more interesting of the two, to my mind, and the real meat of the film.

Chariots of Fire is well-acted, with a strong cast and good direction.  Its occasional fumbles with historical accuracy not withstanding, you should check it out if you're in the mood for a 'triumph against the odds' style of drama.

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