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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Chariots of Fire: Special Edition
Chariots of Fire: Special Edition
Warner Bros. // PG // February 1, 2005
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted February 13, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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The movie

Chariots of Fire is a film I'd been looking forward to seeing for a long while, but had to put on the back burner since I refused to suffer through a pan-and-scan massacre of the film. Now that Warner has come out with a special edition release in the film's original widescreen presentation, I was finally able to give this Best Picture a try. It was worth the wait: Chariots of Fire is a thoroughly satisfying film on all counts.

In a way, it's easy to summarize the plot of Chariots of Fire: based on real historical events, it's about two British runners, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), who both have their sights on Olympic gold in the 1924 Games. But in truth it's a much more deeply layered film than that one-line account suggests. While the Olympic Games end up being the crucible that tests the two main characters, as well as a number of supporting characters, the real story all along is the development of who these people are, and why, in very different ways, their dreams of victory are so important to them. With its extremely well-handled historical material (the film is absolutely convincing as being set in the 1920s), and its ability to evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer, Chariots of Fire has much of the the feeling of an "epic" film, but at its heart it's a character study, and a very thoughtful one.

Creating a film based on real events is always tricky: when do you stick with what really happened, and when do you make changes for dramatic effect? There's no one right answer, only what works for a particular story. In the case of Chariots of Fire, the filmmakers wisely chose to hew closely to the real events surrounding Abrahams, Liddell, and the 1924 Olympics. It's a tense and dramatic story, and one that gives us a truly satisfying resolution... but without falling into Hollywood clich├ęs.

If this were a run-of-the-mill "sports film" we'd know exactly what the conflict and resolution would be: we'd have a couple of underdog runners (or maybe one who is arrogant, but learns his lesson) whose chances of winning are slim to none, but (of course) they pull it off in the "big game" scene at the end. Our alternative would be to have the talented-but-conflicted star who draws on inner strength to face off against his big rival and, of course, win (learning all sorts of life lessons in the end.) We've all seen these movies before, and while they may be well made or entertaining, they're also predictable. Chariots of Fire is not, which is what makes it stand head and shoulders above the crowd. Ironically, that sterling quality of Chariots of Fire almost meant that it didn't get made; director Hugh Hudson notes in the commentary that they had trouble getting financing for the film because it didn't follow the expected narrative structure of "sports films."

One reason for the film's success lies in its unswerving sense of the story that it's telling. Plot details aside, this is the story of two strong personalities, Abrahams and Liddell, who are very different from each other in many ways, but united in their talent for running and their passionate devotion to what each feels is most important. Chariots of Fire gives us a complex, nuanced view of each of these characters; while each has certain driving characteristics (Abrahams' arrogance; Liddell's faith), these are just part of a multi-faceted personality that we get to see develop over the course of the film. Are either of the two characters "heroes"? In the conventional narrative sense, maybe not; Chariots of Fire doesn't let either of them slip into the simple outlines of being the triumphant hero (or the tragic hero either, for that matter). As the contemporary frame of Chariots of Fire reminds us, these are, and were, real people who really lived and really experienced these events; they can indeed be heroic figures, but always in the complicated, messy way that real human beings can be heroes.

Adding depth to all of this is the undertone that the world of Chariots of Fire is on the brink of change, balancing precariously on the cusp of two eras. World War I shattered the complacency of the turn of the century, and its effects were felt even in the hallowed halls of Cambridge University, as we see in the moving scene in which the entering class in 1919 is faced with the long list of those students who died in 1914-1918. But the emphasis is on preserving traditions, including the beloved ideal of "amateurism" in sports. It's an ideal that Abrahams is forced to break with, in order to pursue his dream of perfecting his running skills with a professional trainer (played very well by Ian Holm). It's a beautiful ideal, though one that has its own hidden hypocrisy, as Abrahams bitingly points out in a key scene in the film; more than that, it's an ideal that's increasingly slipping out of reach. When the story reaches the Olympics, we see the gentlemen-amateurs of Britain meeting the more professionally-trained Americans; though the playing field is still fairly even, there's a sense that the British ideal is steadily being washed away in the pursuit of the Olympic goals: faster, higher, stronger.

And that's something that makes the story of Chariots of Fire resonate now just as much as in 1924, when the events it's based on took place, or in 1981 when the film was made. How much is too much? How far is too far? Today, it's easy to say "how quaint!" when we see the conflict between the "professional" training of Abrahams and the "amateur" training of Liddell. Of course it's natural for a serious athlete to want to get proper training! But now, there's a new issue: we want to keep sports "clean" with the competitions free of performance-enhancing drugs, just as the British wanted to keep their competitions free of professional coaching... and we're having a hard time of it.

Wisely, Chariots of Fire doesn't draw this parallel itself, though it's clear enough for the reflective viewer; what it does, and very deftly, is give us a sense of "the old order changing" and present us with two characters who represent different aspects of that situation. Abrahams has the more modern spirit, while Liddell is the ideal amateur of the old school; both are supremely talented and dedicated, though, and both have their inner conflicts, so we never lose sight of the human story that's the heart of the film.

No review of Chariots of Fire would be complete without a mention of Vangelis' Oscar-winning score, which is both daring (using synthesized sound for a "period" film) and absolutely perfect for the film. It's worth watching the ending credits in full just to hear the main theme one last time.

The DVD

Chariots of Fire: SE is a two-disc set, packaged in a single-wide plastic keepcase.

Video

It's nice to finally see Chariots of Fire in a proper DVD release; the Special Edition gives us the film in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and it's anamorphically enhanced. All in all, I was very impressed with the image quality. The opening and closing sequences are the only parts of the film that aren't up to par; here, we get a considerable amount of grain, and the image as a whole is quite soft and blurry. However, this isn't surprising, since these shots contain the credits, and due to the filmmaking process, the credits generally can't be restored to the same degree as the rest of the film.

Once past the credits, Chariots of Fire looks excellent. There's some softness to the image in longer-distance shots, but close-ups look fantastic, with great detail and a sharp, crisp appearance. I noticed almost no edge enhancement, which is another positive note, as is the extremely clean condition of the print: even in challenging scenes, there's no noise to speak of, and only a few tiny print flaws.

Colors are always an issue in 1970s-early 1980s films, so I regarded Chariots of Fire with a keen eye in this regard. I'm pleased to note that the film comes through splendidly in this regard: colors are completely natural-looking, and the color palette overall looks fresh and clean, with no odd tints or instances of fading anywhere. Contrast is also handled very well.

Audio

The soundtrack for Chariots of Fire is unfortunately not up to the same standard as the video transfer. The remastered Dolby 5.1 track has a flat and slightly muted quality to it, so that on a number of occasions, the dialogue is difficult to understand. It's not distorted, nor is there background noise; it's more that the dialogue portion of the track isn't sufficiently separated from the background track.

The music fares better, fortunately. Vangelis' amazing score, which comes to the foreground in several key music-only scenes as well as in the opening and closing sequences, sounds full and natural. It's a soundtrack that's both thrilling and memorable, yet it achieves its effect without being heavy-handed and while maintaining a unique sound.

Considering all these different aspects of the soundtrack, I've decided that three stars (a notch above average) is probably a fair indication of where Chariots of Fire stands in terms of audio quality. It's not the great soundtrack that I'd have wished for, but it's still an acceptable track. A dubbed French track mono is also available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

The first extra that viewers will encounter is director Hugh Hudson's audio commentary track. It's an interesting and informative track, as Hudson keeps up a reasonably steady flow of comments about the making of the film. There are quite a few interesting tid-bits here about the problems that the filmmakers ran into while making the film, as well as insights into technical aspects of the film.

The second disc contains the remainder of the special features. Fans of the film will find the "alternate scenes" section to be particularly intriguing: one of the three scenes included in this section is one that actually appears in European versions of the film. It seems that it was cut for the U.S. release because the characters are playing cricket, and it was deemed that U.S. viewers just wouldn't be able to handle a scene with such an unfamiliar game in it. (Sigh.) It's a good scene, too; it's too bad we couldn't have gotten a director's cut with it included in the main body of the film. At any rate, viewers now have the chance to see this scene with optional commentary by the director. Six other deleted scenes (without commentary) are also included in this section, for a total of about 11 minutes of material. If you're selecting the deleted scenes individually instead of using the "play all" feature, don't miss the "continue" link half-hidden to the bottom left of first screen of deleted scenes scenes; that's what takes you to the second screen with the remaining four scenes.

Two featurettes are included on this disc. "Wings on Their Heels: The Making of Chariots of Fire" runs 27 minutes, and while it seems like it might be a promotional-style piece at first glance, it turns out to actually be an interesting, if relatively short, look at the making of the film. It's a recent piece, and includes interviews with various people involved with the film, including the director, writer, and actors. "Chariots of Fire: A Reunion" (19 minutes) is next; it assembles the director, producer, director of photography, and several actors in a room to reminisce about their experiences with Chariots of Fire. I didn't find it as interesting as the more structured making-of piece, but it's not bad.

In addition to this material, we get screen tests for Ben Cross and Ian Charleson (9 minutes) and a trailer for the film.

Final thoughts

Chariots of Fire is an outstanding film that's well worth adding to the collection of any lover of great movies; it's the kind of movie that has a satisfying depth to it, and it will hold up well to repeat viewing. The widescreen anamorphic transfer is attractive, though the sound quality isn't as good as I'd have hoped for, and the special features add a nice dash of added value to the package overall. Highly recommended.

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