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